I arrived yesterday in Kurdistan by road from Diyabakir, the largest city in Kurdish eastern Turkey, a dusty place full of wheelbarrow boys, housing ghettos, trash fires, and amazingly, a UPS office where I sent my expense receipts back to New York. I left at four in the morning with a driver who admitted that because his sister had gotten married the same night, he had just an hour of sleep (not to mention how many drinks). So remembering that car accidents are the single largest cause of death for foreign correspondents, I kept myself awake and kept my driver awake as we sped through dawn and down to the Iraqi border, where I dragged my bags and body armor through passport control to meet my next driver on the other side.
The main highway into Kurdish northern Iraq passes through Mosul, which is rapidly going to shit. There was open street fighting in town just last week, but since the city is of less strategic or symbolic value (unlike oil-rich Kirkuk or holy Najaf) the American forces have decided to let the city stew in its own juices. It is a place to avoid. We took a long detour of back routes to do so, and for the first time I found myself in Iraqi countryside that could easily be described as pleasant. Hills like east Africa, tree-speckled and golden. Roads like water slides, smooth and fast. All is easy on my drowzy eyes until we drop onto a great, glaring plain, and behold Irbil, the Denver of Iraq, where concrete bungalows come to die in the baking sun. In my ignorance and disappointment, I wonder why anyone would decide to build a city here, let alone the capital of Kurdistan. Then the center of town comes into view, where the crumbling clay citadel stands atop a small mesa, continuously inhabited from some disputed past. People live here because they always have.
If Irbil isn���t the mountain resort I expected, it is a friendly town, or at least my reception was. I���ll be staying for a little while in a house with the only other resident Western journalists, two stringers for Reuters. Sasa, a genial Croatian photographer and friend of a friend of a friend, wears sarongs and little else as he pads around the stifling, ant-infested, apartment. It���s a tolerant atmosphere. The neighborhood is a Christian suburb, where we walk the streets with ease, where the shops sell beer, where the women don���t where headscarves, and where teenagers eat ice cream and waste time. At night, we sleep in metal cots on the cooling roof, and watch shooting stars to the sound of crickets and car alarms.
The news from the south continues to be bad. A stringer from Bloomberg, my old company, kidnapped briefly in Basra. The manager of an NGO, started by a friend, assassinated in Baghdad. Though I���d go again in a second if called, it���s a guilty pleasure to have a break from Arab-Iraq and its discontents. Even when I was there in July during the post-transfer of sovereignty lull, it was a nervy place. While out inspecting sewage systems with Army engineers from the First Cavalry Division, the Humvee in which I was riding was struck by a roadside bomb detonated by some guy, probably a foreign fighter, following us on motorcycle. Two nearby cars were blown over, and the rear gunner of my vehicle was injured by a big chunk of shrapnel that almost made it through the plate in his flak jacket, but everyone inside, including myself and the photographer, was fine. This for what was supposed to be a low-key story about Iraq���s environmental problems.
My plan now is to have some quality time with the Kurds, perhaps two months or so. It doesn���t take a genius to figure that sooner or later there is going to be civil war in Iraq and that one of the front lines will be Kurdistan. The idea is that by getting to know everyone now, I���ll be able to keep working here safely when things do get bad. What is it that Clausewitz said? ���Time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted.��� And no doubt there will be interesting stories along the way.
Still, it sucks being new in town. I always get mixed up between Barzani and Talabani. Which one is PUK or KDP? And what about the PKK? I took a week of vacation that I should have spent at home in Beirut researching and planning, but instead went to visit friends in the Greek Islands and partied like an ancient god. (Minus the burnt offerings and incest.). Whether by inclination or entropy, I���ll always take Bacchus over Mars.