I had finally found what I was looking for. There were no busses of tourists speeding down the roads, nor were there any Americans in sight—well, besides the one carrying a rifle at the road checkpoint I had just passed through. The image of the Middle East built in my head was based upon a childhood of watching Indiana Jones and hearing romanticized stories of my Grandmother’s year living in Jordan, but everywhere I had been until this point was filled with people from the outside world. I wanted the Indiana Jones experience, the Wilfred Thesiger and Lawrence of Arabia experience, I wanted to wander through a labyrinth of streets and be the only foreigner in sight. Oman had come close, very close, but there was still something missing from the months I lived there. My yearning to experience the Middle East this way was rooted not only in the romanticized historical view I have of the region, but in my desire to do something crazy and go somewhere perceived as dangerous. What better place to go than Iraq? My mind was made up and nothing could change it—so it was that at 21 years old and completely on my own, I boarded a plane from Beirut to Erbil with absolutely no idea of what I was getting myself into.
What I would experience over the four days I spent in country would completely change the way I looked at Iraq. Eight years of perceptions and romanticism were washed away by the reality of Iraq. No longer was Iraq only what I saw on the news, but rather a living reality sprawled before me. It was what I had wanted to find since ever setting first foot in the Middle East—someplace few people outside of the region dared to come and, to me, as close to a culture unmolested by tourism as possible. Granted all of this was beginning to change, but in June of 2011 American troops were still manning the roads outside of Kirkuk and I was smack in the middle of it.
I arrived in Erbil late in the night on June 13. Erbil International Airport was a massive, abandoned stone tomb. Every footstep of my fellow travelers echoed through the hallways. It was quite different than what I had expected, but then again I wasn't sure what I was expecting. I was more nervous than anything arriving there, I mean, I was in Iraq. I have grown up with Iraq on the TV... and not for good reasons; Iraq is a war zone. Customs was the quickest I have ever been through. While other people in lines around me were grilled with questions, as soon as the customs official saw my blue passport with its embossed golden eagle he smiled, entered my information into the computer, took my picture, put two stamps on page 19, and I was on my way. I was in Iraq.
I was greeted with that now familiar blast of warm air which never fails to meet me upon arrival in any Middle Eastern country. Exiting the airport I was looking out upon a vast plain of dead grass. Not much of a welcome. That would change as I got into the city and I soon found myself the center of attention wherever I went. While I have been used to doing the sightseeing when I travel, in this moment I became the sight. The media exposure I have had to the country suggested to me it would be fraught with dangers, but what I discovered were a kind and welcoming people, ever glad to make me feel overwhelmingly accepted in their country. I was a sign of normalcy to them, a return to a time when seeing an American didn’t entail him carrying a rifle and riding in an armored car. Insomuch as I was a sight to the Iraqis, the city was a sight to me. It was typically Middle Eastern in fashion, but the one difference was the lack of outsiders. It was as purely Middle Eastern as I could hope to find—daily life at its best. It epitomized the romanticism of the Arab world I had long sought to find.