Iraq Isn't Just for Lovers

While the rest of the embattled nation suffers insurgent attacks, sectarian violence, and suicide bombings, northern Iraq is launching a new offensive: promoting itself as a tourist destination. Welcome to the strangest vacation of your life.

At the first checkpoint, they wave us through.

The sun is setting, and the PA systems in the minarets of the mosques are piping out the evening call to prayer. It shouldn’t be much farther now. The struts on the green Toyota SUV creak as we roll over a rift in the pavement, and a guard—a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder—sizes us up as we pass his station. We’ve just crossed over into the Ainkawa neighborhood of Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan, 200 miles north of Baghdad. Huge blast walls skirt beige cinder-block homes. Around every corner, it seems, is another post of the local peshmerga militia, whose members wear camo uniforms with red berets and carry assault rifles. We head down a deserted side street, but it’s blocked by a concrete barricade. A guard motions for us to turn around, but there’s no room, so my driver puts the Toyota in reverse.

“This is some bullshit,“ he says. Finally we see an opening and head for it. “I think it is just here,“ he says, pointing. And it is. Our destination is hidden behind a wall on the left side of the street. A crowd of Kurdish men with thick moustaches amble around out front, smoking cigarettes. My driver says he can no longer accompany me—to do so would go against his religion. So I step out of the car, bid him farewell, and walk through the gates alone. Though I had some idea what to expect, I wasn’t fully prepared for what I see—a scene that must easily rank among the most mind-blowing spectacles in a country full of them: a polka band.

It’s Friday night at the Deutscher Hof restaurant and beer garden. The Iraqi waiters are wearing Bavarian felt hats, and the picnic tables are packed with expats, locals, aid workers, mercenaries, and contractors. A dirndl-clad woman with a garlanded scepter leads a procession. Then the proprietor, a gregarious former German soldier named Gunter, takes the microphone.

Eez zomebody here a leetle bit thirsty?“ he asks. “Anyvun need a beeeer?“ The crowd goes nuts. Then the pointy-hatted waiters get to work passing out frothy mugs of Wernersgrüner Pils as the Edelweiss brass band fills the bar with staccato bursts of tuba. Glasses are raised. A sing-along ensues.

The first night of Oktoberfest is under way in Iraq.

For the past six years we’ve seen nothing from Iraq but the images of a failing war—a seemingly endless litany of bad news that suggested the country was descending into chaos. But in the north, the picture is different. Kurdistan got a head start building its democracy here when the United States, Great Britain, and France declared the area a no-fly zone in 1991, essentially removing it from the control of Saddam. The Kurdistan Autonomous Region has its own prime minister, a functioning government, and a militia that has secured the border between it and the rest of Iraq. Since then, with the help of prominent American Republicans and Christian Evangelicals, the Kurds have spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress, running ad spots, and directing P.R. campaigns to brand themselves the “Other Iraq.“ Their efforts appear to be paying off. Foreign investors are flooding in, lured by the promise of free land and 10-year tax breaks. Seas of construction cranes have materialized, ushering in an era of rapid growth. Lately, the Kurds have even embarked on a once-unthinkable endeavor: selling Iraq as a tourist destination.

It is emasculating to board a plane to a war zone, for a flight that you’re convinced will be the most perilous of your life, only to find the cabin crammed with well-groomed businessmen of various nationalities and an entire polka band—drunk on the in-flight wine—who inform you that this is their third Oktoberfest in Iraq. But then, that is just one of the many surreal aspects of being a tourist in the safest part of the most dangerous place on earth.

The Pank Tourist Village & Resort is a collection of nearly 60 identical vacation homes with bright tile roofs and postage-stamp lawns, high above the Rawanduz valley two hours northeast of Erbil. The homes are numbered, and they line a sleepy U-shaped street that could easily pass for a thoroughfare in suburban Tucson, Arizona. The brainchild of a Kurd who made his fortune in Sweden importing rice, the resort also has six VIP vi llas, three helicopter landing pads, and an amusement park with a big white Ferris wheel and a ride that features fiberglass swans.

I arrive on a cool Friday afternoon as Iraqi families wander around eating ice cream and picnic next to the “Shingelbana“—a 1,400-meter-long toboggan ride that descends into the valley below. Up the hill a spinning UFO gains momentum and lifts off. Its mostly male passengers begin ululating wildly and stamping in unison. It’s certainly the closest thing Iraq has to Disney World. But to a foreigner, the idea of a thrill ride in Iraq comes across as a little . . . redundant. In a country this unstable and tumultuous, one wonders, who could possibly be thinking, What do I have to do to get some excitement around here?

As it turns out, the toboggan ride is something of a disappointment: On my way back up the hill afterward I notice quite a few cigarette butts and soda cans scattered about. This is not a good sign. Any thrill ride that’s accommodating enough to let you take drags of a Marlboro while sipping a Syrian Diet Coke is in need of some serious rethinking.

