The admixture of emotions one feels after emerging blinking into retina-frazzling Iraqi sunlight after 48 hours spent alone in a windowless, strip-lit, shit-smeared police cell is a tough one to convey: several of the darkest nights of my soul, preceded by some of the most stressful months of my life.
The sweet taste of liberty was tempered, salted and leavened by the gnawing truth that after everything that I had been through in recent months, I was still flat, stony-fucking broke. There was just no getting around that bastard.
That after all of the sound and fury; after all of the 3am stress-induced panic attacks, after having had a 9mm Glock stuck in my face by ex-henchman of Uday Hussein, after having to smile obsequiously, grimacing whilst chomping on undercooked lamb’s bollocks in an attempt to ingratiate and shake down one of the most surreally menacing hoodlums this side of the Tigris for $100 large.
All of these fun and games culminating in my being handcuffed and frog-marched out of the airport by ten heavily armed paramilitary Asaish internal security police at 4am for refusing a hundred dollar bribe and then slung ignominiously into the slammer for two days and nights without food or water and definitely no telephone.
After all of the booze, all of the cigarettes, all of the stress, after all of the blood, sweat and tears and after all of the bullshit, I knew that I was more broke than when I first set out on this desperate roll of the dice.
As make no mistake, there is only one reason to go where I went, and that was to try to make a fast buck.
There was no other reason for a foreigner to be there. Imagine the Mos Eisley cantina from Star Wars: like all the rest, I was there plainly and simply to try to hustle some dough. Chasing the Yankee Dollar like every other asshole out there.
Security consultants, engineers, luxury car dealers, construction magnates, oil-riggers, gun-runners, charlatans, bankers, “consultants”, chancers, Fijians, Samoans, South Africans, Yanks, Geordies – you name it – an entire rogues gallery all trying to wrestle money outta the unforgiving frontier.
So I don’t want your pity or your sympathy – just your empathy. What I was doing there and what I have done over and over again with my life ain’t dipped in holy water.
We dress sharp, we talk hard and fast, we inveigle, hustle and charm, we think on our feet and live on our wits, we deploy guile, charm and low cunning and suss it out quick, we make a hell of a lot of phone calls, we use a Zelig-like ability to forge fast influential friends, we try to acquit ourselves with a high-degree of gravitas and credibility and magnetic self-confidence and charisma and even occasional sprezzatura.
The only thing we’re missing is Jedi mind control. That would be useful.
All I really am - to paraphrase Arthur Miller – is a guy way out there in the blue getting by on a smile and a shoeshine.
How did all this shit happen to me? How did a guy who grew up in the ultra-rich enclave of SW3, who went to a famous English public school and a Russell Group university end up on board this grim ignis fatuus?
Well it’s a long story folks. It starts with two redundancies in the space of less than a year. From a consultancy in Istanbul and a publishing company in London, cast to the wolves at the apex of the most savage global recession since the 30s. Then a year spent as a freelance writer, throwing everything into attempting to shape a career from the entrails of the print journalism industry.
I got a call out of the blue one afternoon from a company, prompted by my LinkedIn profile (Match.com for the under-employed).
“Would you be willing to go to The KRG to do a project for us, an investment report for the Wall Street Journal?”
Hmmm, let me think about that one.
Between you and I, dear reader, I really didn’t have a lot of choice at this point. I was broke, broke, broke. I had bills coming out of my arse. I had rent to pay. Even as outlandish a proposition as this was – it was needed at that moment like manna from Valhalla.
“Let me call you back.”
So I looked it up on the map. Okay, so it’s in Northern Iraq. Circled clockwise by Armenia, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Sounds kinda fun.
I should qualify any flippancy here by saying that I had previously spent a lot of time in the Middle East, and I absolutely loved it.
The Kurds have had something of a chequered, blood stained history– you know, poison gas, the massacre at Halabja, The Anfal campaign, repeated genocide, decades of Baathist aggression, internecine conflict, the Turks constantly bullying them. They’ve not had it easy these people.
The name of their guerilla fighting force, Peshmerga, literally means “Those who face death”. I liked the sound of these people. I always admire the scrappy little underdog in life as an article of faith. Maybe my work out there could help them in some small way?
Plus I am never happier than when sitting in the dusty backstreets of some souk somewhere, sporting a rakish and artfully tied kafiya, smoking a shish, drinking a mint tea.
So I called back a few days later to take the gig.
