As i walk, i wonder how to describe this place, so different from anything i've seen before. In the city center, shop after open-fronted shop hold home furnishings, plumbing fixtures, ceramic tiles, wallpaper, pipes, chandeliers. Imagine taking a Home Depot and performing the loaves and fishes miracle on it, shattering it into a kaleidoscope of narrow storefronts. That's the center of Erbil in a nutshell. Exposed re-bar erupts from unfinished foundations. Vacant lots are filled with litter - water bottles, cigarette cartons - while handsome modern buildings are rising, glass and steel, from a chaos of reconstruction. In some corners of town, electrical wiring is a dangling mess. The place feels naked; people proceed seemingly without regard for electrical codes, if those even exist. Yet at the same time, light fixtures and tiles on display everywhere reflect a taste for lavish ornament common to Arabic and Central Asian cultures.
The place breathes an aura of fierce determination to succeed. Billboard slogans i see - things like "the future is here" - might actually mean something to the people of Iraqi Kurdistan. It strikes me as i walk, a lone traveler in a place owned by the working man, that it would be tough to be a nihilist here. Quite literally, you can feel the hope.
A Bangladeshi man walks up to me and says hello in perfect English. He's curious what i'm doing here; asks if i need help with anything, then returns to his work. Throughout the city reception is similar. Whatever language they speak, people start conversations with this passerby. Only the taxi drivers, who honk as they drive by, seem aggressive about their services, and here far less than Ankara. Down a side street i find a bazaar; stall-keepers see my camera and ask me to take their pictures. They ask "where are you from?". Then come the hearty handshakes - America! Whatever reservations i had about the American occupation of Iraq, they have been softened by Erbil. While Islamist radicals continue to violently contest the U.S. presence just a few hundred kilometers away, for the Kurds of northern Iraq, American intervention was true to its ideological packaging of liberation and democracy. In this city, i am not ashamed to say i am an American*.
One man, tucked behind a green shade of vegetation, sits in the door of his shop. He invites me over, offers a chair and asks me to stay. He's learning English, but not such a clever student, he tells me, and he's eager for someone to talk with. He gives me his mobile numbers; asks me to stay for lunch, but i need to keep moving.
*If that comment requires any explanation, think of it this way: in the Middle East, America can be seen many ways. I myself often think of my country as the perpetrator of Guantanamo Bay, the country with the most nukes, Abu Ghraib, Valerie Plame, Coca Cola, refusing to sign the Kyoto Accord, and a host of other things, not to mention the profligacy of American culture and its adverse impacts on rich cultures around the globe. Here in Erbil, for example, among the clever topiaries and classical columns in Minaret park stands a glass-encased, meter-tall replica of one of the mice from Disney's "Dumbo". Entirely out of context - hardly even a major character - this animated mouse is the sort of thing you'll find anywhere America is unsuccessfully imitated. Meanwhile, as a character in Orhan Pamuk's novel "Snow" points out, such evidence of the legendary characters in Middle Eastern literature is hard to find.