SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq Aug. 16, 2006 -- A Big Mac in Iraq?
Who would have thought?
On a recent trip to Sulaymaniyah, one of the main cities in Kurdistan in northern Iraq, everyone told us we had to visit the local McDonald's.
We had come up from Baghdad, where no foreigner would dream of going out to a restaurant because of the danger.
Kurdistan, however, is relatively safe and free of kidnappings and bombings. Americans also are very popular -- the U.S. Air Force helped keep Saddam Hussein out of Kurdistan in 1991 with the no-fly zone, and Kurds haven't forgotten that.
But McDonald's? Seemed odd.
From the car, we could see the familiar red banner with the golden arches, but when we walked in, we could see the wording -- "MaDonalds," the art of the creative typo.
If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then the folks at McDonald's headquarters in the United States should be very proud.
Suleiman Qasab, the owner of the fast-food restaurant, is certainly very proud.
He sells an average of 1,000 burgers a day, at $1.25 each. That's good business in a country where $300 a month is not a bad salary.
As it happened, Suleiman was checking on the restaurant while we were there.
Already in his 60s, he is a comfortably fed man with a constant smile and a roguish opportunist's instinct.
He spent many years living in exile in Sweden, where he picked up the habit of chewing tobacco, but came back to his native Kurdistan after Saddam's fall.
"I tried to get McDonald's permission, but they said that they don't want to enter Iraq because there is no democracy," he said.
"So I started this project on my own."
He imported some kitchen equipment, changed one letter in the logo, and opened for business.
Suleiman is unabashedly pro-American.
He says President Bush is his brother. In the window of the restaurant is a picture of the U.S. president superimposed on a football referee's figure, sending off a player with Saddam's face.
He even hosted Paul Bremer, the former chief U.S. administrator of Iraq, when he made a visit to Sulaymaniyah.
Suleiman says Bremer sternly warned him that he risked infringing a copyrighted brand, but the restaurant owner was not fazed.
He told Bremer that the day the United States captured Osama bin Laden, he would take down the golden arches sign.
He says that he still hopes that when McDonald's enters Iraq, he will be the first one to work with the company.