For the first time since Islamic State fighters advanced to within 25 miles of this Iraqi city last month, T Bar Sports Lounge is hopping. Jimmie Collins takes a sip of white wine and brushes back a loose strand of hair. “Can you kill the music?” she asks the bartender, who turns down the dial on the stereo and passes her a microphone.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to quiz night,” Collins says to the 60 customers, mostly Americans, at the bar. “Tonight’s the usual stuff. We’ll have two spoken rounds and three picture rounds.”
Outside of this city in northern Iraq, Islamist insurgents and Iraqi Kurdish forces, backed by American fighter jets and drones, battle for ground. But at this bar, the American version of life goes on. Oil workers cluster around flat-screen televisions tuned to National Football League games and women’s professional wrestling. They have returned after a brief evacuation, along with aid workers and English teachers who fill the tables by the bar’s windows, tinted so people outside can’t see in.
Then there’s Collins, who never left Irbil. At the moment, all eyes are on the 28-year-old Texan, who starts the quiz by asking, “What word links a group of whales with a group of peas?”
The crowd groans.
“Oh, c’mon you guys,” she says. “It’s an easy one.”
How do a bunch of Americans end up in a place like this at a time like this? For Collins, who taught English in Taiwan and the Czech Republic after college, it was a chance to seek adventure in the most foreign place she could imagine. That was two years ago, when the Iraqi Kurds, who occupy a semiautonomous region in the country’s north, were desperate to bring in Americans. They wanted U.S. companies to help explore their massive oil fields. Just as important, they understood that U.S. citizens such as Collins offered a measure of protection in the event that Iraq began to disintegrate.
As Kurdish Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani, using a common acronym for the Islamic State, explained: “While ISIS was in Mosul, nobody cared. While ISIS moved on to Baghdad, nobody cared. But the moment ISIS moved on Kurdistan, the U.S. cared.”
American oil companies had invested billions of dollars in rigs and drilling contracts in Kurdistan that in early August were suddenly at grave risk. So, too, were American lives. Within 48 hours of the Islamic State’s advance on Irbil, the U.S. military was dropping bombs.
“And that,” Talabani said, “is unprecedented.”
Collins works days as the office manager for a small oil company, but her passion is Irbil’s nighttime social scene. She helps oversee EPIC, which stands for Erbil Party International Circuit, an online information site for U.S. and European expats that has grown to about 12,000 members and organizes events such as quiz night and beer pong tournaments to benefit Syrian refugees.
Until recently, Collins was the co-host of the “EPIC Power Hour” on a local radio station. On Thursday afternoons — the beginning of the weekend here — her voice would float out over this city of ancient mosques and half-finished high rises with song dedications, shout-outs and advice on the best places to party. The show came to an end when she and friends got into an argument with the station owner over the relative effectiveness of the Kurdish pesh merga and Iraqi army forces.
Her latest project is a glossy new expat lifestyle magazine for Kurdistan. Publication, originally scheduled for September, was delayed when her printers fled Iraq for Beirut. They are back now, Collins said, and the 5,000-copy launch is imminent.
Collins’s longest-running gig in Irbil is hosting quiz night. “My baby,” she calls it. Tonight there are seven teams — about 60 people, up from two dozen the previous week.
A hand taps Collins gently on the shoulder. Her glass of white wine has gone warm, and Ayas Murad, 25, T Bar’s assistant manager, is standing just behind her with a freshly chilled replacement.
Like most of the staff at the sports bar, Murad is a Yazidi, a practitioner of a pre-Islamic faith whose adherents were targeted by the Islamic State fighters. During the August onslaught, when more than 10,000 Yazidis were trapped on a remote mountaintop, about half of the bar’s staff left to help their families escape. To the world, it was a humanitarian crisis; at T Bar, it was also a management challenge. “You couldn’t fire them because there was a genocide with their people happening,” said T Bar’s manager. “But you also had a business to run.”
Now the Yazidis are off the mountain, living in refugee camps, and Murad is weaving past tables full of $12 burgers and $8 plates of chicken wings. Someone calls out to him for a Corona with lime; someone else wants a check. Murad nods to his customers. He’s headed for the bar to mix up trays of multi-hued Stolichnaya vodka shots that quiz night contestants down between rounds.