I was assured that they had done a report there the previous year, that they had sold almost half a million dollars in commercial advertising, that they had fostered some excellent relationships with both the Barzani and Talibani clans, and even the all-powerful Minister of Natural Resources.
So just to set the scene and give you a quick 101 on Kurdish politics: The place is riven with the factional fiefdoms of two politically powerful families.
Each with their own political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is currently the dominant faction in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is a fiefdom of the Barzani clan, and led by the region’s president, Masoud Barzani, the son, and indeed grandson of a renowned resistance fighter who led the struggle against Baghdad.
Then there is the second faction in Iraqi Kurdistan, The PUK, a fiefdom of the rival Talabani clan, led by Jalal Talabani, who was the figurehead Iraqi president until last year.
Then beyond this there is an entire alphabet soup of other factions, PKK, PYD/YPG and KNC. There isn’t a lot of unity, frequently a lot of enmity. They are always having skirmishes and little dust-ups.
Well at least they WERE, until the abomination of ISIS crept out of the sewer. Those zombies certainly focused minds. It’s a rough neighbourhood.
The Kurds are also the largest ethnic diaspora in the world without their own independent state. Denied self-rule and regional autonomy since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, when the allies contrived to create several countries within its former boundaries. They were essentially stitched-up by the treaty of Sevres never having been ratified.
However, I can personally attest to the fact that they are a wonderful people. Most Kurds want some form of democratic, secular state whatever the machinations of their egotistical and often venal leaders.
Moreover they have a reputation for welcoming the west’s businessmen, politicians, armies and journalists in return for its support for their fledgling mini state.
In short, it’s fucking complicated.
Let me take a step back here and explain to you what it is that we actually do. Ever heard of native advertising? Ever seen those “special country reports” you get lurking in the back of international media titles like The Economist, Foreign Affairs, Allgemeiner Zeitung, Il Mondo and The International Herald Tribune, etc.? That’s us. Publishers all take our dime because to them it’s risk-free and sorely needed revenue.
What we ostensibly try to do is shine a little light on a shady place. Portray somewhere in a broadly positive light, and offer a redress to the stampeding four horsemen of famine, poverty, corruption and war. Through advertising.
Believe it or not, even in the most benighted parts of the world men and women still get up each day and go to work. They still get their kids ready for school, they still go out to squeeze a buck.
So we try to profile a country by accentuating the positive, in a bid to encourage foreign investors to plug their capital into a place. I know it might sound sort of glam, but essentially all we do is rock up with a few laptops and a few phones in a developing country and go to work.
This requires a combination of chutzpah, pizzazz, Jedi mind tricks (this is the advertising package you’re looking for), official coercion, high-pressure sales techniques, conspicuous absence, emotional and sexual manipulation, or even (if desperate) the last refuge of the scoundrel – patriotism. Do it for your country! Or really, whatever the hell we can think of to close the deal.
Imagine the combination of Type-A personalities, a very high-pressure job, a tax-free salary, the incentive to earn high sales commissions, being feted by the great and good in rather obscure parts of the planet, and good old fashioned big-fish-in-a-small-pond syndrome, along with ego and above all sales targets.
It’s a completely crazy job. It can be a hell of a lot of fun. It is though pretty brazen, pretty fly-by-night, pretty cavalier.
We get parachuted in somewhere and begin by interviewing all of the key public sector officials. All of the ministers and hopefully even the top banana, prime minister or president, as well as all assorted government bodies and agencies of state.
Then, we begin to figure out the power structures, party loyalties, blood-feuds, edifices, influencers, gained a good understanding of the structure of the economy, the national priorities, the policies, the inevitable “Vision 2020”, the economic modalities, the entire latticed spider’s web of power.
The government normally calls the shots in such places, so once we have them on side, after having our pictures taken with everybody who is anybody, having them wield official influence on our behalf with ministerial letters of introduction, coercive phone calls and introductions, we move hungrily into the private sector. The lion’s share of our revenue nearly always comes out of whatever private or quasi-private sector exists.
Our primary weapon however is always ego, principally male ego, closely followed by fear. That’s when we go to work.
So I took the gig, on two emphatic provisos. I wanted to be accommodated in a decent five star hotel. Secondly, I wanted a team mate who could sell. The salary was pretty good, plus my incentive was a fifteen percent commission structure and all expenses paid.
I flew to Madrid the following week. I am due to meet my new employers and team mate later that evening at a restaurant in the centre of town. I shower throw on a suit and my lucky Gucci tie and head out.