In 2005, Kurdistan launched 30-second ad spots in the West that touted the region’s splendors. “Have you seen the other Iraq?“ a voice-over asks in one. “It’s spectacular. It’s joyful.“ Kurdish kids run around in slow motion and wave American flags, saying “Thank you, America!“ to the camera. In another, a little girl in a white gown clutches a glowing orb. “Share the dream,“ she says, as the orb explodes into blinding white light to a crescendo of strings.

This marketing campaign was conceived by Russo Marsh + Roger, a Sacramento, California–based P.R. firm with strong Republican ties. (Its principal, Sal Russo, founded the pro-Iraq War organization Move America Forward.) But the biggest cheerleader for the Other Iraq isn’t just politically conservative—it’s also evangelically Christian. The man who produced and directed those commercials, a P.R. executive named Bill Garaway, was doing relief work in Kurdistan for Servant Group International (SGI), a Christian missionary organization. Among its goals, according to its website, is “to share the truth and beauty of Jesus with our Muslim friends.“ Garaway, it turns out, was recruited by SGI’s founder, Douglas Layton, who later became the director of the Kurdish Development Corporation. After the Gulf War, the two men secured hearings in the U.S. Senate to expose Saddam’s genocide against the Kurds. They also wanted to establish an Evangelical outpost in Iraq. Now Layton and Garaway are starting the country’s first travel company—The Other Iraq Tours. One of the packages they offer, The Other Holy Land, focuses on the biblical sites in the area.

“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 Edge—the 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 town—the Erbil International Hotel—is 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 sights—many 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.

To Janet Moore, owner of Distant Horizons, the Long Beach, California-based travel company that coordinated and led the first-ever American tour here last summer, all of this would have seemed a little less peculiar if the Ministry of Tourism didn’t happen to have more than 400 employees and a gleaming new mirrored-glass building surrounded by expensive cars.

Visiting Iraq wasn’t Moore’s idea. She was approached by members of the P.R. company responsible for the Other Iraq commercials. “They had this fantastic, glitzy campaign, but there was nothing behind it,“ she says. “It was impossible to get concrete information. You can’t get an up-to-date map. I didn’t even know how to get a visa. And the Ministry of Tourism asked me at the end of those three weeks to list the archaeological sites to see.“

One morning I visit the Ministry of Tourism building, where a small army of groundskeepers are tending the manicured lawn. Hagob Yacob, the ministry’s cheery director of public relations, welcomes me into his enormous office. He is very happy to see me.

“What we need exactly is propaganda,“ he says. “This is the most important thing. We don’t have an eye abroad.“

Yacob makes an appointment for me to speak with the minister himself, His Excellency Nimrud Baito, at 10:30 A.M., and he hands me a big color map of the Kurdistan region that’s distributed by his offices. When I unfold it, I notice something strange—Iraq is the only country that isn’t labeled. There’s Turkey, Syria, Iran—all in big, bold letters—but no Iraq. When I ask Yacob about it, he puts his hands in the air. “I can’t tell you for sure if this is on purpose,“ he says.

“Come on!“ I say, laughing. “This is no accident!“ Yacob flashes a smile.

“Better, better,“ he says, “for time being.“

His Excellency cancels on me at 10:28.

Because northern Iraq looks like the Colorado Rockies, it’s easy to forget that it’s located on the shores of chaos. Directly to the south is Kirkuk, a bitterly disputed territory that has erupted in skirmishes as Kurds and Arabs vie for dominance. In the north, a Kurdish-nationalist group known as the PKK has been making attacks along the Turkish border. Occasionally a news broadcast about air strikes crackles through my driver’s radio as the Turks shell the PKK from fighter planes—and this is taking place just a couple of hours from where we’re driving.

On our way to the city of Duhok, which is close to the Turkish border, we pass the turnoff for the embattled city of Mosul—just 20 miles away. I’m lying back in the passenger seat listening to a Kurdish station on the AM radio when suddenly there’s commotion in the left lane. A convoy of armored cars comes up from behind us at incredible speed. A big white SUV roars past and a man inside shouts something in Kurdish through a megaphone. Then I see a white sedan. Although it’s impossible to discern its passengers through the tinted windows, whoever is sitting in the back seat has his hand outside—and is frantically waving a 9mm pistol. Shit, I think. This is how it happens. One minute you’re reclining in your seat, blissed out on some lame Lonely Planet reverie like You know, the oud really is an elegant-sounding instrument . . . and the next minute you’re getting Glocked in the eyebrow or blown to bits by a roadside IED. It’s during moments like these that you realize you have no business being here at all.

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 Erbil—where 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 town—a 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 track—and 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.“

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 halt—just 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.

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