But the motorcade blows by us, a trail of white dots moving fast for the horizon. When they’re gone my driver assures me that this kind of scene is far from typical in Kurdistan. Must be a security detail from the south, he says.
“What was the guy saying over the bullhorn?” I ask.
“He was saying, ‘Get away. Clear the road. Please get away.’”
“He said please?”
“Yes,” my driver says. “He said please.”
Iraq presents a peculiar situation for the American tourist: It is extremely difficult to be a passive traveler. How can one not feel a sense of civic responsibility for the situation here? After all, our elected officials are in some way accountable for everything we see. And while it is gratifying to watch shopping malls and skyscrapers materialize in a formerly oppressed nation, one can’t help but wonder who the real winners and losers are. Just what is this tax-free foreign-investment orgy doing for the average Iraqi? Some Kurds have begun alluding to at least one sordid by-product of their country’s modernization: the income gap.
“The middle class is going to disappear in a few years,” says Azzam Kasra, project manager at the English Village subdivision in Erbilwhere wealthy investors have snapped up the 420 identical five-bedroom villas at $235,000 a pop. “Very soon there will only be rich and poor. I haven’t seen any government money coming in. It’s all private. The infrastructure is totally lacking.”
One night, on the way back to Erbil, my driver takes me past an area where miles of walls are being erected on the plains. This, he says, is where the government’s ministers are building giant mansions. Across the road are the beginnings of Tarin Hills, a $15 billion master development by the Dubai-based firm Damac Properties that will feature Mediterranean-style villas, an 18-hole golf course, retail outlets, “country lodge hotels,” a water park, and a spa for residents. It seems like a strange prospect for a country whose landscape is still dominated by mud huts. I find myself needing to stave off some mounting Che Guevara-esque sentiments. And I have a pretty good idea how to go about doing this, thanks to another American expat I met at the beer garden. His name is David Hughes, and he came to Iraq to erect the biggest, baddest go-kart track the country has ever seen.
Erbil Speed Center sits on a huge swath of land next to the biggest development in towna walled upscale subdivision called Dream City. Hughes, 53, is a short guy with neatly combed brown hair who laughs easily and used to race go-karts for Jordan’s national team. He is a director of the company that built the trackand is erecting a 23-story skyscraper that is about to become the tallest building in town. In Kurdistan, he tells me, the government will let you have land for free if you come up with a proposal and complete 25 percent of it. His parcel stretches out for acres, an enormous rectangle of reddish dirt. He had so much land, he says, that he just took the computer sketch of his go-kart track and expanded it to cover more real estate. What he ended up with is a track as wide as an actual roadway. Inside the glass building overlooking the layout is a restaurant with a pizza oven and a full bar tended by a bored-looking Ethiopian girl. “I’d be out of business in the U.S. already!” Hughes says. “But here it’s okay.”