We breathed life back into our reporting -- and ourselves -- from the moment we started shooting in downtown Erbil at night. The city was bursting with life. Shops were filled and the streets teeming with teenagers, couples and their babies, and older men sipping tea. I saw relaxed, smiling faces -- such a sharp contrast from the deep lines of stress and blank nervous stares of Baghdad. And it was all taking place after dark. Baghdad residents would never venture out like this.
A 25-year-old guy wearing faded jeans and highlights in his hair told us he was out with his friends looking for an "alcohol bar." He said the difference between here and the rest of Iraq was the Kurds. "I'm a Kurd first, and Iraqi second," he told me. Iraq's Kurds, who make up 15 to 20 percent of the population, are concentrated in the north. Between the first Gulf War and the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, a large part of Kurdistan was protected by a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone. Kurds effectively ran their own affairs then, and now with growing political power and a Kurd serving as Iraq's president, they are building a formidable mini-state.
Our hotel, the Erbil International Hotel, was a modern colossus, not the dusty, dank, run-down hotels I'm used to in the rest of the country. There were crisp white sheets, air conditioning that works, and a mini-bar. Some intangible combination of new windows, lighting, and other interior touches banished the feeling of Third World decrepitude. And in the lobby, a Chinese restaurant. Small pleasures make a huge difference in this part of the world.
To get there, we took advantage of a relatively new development in Iraq: domestic air travel. The roads north from Baghdad aren't safe, so flying is the only acceptable option for us. But it is not exactly reliable. We spent 10 hours in Baghdad's airport on Thursday waiting for our flight. It turns out that Iraqi Airways' schedule is more finesse than substance. An 11:30 a.m. departure becomes a 6 p.m. departure when the airline decides its flight to Istanbul is more important, and more profitable, because it will take more passengers than a domestic hop. I read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" in the terminal to banish my frustration, and slept and caught some sun. But we did take off in the end -- a fleeting moment of "now we're getting there" until we landed in Erbil and discovered that the airline had sent our baggage to Sulaimaniyah or Amman or Turkey -- the answer depended on which employee we asked. We had one tape and one camera battery, enough for about an hour's shooting. We'd have to rely on our local fixer's digital camera.
Erbil's skyline is crowded with construction cranes. This is a city in the middle of a building boom. They are putting up a Four Seasons Hotel, a gigantic mall complex, and a huge suburban subdivision called "Dream City." A half-dozen new residential towers have already gone up in the last six months, the concrete parts molded in Turkey and assembled on site. And one-by-one, they are filling tree-lined streets with private homes. They are intended for Iraq's newly wealthy: They will have 16 rooms each and sell for a minimum of $160,000. I think fleetingly of buying one myself. If it stays safe, imagine what they'll be going for in one or two years -- if things stay safe.