Every Friday at dinner time, a spry-looking Uncle Sam — stovepipe hat, stars-and-stripes suit, surprisingly brown beard — dances his way around the 11 sprawling buffet stations of ABC Restaurant. He twirls past a steakhouse featuring mounted longhorns, wagon wheels, and wood-paneled walls lined with U.S. license plates; a neon-accented diner serving fast food; and a McDonald’s-style playground. Children mob the costumed figure, squealing with delight. Parents laugh, whipping out phones to capture the moment. It’s all-American, family-friendly dining — in Iraq.
With a flagship 1,800-seat location in the city of Erbil and a second 800-seat location in Sulaimani (also spelled Sulaymaniyah), ABC is one of Iraq’s most popular restaurant brands, with often busy dining rooms, large social media followings, and billboards all over. Families and friend groups across sectarian lines — Kurds, Arabs, Christians — flock to the restaurant. The offerings are immense, with over 600 dishes, including Turkish kofta, Iranian tahdig, and Italian American spaghetti. Guests pile their plates with steak, one of the most popular offerings, and Instagram their sushi, which ABC is largely credited with introducing to Kurdistan.
A sense of wholesome kitsch pervades the restaurant, which is split into internationally themed sections across a sprawling, mall-like space. It’s like an indoor version of Epcot’s World Showcase, though in this case, even the areas not explicitly mimicking America depict other parts of the world as if seen through rose-colored American sunglasses. The “authentic Italian” section sports faux cast-iron street lamps, brick walls, Italian flag pillows, and paintings of tourist attractions like the Colosseum. There’s a Mediterranean fish spot that wouldn’t look out of place in New England. The same goes for the restaurant’s foreign dishes, which bear the stamp of Americanization; the sushi, for instance, mostly consists of California rolls with artificial crab, Philadelphia rolls sporting cream cheese, and Alaska rolls with salmon — though nigiri does make an occasional appearance.
In ABC’s fantasy — in which Uncle Sam oversees culinary offerings from China, Mexico, and Japan — America stands in for a modern, globalized community. This isn’t a novel concept; businesses in emerging markets often emulate the U.S. in order to appear internationally integrated, equating Americanization with globalization. But the way this emulation plays out at ABC is entirely unique, capitalizing on northern Iraq’s distinct sociopolitical climate, Erbil’s thirst for international visibility, and the endurance of American soft power. Ultimately, ABC is a testament to how people around the world interpret currents like globalization and Americanization according to their own surroundings and desires, transforming the global into the local and personal.
ABC Restaurant Group started in the Netherlands, after a Dutch restaurateur named Eric Meurs was inspired by a family trip to a Golden Corral in Florida. “My dad thought, ‘Wow, we have got to have one of these in Holland,’” says Maarten Meurs, Eric’s son and the current CEO of ABC Restaurant Group. In 2000, ABC opened its first location in the Dutch town of Velp. With its all-you-can-eat concept and unabashedly American decor, it quickly grew in popularity, jumping from an initial 150 seats to 500 in 2010 and then to its current size of 750 seats and eight buffet stations, a huge footprint in a town with a population of 18,000.
ABC Velp began attracting customers from near and far, including an Iraqi Christian named Nawzad Martani, who stumbled upon the restaurant in 2013 to celebrate his brother’s birthday. Just like Eric Meurs, Martani was impressed. “I found something special, beautiful, and new. I thought, ‘We should bring this idea to Iraq, to Kurdistan,’” he says. Martani contacted Meurs, who at first thought he was being pranked for Bananasplit, the Dutch version of Candid Camera. But as Meurs and Martani conversed over the next few months, the prospect of opening an Iraqi ABC seemed less wild.
Martani wanted to open ABC’s first Iraqi location in his home of Erbil, capital of northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Although officially part of Iraq, Kurdistan has a high degree of autonomy, with its own parliament, presidency, armed forces, and border checkpoints sporting the flag of Kurdistan instead of the federal Iraqi flag.
