Wonder and Winces: Mixed Emotions in Dubai

Tuesday, June 22, 2010 | Dubai, United Arab Emirates (map)

At 828 meters (2,171 feet), the Burj Khalif is the world's tallest building, and far too large to fit in a single frame.
Many people who know me assume that I would accept any free ticket, that I would jump on a train or plane to any destination, all without thinking twice. Not so.

On my unofficial List of Places I Never Want to Go, Dubai held second place for years. (Nothing could be worse than Vegas.) Everything I had heard made me want to avoid ultra-artificial Dubai: the excesses of the city's buildings, the commercialism of the malls, the environmental degradation from golf courses and ski slopes built in the desert, and the exploitation of immigrant laborers by the locals—a disdainful upper caste of billionaire oil barons.

Yet like it or not, Dubai was the transit point for my recent trip to Iraq.

After a mildly excruciating thirteen-hour direct flight from Washington, DC, we reached Dubai in the evening. Before landing, the plane arced above the city-state's towering downtown skyscrapers.

The Bottom Line on Iraq

Tuesday, June 15, 2010 | Iraq (map)

In Baghdad's Green Zone, an Iraqi flag and military-themed murals adorn a blast wall.
A week after I returned home from Iraq, I read about a recent survey examining quality of life in cities around the world. I tracked down the report, resigned to what I would find. Sure enough, Baghdad was dead last—planet Earth's least livable city.

That Iraq has a long way to go before it attains a livable measure of stability is undeniable. After years of hearing (read: tuning out) stories of the atrocities which Baghdad's residents suffer every day, I found that conditions in the city were even worse than I had expected.

Nonetheless, the Iraqis I interviewed, or those with whom I worked, were coping. After seven years of tragedies, what else was there to do but head out to work, to school, or to the market each morning and hope for the best?

Since returning to Washington, I have been asked by dozens of friends and family members what I

Kurdistan: The Other Face of Iraq

Sunday, June 13, 2010 | Arbil, Iraq (map)

Viewed from the citadel, locals take an evening stroll in one of Erbil's central squares.
The highlight of my trip to Iraq was the five days I spent in the northern region of Kurdistan—not least because it finally offered a chance to escape the prison-like compound in Baghdad.

Along with one colleague and one security guard, I flew on Iraqi Airways from Baghdad to Erbil, the administrative and commercial capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

"Kurdistan" itself is something of an imagined land, since the ethnic Kurds straddle the mountainous borderlands of northern Iraq, eastern Turkey, northern Syria, and northwest Iran. History never granted the Kurds their own country, but today they are working hard to carve something like a nation out of Iraq—and to distance themselves from their Arab countrymen.

Iraq's Kurds bore the brunt of Saddam Hussein's brutality for decades, and developed their independent streak in response. During the 1990s, the Kurds suffered not only under the