My sales girl turned out to be Spanish and pushing 40. Not that hot, which was a positive, as generally in my experience, in this business, hotness is inversely proportional to how much of a ball-breaker she is to live and work with.
Mercifully there was zero sexual chemistry. Which was a relief, as that can really fuck things up. I was going out to Iraq to make money, not to fuck around, and you have no idea how hand-in-glove you have to work with these people. It was always better to remain rigorously professional in my book, but you would be amazed how many of these double-acts actually end up getting married.
I was cautiously optimistic about her. They had assured me that she had a lot of experience and knew what she was doing. We were sat at opposite ends of the table though, so I didn’t have the opportunity to properly suss her out. I just hoped for the best. In the circumstances, what the hell else could I do? It was Kurdistan or Starbucks.
We passed a pleasant evening. The food was good, Spanish food is always good. Half way through the evening, my future employer furtively passes me an envelope under the table stuffed with greenbacks, telling me that it contained five thousand dollars. Foolishly and without counting it, I thanked him and pushed this sweaty wad of dough into my suit jacket.
Emerging from the restaurant with a belly full of tapas and seafood, into the starry blue Madrid evening with five thousand dollars in my skyrocket, I was feeling pretty good.
I am due to leave the next day, via Dubai, and onto Erbil International. An eighteen-hour flight with an eight-hour layover. I know it’s not going to be easy. It never is. But the auguries are pretty good so far. My animal spirits are flowing.
I pull the envelope of cash out of my pocket and finger the cash. I do some mental back-of-the-hypothetical-envelope calculations and figure that even if it is a relative disaster, and we only pull in two or three hundred thousand dollars from this little escapade, then Inshallah I should clear between twenty and 30 thousand dollars net over then next three to four months: more than enough cash to clamber my way out of the financial shit-show my life has descended into.
This, plus salary and all expenses paid. I needed this money like Jesus needed the resurrection. I had done my homework. I am very thorough. I was ready.
Arriving at the airport the following morning I run into my coordinator, getting out of our respective cabs. We had swapped digits the previous night and she had already started texting me. Heavy on the emojis.
We get on the plane and start talking. It rapidly transpires that she has never ever done any kind of sales in her life. She had worked previously for one of the biggest special advertising agencies as a debt-collector, collecting payments gone sour on old projects.
Rather than going to all of the effort and expense of suing a businessman for breach of contract, it is far cheaper and more effective to simply send a pretty woman out to Lagos or wherever and have her sit in this guy’s office waiting room for hours on end filing her nails and reading magazines in order to brow-beat this derelict into coughing up.
That was all she had done in the ‘industry’ - for several years.
She had zero sales experience. Nor had she ever set foot anywhere in the Arab world. After we had run out of chat somewhere over the Mediterranean she turned her attention to the Spanish equivalent of Heat magazine. It was not a good omen.
We finally arrive at 4am – shattered – and cab it to our hotel. The Hawler Plaza. The place looked like it had been jerry-rigged by blind people. It was like some crazy pre-fab flat-pack hotel, but I was too tired to care. We crashed.
The first few days were spent acclimatizing. The place was really wacky. Like being in a kind of Mesopotamian Western. I did all of the usual things one does at the start of a project:
• Organize a little office.
• Buy all of the stationary & office supplies.
• Compile a big calendar to track progress & meetings etc.
• Compile an organigram of who everybody in the government is. Parties & ministries etc. So we start to get recognition of all of them visually & name-wise. You always drop a lot of names.
• Set up a Google News Alert for all local bulletins.
• Pick up all local media to begin to immerse yourself in what’s going on.
• Open up a local bank account for expense transfers.
• Inform your embassy that you’re in the country in case of emergencies. Actually advised by the FCO in this instance. They even issued us with emergency pagers should we be kidnapped and they have to send in the cavalry. Well the Brits did; the Spanish one not so much.
• Begin to put out feelers to our government contacts.
• Set up a few initial introductory meetings with our main “fixers”.
• Compile & refine a spreadsheet of the “market-universe” Local & international companies across all sectors, SOEs, MCOs MNCs
• Figure out in places to eat and drink to schmooze clients.
• Find and hire a driver and a translator.
• Look at longer-term accommodation options.
There is a hell of a lot to do in those first few days.
Right off the bat though there were problems.
They wanted us to immediately find a hotel barter. The way this works is very simple, although never a foregone conclusion: you basically swap advertising space for a “free” place to stay.