Northern Iraq at large has a simultaneously storied and fraught multiethnic history, with Sunni Arabs, Shi’a Arabs, Turkmen, Christians, and other minorities like the Yazidis living alongside each other. Much of the region’s population are Kurds, often described as the world’s largest ethnic group without their own independent state, who were persecuted to the point of genocide under Saddam Hussein. When the U.S. (along with the U.K. and France) established a no-fly zone over their territory following the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi Kurds leveraged the situation to create the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG); the 2003 U.S. invasion allowed the KRG to further assert its autonomy. Since then, the region has enjoyed relative stability, and become one of the more pro-American parts of the Middle East (although its autonomy from the federal Iraqi government may be changing).
After inking the franchise agreement, Meurs flew to Erbil in 2014 to collaborate with Martani on constructing the restaurant — only to hurriedly evacuate when ISIS’s lightning takeover of northern Iraq advanced within 25 miles of Erbil. The restaurant finally opened in December 2017. Meurs was initially skeptical about using one of ABC’s two Uncle Sam costumes in the Erbil location, but general manager David Kurdi had an intuition that local customers would love the character. The restaurant and Sam were immediate and enduring hits. According to Martani and Meurs, over 2,000 people visited on the first day, and the Uncle Sam costume has been worn thin by ecstatic children since.
ABC managed to tap into a growing professional middle class in the region, which has partly been fueled by American influence. Over the past 20 years, conflicts — including the U.S. invasion, the fall of Mosul to ISIS in 2014, and the subsequent war against ISIS — have brought waves of migration into Erbil and the rest of Kurdistan, including many multiethnic professionals. Combined with rising oil revenues and active efforts by local Kurdish authorities to cultivate foreign investment, this influx of a professional class has made Erbil into a regional business hub. Along with the resources necessary to afford ABC’s price tag, around $25 (30,000 Iraqi dinars in Erbil, 25,000 in Sulaimani), these residents have more exposure to non-Iraqi cultures, giving them a hunger for international offerings. In addition to ABC, English pubs and wine bars have also popped up in Erbil’s stylish shopping centers.
As Erbil cultivated a market for international businesses, ABC established a reputation among domestic travelers and Erbil’s more worldly residents as the place to satisfy the itch of wanderlust within Kurdistan. “When we’re in Erbil, we must go to ABC and see what the hype is all about. It’s like when you go to Dubai and try Saltbae’s restaurant,” says Abdulrahman Alsulaiman, a secondary school student who has traveled to ABC multiple times from his hometown of Mosul, a three-hour car ride away.
“Especially if you have family members who’ve traveled extensively or are familiar with different cuisines and traditions, you’ll want a place with a variety of options, where each family member can enjoy their favorite dish. ABC has something for all ages,” adds Alsulaiman’s father Ehsan Ali, a U.S.-educated computer science expert who previously worked for the United Nations Development Programme.
The restaurant’s international offerings go beyond the food. It has also specifically hired chefs from around the world: Ukraine, Nepal, the Philippines, India, and beyond. These chefs’ expertise in their own cuisines isn’t the point; they’re not necessarily cooking the foods of their homelands. Their presence alone is a selling point. “What sets us apart from other restaurants is that we have many foreign faces — the people from Holland supervising, chefs from Ukraine,” Martani says. The diverse staff may appeal to what certain Arab commentators call the “khawaja complex,” in which people prize foreign products and talent above local ones. “When some customers see these foreign faces, they’ll feel validated in their choice to dine with us,” Martani adds.
While many have found ABC an easy way to show off luxury, Kurdistan’s distribution of wealth remains extremely uneven and precarious. Youth unemployment is high, the government sometimes isn’t able to pay salaries to workers, and many Kurds are migrating abroad. Even as ABC emphasizes its international team as a selling point, the economic situation has forced the restaurant to walk a thin line. Kurdistan and Iraq at large have seen controversies over the proliferation of migrant labor; though other countries like the UAE have seen similar trends, such practices in Iraq recall the U.S. military’s history of using “third-country national” contractors during the Iraq War. Kurdi emphasizes that, even with the international chefs behind the buffet line, at least 65 percent of the restaurant’s employees are locals, and that ABC treats all employees according to international standards.
Despite the financial disparity between ABC’s wealthiest customers and many Erbil residents, the restaurant remains an aspirational choice for more budget-conscious consumers. ABC offers a relatively accessible way to both fulfill and signal aspirations around wealth. Compared to the U.S., buffet-style meals in Iraq are relatively rare and special. Hotels or exclusive high-end restaurants may offer them seasonally or provide a spread of local food like rice and grilled meats for holidays like Eid al-Fitr. ABC allows patrons to partake in that kind of abundance — and show off their access to international cuisines on social media — without waiting for a holiday or schmoozing their way into a fancy venue. That year-round luxury has clicked with customers; Uncle Sam used to only show up at holidays, but now he’s a weekly Friday night tradition due to popular demand.