Collins looks at her list of questions. A yellow rose tattoo, a tribute to her grandmother and her Texas roots, peeks through one of her sandals. “What part of the human body shares its name with a punctuation mark?” she asks. “Hint: It’s a bit of a rude one.” The teams whisper to each other and scribble down answers.
Sometimes Collins finds it hard to believe that it has been only a few weeks since Kurdish pesh merga forces ceded the nearby cities of Makhmur and Gweir to radical Islamist fighters, setting off panic in Irbil. On that night, rumors swirled that the main checkpoint south of the city had been overrun and that radical jihadists were headed toward Irbil’s Christian district, a few minutes’ drive from Collins’s home.
Collins and some friends who work in the private security industry began planning for the worst. Most airlines were canceling inbound flights, and seats on the few planes headed out of the country were selling out fast. If the pesh merga couldn’t keep the insurgents back from Irbil, Collins and her friends decided they would flee north via back roads to the Turkish border.
Instead the enemy assault stalled, and now Collins is circulating among the seven quiz night teams, asking if they need her to repeat any questions. Murad follows closely behind with his tray of shots. She snatches a drink and throws it back. Her body gives a quick shudder as the iridescent blue liquid slides down her throat.
The teams trade their quiz sheets for scoring. Collins reads off the answers and officiates disputes. A British woman insists that a giraffe’s tongue is really more gray than blue.
“All right, I’ll give it to you,” she says.
A few feet away, an Iraqi Kurd who works in the warehouse at the U.S. Consulate complains about his stalled application for permanent U.S. residency.
“At least they didn’t reject you,” an American oil executive tells him. “I have a friend who waited seven years. You just have to be patient.”
“Iraq is all trouble,” the Kurd mutters. “Everywhere is bad. It’s just big trouble. I just want to change everything.”
Collins, meanwhile, is asking one last question — a tie-breaker — as the contest nears its end. “How many points are there on the sun on the Kurdish flag?” she asks.
“Twenty-one,” someone yells, and as Collins pronounces that team the winner, Murad hands them their prize: two bottles of Stoli vodka.
Collins sits at a table and tallies the night’s take, to be donated to a charity that provides aid to Iraqi and Syrian refugees. She’s just finished counting out $259 when an oil executive slips her a $100 bill. Murad cranks up the music and Collins offers the donor a quick thanks, her voice barely audible over the growing din.
Another quiz night is done, but Collins isn’t ready for the evening to end. She and a group of friends grab their purses and prepare to head to their cars, parked near the concrete shell of an unfinished shopping mall that since August has been home to about 700 Christian refugees.
Inside T Bar, the lights dim and Murad turns up the music even louder. Outside, near the entrance to the makeshift refugee shelter, a middle-aged man is bent over filling two five-gallon water jugs with a hose. Clutching the containers, he carefully walks a narrow metal beam that bridges a sewage puddle. Where he goes depends on his village. Families from Karemlesh and Bartella fill the top two levels. Refugees from Qaraqosh, the last to arrive, are staying in the fetid and often flooded basement.
Collins and her friends spill out onto the sidewalk just as the man disappears inside. Soon they are in their cars weaving through Irbil’s chaotic traffic, passing black banners memorializing pesh merga fighters killed in recent days on the front lines.
At traffic lights, Syrian children — part of the initial wave of refugees into Irbil two years ago — swirl around Collins’s car begging for spare change.
Many of the Syrians’ faces have become familiar to her, including the skinny kid with a chipped tooth who hovers just a few feet away. He pulls back his hand, slaps the car window and screams an expletive in English. Collins’s friend, who is driving, hits the gas and the car jerks forward.
A few minutes later they park and take the elevator to Sky Bar on the roof of the 10-story Noble Hotel. Collins gazes out at the city. Building lights sparkle. Traffic surges along a new six-lane highway built with revenue from foreign oil contracts. The chaos and tragedy of Iraq, which sometimes make her feel so helpless, fade.
She orders another round of drinks. The night is still young; the Islamic State fighters are nowhere to be seen. Time for karaoke.