It doesn’t really make much difference to loan one or two rooms to a team of “journalists” who are doing a report on your country for some primo-international media exposure as a quid pro quo. Plus they often like having a team of young dynamic Westerners marching around their lobbies looking purposeful. Makes the hotel look good.
In this case though, no dice.
Keep in mind that one of the two key stipulations I had as a pre-requisite to taking on this project was to be accommodated in a decent hotel. That’s not me being pretentious. There are in fact all kinds of efficacious reasons why this makes total sense.
First and foremost, because we were in a virtual war zone, car bombs and other indiscriminate terrorist attacks were commonplace. So yes, whilst international hotels are an obvious target for these miscreants, here at least they were ringed with bloody huge concrete blast-walls with metal-detectors, car-stopping devices, with very heavy and very heavily-armed security details. Reassuring.
In fact just about everybody there carried guns at all times: Kalashnikovs are as common as cell-phones. Go into a dentist’s office and he will keep one just in case. Guns are everywhere!
Secondly, because a decent hotel offers all necessary infrastructure, working phone-lines, independent power generators, decent food, AC, hot water. Somewhere like that is a kind of oasis and a sanctuary as well as base of operations.
On top of which, in places like Kurdistan and all over the developing world, the international hotels are always where the action is.
You need to see and seen. You might meet some top government official working out in the hotel gym. It’s a networking opportunity mostly. It’s often also the only place you can get a goddamn drink.
Straight away though we were told that we would need to find barter, as the company would not pay for our hotel accommodation for the duration of our assignment.
So almost immediately they had reneged upon on what I though was clearly understood and agreed upon. Cheapskates!
So whilst I did of course point this out they were adamant and given that they were paying the bills they called the shots. So this was a problem.
Regardless I started to try to solve this. We must have seen at least a dozen hotels in the first few weeks. However there were only three international hotels in the entire city. The first one had been brought by a new developer and was in the process of being completely refurbished. The second was brand new, Lebanese financed and run from Beirut. I don’t know if you have ever attempted to do any kind of business with Beirutis but they play serious hardball. They are insanely difficult to get commitment from. They are Phoenicians after all. They have been ducking and diving since before Roman times. It was like trying to nail a jellyfish to a wall.
So despite my having at least twenty five meetings with these people in pursuit of a barter agreement, my taking the CEO out and getting him pissed, practically having to take this guy’s kids hostage, we were never able to get a definitive answer out of them.
So that left us with very few options on the hotel front. There were a few minor players but these were mostly like knocking shops. They were not serious hotels.
Moreover, this entire issue of accommodation was a complete diversion and distraction from what we were actually there to try and accomplish and employed to do.
The only other vaguely livable hotel was the one we were in. A place I had initially viewed with horror but as the weeks wore on, a place I would strangely come to love. The Hawler Plaza.
I made some friends there. One particular character, an ex-US Marine from Miami, I will call Joel Shenkenberg. This guy had been in the original Operation Desert Storm, which he never shut up about. A squat, ruddy-faced, barrel-chested little guy who liked a drink and had some how wound up in KRG working as a security consultant for various upstream oil and gas companies and with two ex-wives to support back home in the States, including a Ukrainian mail-order bride who had taken him to the cleaners and who he never stopped belly-aching about having married.
I really liked this guy: he appeared lonely and seemed to take a shine to us. He seemed to be a long-term resident in the hotel and had the penthouse suite. This place was really funny, it was falling apart at the seams, but it had a kind of rugged utilitarian charm.
It was owned by a guy we called “Pushcat” who drove a big black S-Class Mercedes and seemed to have his chubby fingers in all kinds of pies.
So I put this accommodation ultimatum to one side, or at least on the back-burner, and started get on with my actual job and began in earnest interviewing all of the key ministers, right up to the President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani.
Putting it like that makes it sound like a breeze, but I can assure you it wasn’t. It involved hundreds of phone calls, spending endless hours traipsing around the corridors of power in their regional parliament, making friends, driving to all of the governorates, including north across the Zagros mountains to Dohuk and then out across the badlands of eastern Kurdistan to their second city of Sulaymaniyah.
The project up to this point could most accurately be described as challenging. My “coordinator” proved completely useless. A hopeless communicator who clearly loathed the sales process, she seemed to take no joy from it and often displayed a countenance when it came to her pitch-time like a bulldog chewing a wasp. She just seemed to have no idea what she was talking about and her naivety was transparent. The old axiom applies: people buy people.
