“When we started this, people said, ‘Tourism? Iraq? You’re out of your mind,’” Layton says.
Kurds like to point out that almost no foreigners have been killed in the region since the start of the war, but the U.S. State Department makes no distinction between it and the rest of Iraq. Though suicide attacks are rare in Kurdistan, they are not unheard of. In 2005, a suicide bomber killed more than 60 people at a police recruitment center in Erbil. Last year a truck bomb killed 19 and wounded 70 in front of the Ministry of the Interior. And in March a suicide car-bomber struck the Sulaimaniya Palace Hotel, killing a police guard and wounding 26 other people. Most attacks have been linked to Arab insurgents bent on destabilizing the government.
None of this has deterred the growing contingent of foreign entrepreneurs who have descended on Kurdistan to make their fortunes. The entire country seems as if it’s under construction. Billboards line the streets, announcing the imminent arrival of shopping malls, five-star hotels, skyscrapers, and planned communities. One night at the beer garden I meet a middle-aged couple from Houston who take me to The Edgethe closest thing northern Iraq has to a nightclub. It’s actually a dive bar with darts and loud American rock music, located within the high-security confines of the USAID compound in Ainkawa (USAID is the federal agency charged with providing worldwide economic and humanitarian assistance). On a Thursday night, the Middle East’s equivalent of Friday, it’s packed with hulking private-security guys circling a few scattered women. We have a couple of beers and then drive back through the deserted streets of Erbil to my hotel. The husband runs a construction company in town, and his foreman, a lanky man with glasses and a drawl, sits in the back seat expounding on the relative safety of the Other Iraq.
“See, where I come from, Kansas City, you make a wrong turn and you end up in Niggertown,” he says. “And then you get carjacked. This is nowhere near as bad as Niggertown.”
While Kurdistan is safe enough for the average American racist, being a tourist here is anything but painless. For one, there are no legitimate banks. People pay for houses with cash. Even the finest lodging in townthe Erbil International Hotelis a cash-only enterprise. Electricity is rationed by the government and is usually available only a few hours a day. There’s no mail, only FedEx and DHL. And you have to hire a driver to take you to see the sightsmany of which are unmarked. There are no guidebooks to help you find them, and even if you do, they’re generally in a state of neglect. The 6,000-year-old citadel in the center of Erbil is all but deserted, its crumbling labyrinthine interior showing few signs of the restoration project that is supposedly in progress. The country is dotted with archaeologically significant caves, but many are defaced by graffiti.