The Next Great Travel Show Might Be About Hanging Out with Bros in Iraq

Adam Valen Levinson is filming a pilot episode of Kurdistan.
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Adam Valen Levinson is filming a pilot episode of Kurdistan.
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History reads like one long refutation of that great Gandhi quote: "All men are brothers." But the crescendos of empire and the buzz and bump of life on the street are two different tunes and Adam Valen Levinson believes in harmony. That's why the young journalist, a veteran of countless trips across the Middle East, decided to bring together a like-minded group of videographers and producers to film the pilot episode of "BROS," a travel show he hopes will demonstrate that, fundamentally, even dudes in desperate circumstances and tough neighborhoods can get along. He filmed the pilot in Iraq because of course he did.

The show follows him on a journey through Kurdistan, a region thick with legends and fresh memories of loss. In Erbil, the city Saddam spent two decades systematically victimizing, Levinson was greeted as a fellow traveler even as ISIS massed for an assault - one that, thankfully, never came. Levinson, the not-so-quiet American, savors the calm. Then he gets a drink.

"Nearly everywhere on Earth, there are groups of young dudes chilling, shooting the shit, talking about girls, about their goals in life and the challenges in their way," he says, insisting that there's not much more to it than that. Guys are guys.

Did he find what he thought he'd find in Iraq? Pretty much, but he found some other stuff too (including a ludicrous number of ferris wheels). Levinson talked to Maxim from the road, which is more or less where the guy is going to live if his show gets picked up.

Why shoot a television show in literally the least convenient place on Earth?

We actually picked northern Iraq for the pilot because it was a great example of a place where the reputation and the reality seemed really far apart. It’s scored off the charts on the Mom Test — when I said 'northern Iraq' or 'Iraqi Kurdistan' to my mom, she freaked out. But from stories of friends that had been there, it sounded like an incredibly welcoming and peaceful and beautiful region with an ancient history and one of the best condiments you’ll ever find to put on kebab. 

And then the threat level took a serious turn, and ISIS threatened the Kurdish capital in Erbil. But the goal didn’t change: to see what the place was really like. The reputation had gotten even worse, but what did that mean for the feelings on the ground? It was a real put-our-money-where-our-mouths-are moment. The first American airstrikes launched the day we flew out of New York.

How did you get there?

We took a one-stop flight as comfy as could be with our airline sponsor Royal Jordanian, grabbed a couple of bottles from the Erbil airport duty free, and waltzed right into Kurdistan.

And how were you treated once you were there?

Since 2003, Americans are kinds of minor celebrities in Northern Iraq. Saddam was no friend to the Kurds, and his ouster meant the end of decades of oppression and genocide. The airstrikes against ISIS brought in a lot of goodwill as well — a new trend in the capital is taxis with American flag upholstery on the seats. We got discounts at hotels and nothing but smiles every time we said where we were from. A lot of people called me Obama.

We just have to recognize that, especially in places where there is little personal interaction with people from our country, we’re in the role of mini-ambassadors — sometimes you get invited to parties, and sometimes you get grilled.

That doesn't mean you felt safe.

The tensest moment was our first day in Iraq. The news had reported ISIS had made it as close as 18 miles from the city on our airplane tickets, and it was unclear whether or not the first airstrikes were going to prevent them from advancing. Over Twitter, they had said things like 'We will pray the morning prayer in Erbil,' and the city panicked, the streets were empty at night, and a number of people made moves to flee for the north. But when we landed on August 10th, Kurdish military forces had reclaimed territory, the city felt relaxed and festive, and without the TVs on it would have been nearly impossible to know anything had ever been out of order. 

Maybe the most telling part about it is how many people say, 'We are used to this.' The Kurdish history in northern Iraq is so pockmarked with threats of violence that they seem to address the issue with a kind of real forbearance.

Was there any sense that there might be a fight brewing?

The general attitude was something like: 'If they come anywhere near me, I’m going to fight them so hard they won’t know what hit ‘em.' We heard that from old men in the bazaar and gangly dudes at the late-night sheep intestine place. One of our new buddy’s said his threshold was ten kilometers from his house. But really, after that brief moment of panic in early August, people started saying again that Iraqi Kurdistan would be safe no matter what.

Was there anything that really shocked you about being there?

The level of commercial development in northern Iraq is also running at a pretty insane pace — we stayed for some nights in the luxurious Titanic Hotel and Spa, where you can have pomegranate juice by the sauna and spicy curries or a glass of scotch in the terrace garden overlooking the city while a cover band belts out Pink Floyd.

That sound glamorous, but maybe that's being flippant about it. What's the broader point here?

We aren’t on the ground to be war tourists or danger jockeys or to make people go, 'You’re so brave!' We’d rather everyone said, 'Oh, it isn’t really crazy at all to go to a place like this.' The gorgeous mountains of central Afghanistan feel completely different than other parts of the country; the bizarre islands off the southern coast of Iran are not do-not-pass-go trips to prisons in Tehran; Nicaragua is way more overrun with ceviche than with terrorists.

It’s a lot like that terrible hesitation on a diving board — the water looks cold, and you want to jump but you just can’t make yourself do it. And then somehow you trick yourself off the board, and the water is completely invigorating, and you wonder why the jump seemed like such a big deal at all.