I was waiting for her in our hotel lobby one morning preparing to interview the governor of the central bank. She comes trotting down the stairs to join me for this appointment wearing a pair of pink hot pants, strappy wedges shoes, a skimpy top and a big, floppy, sunhat.
Looking as carefree – and for the entire world – as if she were off to the beach in Ibiza. I told her, curtly, to go back to her room and get changed. Unbelievable.
The project was continually plagued with interminable operational issues and problems; not least the frequent power outages that could last for up to 48 hours, and the unreliability of the cell-phone network, which meant that half of all your calls were dropped. The stringent security measures imposed everywhere, the difficulty in getting foreign currency into the country, the utter uselessness and, even worse, humorlessness of my “coordinator”. On top of this, we went through at least five separate drivers and several translators in those first weeks.
More detrimental however was the fact that my erstwhile employer had seemed to have completely alienated some of the absolutely key officials in the country. The owners were even described to me as “lying bastards” by the Minister of Trade & Industry. Our company’s dire reputation did – it seemed to me – very much precede us.
So as the weeks wore on, and the general atmosphere of truculence became more manifest, my employers in Madrid began to worry about the project, to the extent that they decided to send out a third team member, an experienced and highly seasoned Swiss woman, to add a little commercial steel.
She was deployed as a kind of hit woman. As it turned out she was actually excellent, like a unicorn to my current pack-mule.
The pace of events quickened after this. We enlisted the help of Joel Shenkenberg as a kind of fixer and minder, whose contacts within the security agencies allowed us to hire the services of several armed Peshmerga guards.
Thus allowing us to move around the country more freely, as intercity travel was a dangerous and difficult proposition. The ministry of the interior provided us with some armoured official government Land Cruisers, which whilst not inconspicuous, were pretty cool.
We had been there a little over two months by this time and despite seeing the majority of the ministers, we had yet to sign a single commercial contract. We were effectively bleeding money and head office were becoming increasingly difficult and beginning to pile on the pressure.
So I convened a strategy meeting to brainstorm our commercial leads. This initiative lead to the single most surreal incident of this project and perhaps even the single weirdest night of my life.
Our local fixer, who proved as ineffective as he was personally charming, was the twenty-something son of a famous Kurdish actor and ostensibly at least well connected. I liked him immensely.
It was during the course of this session that he handed me a rather intriguing business card.
It looked like an airline Frequent Flyer card: gold plastic, embossed with several Middle Eastern flags, with one local landline number, a name, and the professional title: “The Chairman.”
I asked him who this guy was, and was told that he was cloaked in mystery. No one really knew much about him. The rumour however, was that he had been close personally and professionally with the Hussein clan. That he had been a boyhood friend of Uday and Qusay Hussein, the spoilt, psychopathic, playboy dauphin sons of Saddam. That they had had extensive business interests together but that they apparently fallen out spectacularly. Consequently, he had been forced to flee for his life with his family and had been laying low in Egypt ever since.
After the American cavalry had ridden into Baghdad in 2003 to liberate Iraq with Operation Enduring Freedom he had come back, but had based his business operations in KRG and was now one of the largest foreign investors in Iraq. He had interests in vast construction projects and owned and operated his own pan-Arab cable-network.
Intrigued, with absolutely nothing to lose, and desperately needing to close a deal from somewhere, I picked up my trusty Nokia 6310 and dialled the number.
A gruff voice answered the phone almost immediately – “Hello, this is The Chairman” – I explained who we were, what we were doing, told him who we had met thus far, explained that we had been told to contact him as one of the largest foreign investors into the country and that we would be deeply honoured, (and by this point just pretty damn curious) to meet him.
“No problem, I would love to meet The Wall Street Journal. I am having a barbecue at my house, I will send a limo and my personal bodyguard for you, be ready at your hotel in 45 minutes.” Click.
True to his word, exactly 45 minutes later two armoured, black S-Class Mercedes drew up outside our hotel and an obviously-armed, suited bodyguard stepped out of the lead car. Having decided that this was too good an opportunity to take my coordinator with me, I had my A-team talent with me, my Swiss hit girl.
We got into the Merc, glancing at at each other conspiratorially and disbelievingly and with a flutter of butterflies and trepidation in our stomachs. This was clearly a side of Kurdistan we hadn’t yet seen.
We were then driven in sleek silence to an industrial park/housing estate approximately half an hour away, ushered into a high-security, low-rise suburban house.
There were armed men all over the place. Perhaps a dozen of them, with guns bulging through their shoulder holsters. We were shown into The Chairman’s office. It was a suburban house converted into a kind of pastiche gangsters-lair.
