Hughes asks his men to pull out a pair of twin-engines for us, and for 20 minutes we whiz around the asphalt, apexing through hairpin turns as the orange globe of the sun sinks into the dust above the horizon. Then we go up to the second-floor balcony and watch a group of young Iraqis get into another set of go-karts. Hughes eyes them nervously. In a country that’s still adjusting to the fringe benefits of rapid democratization, go-kart competency is rare. Sure enough, one of them comes out of the pit at full force, speeds up to the first curve, misses it entirely, and slams the car into the red-and-white-tire barricade. Hughes shakes his head.
“These people,” he says, “they are not mechanically inclined.”
The marble lobby of the Erbil International Hotel is abuzz with foreign businessmen, some in suits, some in full sheik’s garb. I find a seat at the bar in the smoky Arbaeollah lounge on the second floor, where a Kurdish piano player is banging out E-Z versions of soft-rock standards on an out-of-tune upright. Occasionally he misses a note, and a table of Texans in the corner lets out an agitated HAWWWWW!!! in his direction.
“Come on, Sophia, let’s get some more wine here!” they say to the Chinese waitress. “Let’s get this party started!”
As the piano player tinkles out the last few notes of a not-so-soulful version of Lionel Richie’s “Lady” and gets up to take a break, a lone American businessman wanders over to a big red velvet chair and sets down a highball glass of whiskey, neat. His hair is slicked back, and he’s wearing a blue-and-white pinstripe oxford and the self-satisfied grin of someone who just closed on a lucrative condo deal. He pulls out a cigar, leans back, and fires up his lighter.
Just then, the power goes out.
Everything disappears. For whatever reason, no emergency lights come on, and the hotel is enveloped in total darkness. There is an eerie silence as the fountains, the refrigerator compressors, and the air conditioners come to a grinding haltjust a few scattered murmurs reverberate around the invisible marble atrium. It is, as I’ve come to recognize after a week in tourism’s farthest outpost, another of those moments when the utter precariousness of this place chooses to assert itself.
For a few minutes the only light anywhere is the four-inch flame of the American’s lighter, flickering faintly in the darkness, as he turns the cigar around and around. The orange glow illuminates a face undaunted.