What is it like being in Erbil? Does everyone have a gun? Is it safe? Do they have toilets?
Interesting. Potentially. Relatively. Yes.
Arriving in Erbil, I was honestly expecting the worst. We hear about Iraq on the news almost daily, about this bomb or that suicide attack, this politician or that jihadist, this US soldier behaving badly and that Sadrist militia member vowing to avenge a terrible loss. It's all very sad and had a definite impact on my preconceptions.
The truth of the matter is that Erbil is full of construction and activity, a sign, according to our office manager, of progress and economic growth. "If you saw Erbil 12 months ago, you would not recognize it today." Indeed, on my way to lunch with he and five of my closest security buddies, I saw women walking in the street, businessmen selling tires, policemen directing traffic, and an unreported semblance of normality. To be fair, bombs get more hits (no pun intended) than economic progress.
Don't get me wrong, Iraq (including Erbil) is still a volatile place and could potentially erupt. Erbil's history, economic growth and current demographics point to the contrary, but it is, after all, Iraq. Needless to say, I don't argue with Hamdija when he tells me to do something. Nonetheless, the steady pace of life and undeniable signs of progress are a welcome reprieve from the steady barrage of bad press.
Our office and house form part of a larger neighborhood, walled on all sides with tightly controlled entry and exit points. Historically, this particular neighborhood has been predominately Kurdish Christian, as evidenced by several churches just outside the walls. A microcosm of the world around it, the compound is fully self-sustainable, complete with generators, water tanks/indoor plumbing, garbage removal services, etc. The house and office also both boast high speed internet and continuous electricity, a fact for which I am eternally grateful.
Three "restaurants" inside the compound cook you anything from pizza to shawarma to kebap to pancakes, obviously focused on the demands of the large international contingent. The Edge serves as a "bar" at night, offering your favorite choices of Turkish beer and a large projector to show Euro 2008 matches (guess where I will be Friday night when Turkey plays Croatia?). In addition, four "shops" sell corner store necessities and liquor, no doubt catering to the large security personnel contingent (including the "7-eleven," named as such by a sheet of paper taped to the window).
Free movement is allowed within the compound walls, which I've found can be somewhat unnerving at times but mostly quite welcome. Any move outside the compound walls must be pre-approved and taken with a full security detail in tow. Walking down the street, you find security contractors sporting Kalashnikovs and lounging under makeshift tents to avoid the oppressive sun. Armored SUVs adorn the streets with a lovely combination of black on black, beautifully complimenting the sand-colored buildings and dusty streets. At night, lit cigarettes identify the locations of the guards while dim lamps provide just enough light to avoid impending potholes.
Although not terribly interesting, the compound provides basic necessities and a hint of adventure (although I'm sure this would wear off after one too many meals at the Edge). It does worry me a bit that the sight of 6 men drinking tea and holding large guns is becoming rather routine, even after 2 days... Alas, c'est la vie in Iraq!