The first thing that hit me was the icy-chill from the AC. This guy liked to keep it on the down low. And there sat behind a huge mahogany desk was a heavy-set Arab Tony Soprano.
He was extremely courteous, if physically and visually intimidating. Asking us in a low-gruff voice to take a seat. As I surveyed the dusty, dirty, darkened, nicotine-stained room, the completely surreal magnitude of what we had just stumbled unwittingly into hit me.
There was a gold Kalashnikov framed behind him, several handguns and assorted firearms littered the surface of his desk.
A fully tumescent and taxidermied cobra sat prominently in a glass bell jar on a gigantic slab of wood behind him. The whole ambience was uber-tacky, dictator-chic.
A gigantic plasma-screen television blasted out tinny-Arab pop-videos. The entire vignette unfolded before my eyes with a kind of clichéd sinister low-level menace.
Then The Chairman began to talk:
“So you may have heard of this Kurdish pop singer that was shot in the head a few weeks ago in Istanbul? I want to go on record with The Wall Street Journal, to say that this attempted murder, or attempted contract killing had absolutely nothing to do with me.”
“Yes he was signed to my record label, but I did not personally try to have him killed, Why would I? More importantly when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was in Erbil last week he assured me personally that there was no suspicion that I had anything to do with this.”
“In fact I am personally paying for him to have brain surgery in Germany. To remove the bullet that is lodged in his brain. If I had anything to do with this attempted murder then why would I do this?”
This was his opening gambit. After this the evening accelerated from the mildly sinister to completely off-the-wall bat-shit-crazy.
He talked expansively and volubly. Told us how he had been in business with the Husseins, but after they had demanded control of one of his business and his subsequent refusal to hand it over, that Uday had threatened to kill both him and his family.
So he had fled in the dead of night with his wife and young children, running for their lives, that he had been in Cairo ever since. That he had sworn that he would only return to Iraq, so terrified was he of The Hussein clan, after he had seen video evidence that they had been all been killed.
He claimed that he wanted to “eradicate poverty” in Iraq, that hew was going to turn the country in a new Jerusalem, that he was going to build dozens of new cities with hospitals and schools and homes in every province.
The only thing that lent any credence or credibility to his messianic self-aggrandising was his plasma-screen, which would periodically cut-away from the incessant tinny Arab pop-videos to dramatic scenes of our Arab Tony Soprano, surrounded by heavies, in a cream linen suit and sunglasses, marching authoritatively around various vast construction sites. He really did look like a massive gangster. It was totally fucking surreal.
On and on he went like this. At one point one of his man-servants, a truly peculiar little fellow, packing heat, with massive milk-bottle thick glasses called “Mutu”, came in and we were told how he had nearly killed him whilst driving one day in Cairo. That he had felt so guilty abut this that he had basically adopted him and brought him into the fold and found him a wife and that he loved him “like a pet!” That he was his favourite bodyguard.
Although quite why anyone would employ a bodyguard with pronounced myopia struck me as incongruous to say the least.
After approximately two hours of this The Chairman suddenly got to his feet and declared that we were all to go to his house for a barbecue. Clapped his hands and we all departed immediately in a phalanx of his Mercedes.
We then drove literally thirty seconds around the corner to an indistinguishable building, but this one was apparently where he lived. Again with at least a dozen heavily armed, bodyguards loitering.
The decor and ambience was identical to his office. Handguns everywhere, automatic assault rifles, weapons, samurai swords on the walls, a huge safe parked on one side of the room, the AC running at full tilt.
There was the same gigantic plasma-screen – this time, bizarrely, a Jean Michelle Jarre concert was playing loudly in the corner. It was freezing.
The Chairman then got changed into a kind of basketball-top with sweat pants.
Then the Scotch came out.
Plying us with endless amounts of Jonny Walker Blue label. Sold in a silk-lined box. 80-90 percent proof, this is one of the most expensive blended scotches in the world. The Chairman clearly wanted to show off.
The more he talked and the more we drank the more his Messiah complex started to perturb me, we drank and we drank – then the undercooked lamb’s testicles were served, with my munching disconsolately on this tepid, genital gristle.
Then it started to get seriously weird. The Chairman went to his giant safe in the corner of the room and started taking out endless quantities of jewelry, diamond encrusted watches, bracelets, rubies, sapphires, heavy gold bracelets, endless rings. Massive gaudy things adorned with gems like apricots.
Inviting us to try them on. Telling us how much they had cost. He was really showing off. Roaring drunk by now, we all were, and all of his manservants and assorted bodyguards obsequiously guffawing at his jokes and his grandstanding and kowtowing his clearly monumental-ego.
Then he motions at the wall to a painting he had hanging there and claimed that it was a Gauguin. It was then that the penny dropped.
As there was absolutely no way on Earth that this was a genuine Gauguin. Then he proceeded to unwrap a porcelain figurine that he had hidden in a plastic carrier bag and claimed, fantastically, that this was a Rodin and that that he had bought this “priceless piece of art” at auction for several million dollars.
I knew beyond any reasonable doubt, through the thick, reeking fug of cigar and cigarette smoke, and the frankly room-spinning volume of 90 percent proof Speyside malts swirling through my veins, that this guy was a total fantasist, as well as a feasibly dangerous lunatic. As this “Rodin” looked like something one might purchase in the back of The Daily Express.
So I though that it was high-time to call this guy’s bluff, if he was such a Messiah then presumably he wouldn’t mind spending a reasonable sum of money to promote the region he seemed to profess so much undying devotion to in the international media.
Moreover my overriding thought was, that The Chairman was clearly fucking with us, and was off on some kind of mad, delusional ego-trip. What on Earth was he talking about!
As well as which, after almost four and a half hours in this guy’s company, and his more or less relentless monologue, the whole vibe in that room was starting to give me the living fear.
Nobody knew where we were. Who knew what on Earth this guy was capable of and looking around that room with his henchmen all laughing, swigging back big tumblers of Scotch, guns bristling. I figured it was time to draw this to a conclusion.
So I asked to speak to my colleague outside. We agreed that this man was clearly a lunatic. That we should go for broke, pitch him there and then. Pull a contract out whilst he was drunk and pliable and go for an on-the spot signing for a hundred thousand dollar deal.
So that’s what happened. Chapter and verse.
We didn’t get the deal though. He blustered and promised that he would sign the following day. We were driven back to our hotel.
My colleague had though – with her rather ingenious scurillousness – managed to swipe a bottle of the blue label scotch, so we went back to her hotel room for one last drink and just looked at one another speechless with incredulity.
We agreed that no one would ever believe what had just happened to us. It was the single most bizarre evening we had ever spent or where ever likely to spend.
I could never reach him by phone again. I tried every day I was in that country to reach him. All I had were muffled, unintelligible grunts in Arabic and Turkish. It was inconclusive. He was a cypher. No one else it seemed knew anything about this guy.
On my last day in the country I even took a cab, trying to get there from memory to his house, just to convince myself that it wasn’t all a hallucination, that he wasn’t a phantom.
The Swiss girl left the next day. We still had not managed to sign a single contract.
This was when the pressure was ramped up.
I should point out that we had been pursing multiple possible commercial leads by this point. With the mayor of Erbil, the international airport, various banks, and various ministries including tourism, transport and communications, housing and reconstruction, municipalities & tourism. Hell, even a Turkish household appliance company called Arçelik. Although when I tried to explain the intrinsic hilarity implicit in this name to their senior management, it was somewhat lost in translation.
Nothing was working, and we were getting nowhere. It was just proving to be an incredibly non-permissive environment and as charming as they were individually none of these Kurds were prepared to sign on the line-which-is-dotted.
Meanwhile the impasse over our accommodation had not gone away. So despite my having negotiated down our existing rack-rate in the place, the company had insisted in their venality that we were to start to try to find alternative private-rented accommodation.
Finding a place to live in that part of the world was difficult to say the least. This was becoming a real headache. With a constant stream of e-mails of escalating veiled and then overtly acute threats that our project would be curtailed and eventually terminated if we did not find a solution.
I had run myself ragged over this. Finally, by some small miracle, I had managed to find a place in the Assyrian Christian neighbourhood known as Ankawa. Randomly, via some guy I had met one morning whilst swimming in my hotel pool before work.
This guy had been amazing. He had had this place completely furnished for us, including the installation of AC, which was becoming essential as we moved towards late spring, with the temperature rising inexorably day by day.
I had also managed to negotiate the terms of the lease down by over half and with a three-month security deposit, amounting to some ten thousand dollars.
Relieved and actually pretty exultant that I had finally resolved this rumbling issue and could then return therefore with complete focus to what I was employed to accomplish.
I wrote to my head office to inform them of the good news and to request funds to lease this property. Moreover, given my now extensive knowledge of the Kurdish property market, this was literally the best possible deal on offer.
When I eventually had a reply over this apartment some two days later, telling me that they were unwilling to pay for this (in spite of their constant harassment over the preceding weeks) and threatening to prematurely end the project on the basis that they were not willing to pay for our accommodation, I was spitting with anger. Fortified with probably a little too much of the local fire-water, I wrote the following e-mail:
Are you guys taking the fucking-piss? I have now been waiting for an e-mail response from you on the evidently critical issue of whether you will sanction paying for our accommodation now for over two days. This was by your own admission “absolutely critical” and the "pressure is on big time." This is simply unacceptable. Firstly you send me out here along with a coordinator who is a manifestly useless moron barely able to string a sentence together. Let alone sell! Then there is this endless saga over accommodation, to which I have busted-my-balls to try to resolve and them you threaten to end my project on the basis of not being willing to spunk up $10,000 dollars in advance deposit. I really am speechless and beyond angry over this. I will try to moderate my language but frankly this blows-my-mind to the extent that I find it difficult to retain my composure.
The following morning I received a further e-mail summoning me back to Madrid. I agonised over this one all day. After all of the unrelenting pressure of the last few months, I decided to forget about it all for a few hours and try to regain my levity.
So I went sightseeing. I bought an old Omega wristwatch from a souk, stocked-up on kefiyas, drank mint tea, smoked shisha, hung out with locals and pondered what I was going to do. I was due to leave that evening back to Madrid for a showdown.
I went back to my hotel room, packed, then unpacked and then packed again, before finally unpacking.
I had put almost three months of my life into this project. I had worked myself to the bare bone. Twenty-hour days, six days a week. I felt I had done everything possible and more that was asked and could reasonably be expected of me.
I had poured my heart and soul into this project and I came to ineluctable conclusion that I would be damned if I was just going to throw it all in and leave with my tail between my legs. I wasn’t going down without a proper fight.
However difficult they were and however much I knew they would blow a gasket, I was frankly in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
So I ordered up a drink, went out onto my balcony lit a cigarette and thought, fuck em.
The following morning I woke up and went for my usual hour-long swim. I hadn’t checked my e-mails. I was hungry. I knew that the drama and brinkmanship of the night before would have ramifications.
I decided that I needed to catch some sun. So I went to one of the two five-star hotels, lay on a sun lounger by the pool, ordered some breakfast and luxuriated in the fearsome heat. I knew I was in trouble. Eventually, several hours later, my coordinator turns up.
She was pretty gobsmacked to see me. I hadn’t actually seen her for a few days, apart from my catching glimpses of her creeping through the hotel for assignations with this guy. I had long since lost patience with her. She really was a deeply humourless woman. Our working relationship had seemingly broken down. In fact the entire project had gone to hell in a handcart. I was drinking in Kurdistan’s last chance saloon. I knew that.
“They are furious with you, they cannot believe that you refused to get on the plane, they have said that this has never, ever happened before, you have to get into contact with them immediately.”
So I e-mailed them. The long and the short of it was that I was on my own. They were now unwilling to pay for my return flight, as well as which they were refusing to pay for my hotel.
So I had to check out of there within hours. I was fucked. I had no idea how I was going to get back to London. I had less than a thousand dollars in my personal account and a flight home from there at such short notice would be double that, or possibly even more. It’s not an easy place to get to. I was really in the shit.
So I contacted one of the only people I knew in the country, my fixer, and asked whether I could stay with his family for a few days whilst I figured out what the hell I was going to do.
I was pretty upset. The next few days were a bit of blur. I had to go back to the ministry of immigration to yet again renew my visa now for the fourth time. I even had to take an AIDS test this time. I spent hours on the web trying to find a flight home that wasn’t going to bankrupt me.
Eventually, after a few days of radio silence, the company contacted me, offering to fly me home directly to London this time. I was so emotionally and physically exhausted by this point after all of the stress and uncertainty that I accepted.
More with a whimper, that belied my earlier bombast and indignant amateur dramatics. I was just really tired, bone-tired. I am tough, but not that tough. I had just had enough.
So there I was queuing up to board my flight at four o’clock in the goddamn morning at Erbil international airport.
I can see my plane sitting there, glinting at me on the tarmac, 100 yards from where I am standing. I had already checked in my luggage.
The immigration official looked up from my passport.
“You cannot board this plane. Not unless you give me $100 dollars.”
It took me another four days to get back home to London. When I eventually closed my front door I didn’t get out of bed for three weeks. How the fuck was I going to pay the rent?