And the upfront pricing still appeals to people trying to uphold traditional dynamics around hospitality. “In the Middle East and North Africa, there’s a culture of invitation where you take people to restaurants, and it’s like a demonstration of one’s dignity to pay for everyone at the end,” says Khadija El Alaoui, an assistant professor at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), who specializes in American studies and international relations. “In that situation, you might be worried that someone will eat a lot, and you can’t pay for it. So even if 25,000 dinars might seem like a lot of money, at least you know from the very beginning whether you can afford it or not.”
With its themed decor, costumed Uncle Sam, and status as a travel destination for families, ABC has all the hallmarks of a theme park. The similarities go deeper, though. The restaurant is the culinary embodiment of Disneyization, a sociological concept that describes how modern consumption opportunities worldwide have emulated the principles of Disney theme parks.
“Like Disneyland, ABC embodies family-friendly fun and presents an idealized version of different cultures that’s filtered through an American lens,” says Tobin Hartnell, an associate professor in the social sciences at AUIS. “This kind of safe but novel environment empowers visitors to pursue their fantasies and aspirations, if only for a moment. At ABC, customers can imagine themselves as affluent and ‘global’ individuals, in part by having experiences that people in the West also have.”
This certainly aligns with how Kurdi and Martani think about the restaurant. While some ABC customers might come to repeat personal experiences they’ve had abroad, not all patrons are widely traveled. For those who haven’t had the chance, Kurdi sees ABC akin to an embassy of cosmopolitanism with a mission to familiarize visitors with “international” ways of life. Kurdi spent over a decade in Taiwan earning master’s degrees in computer engineering and international business, working for multinational tech companies, and nurturing a passion for cross-cultural exchange. “[Part of why Nawzad and I are doing this buffet] is to show people how we live abroad,” he says.
It’s a mission that resonates with some customers. “If you’re not able to travel and want to experience different cultures, it’s like the next best thing,” says Harleen Love, a half-Kurdish half-Arab freelancer and aspiring pharmacist.
Kurdi and Martani even see the all-you-can-eat buffet as a kind of global instruction. In the restaurant’s early days, the concept was novel to most customers, and they tended to grab more food than they could eat, leading to massive food waste. Martani says people threw out 80 percent of the food in ABC Erbil’s first week. Kurdi and Martani saw this phenomenon of waste as contrary to their personal vision of “global” behavior, and used creative ways to combat it. Hosts next to the cashier explain the concept to diners, and TVs throughout the restaurant remind customers, in Arabic, English, and Turkish, not to waste food — including references to the Bible and a common saying around Ramadan: The eyes are hungrier than the mouth.
However, El Alaoui suggests ABC isn’t just a product of unidirectional cultural imposition from the United States.
“My favorite geographer, Doreen Massey, says instead of ‘roots’ we should talk about ‘routes,’” says El Alaoui. Working alongside scholars like Himadeep Muppidi and Arjun Appadurai, Massey characterizes globalization as an interaction of continuing, multidirectional flows. In this frame, it’s unfairly exoticizing to expect individuals in the Global South to avoid emulating the West and adhere to some artificial notion of cultural distinctiveness. As Massey argues, the meaning of “global” can depend on context, and “locals” find a way to shape the “global” to fit their personal lives and aspirations.
Since ABC showed up, that context has shifted for business owner Rawsht Abubakr, who has already outpaced some of the restaurant’s offerings. “ABC was the first restaurant in Kurdistan that offered sushi. It was exotic, and something you could easily Instagram,” Abubakr says. “Now I wish the Asian food section had more dishes than just sushi. I love Asian culture, and I’d like to learn more about Asian food.” As customers incorporate global cuisines into their own diets, ABC has propelled a restaurant scene that has outgrown its progenitor; several former employees have gone on to open sushi restaurants around Erbil.
Ultimately, just as visitors to Disneyland usually aren’t mulling the complexities of capitalism whilst riding Space Mountain, most customers aren’t actively thinking about American cultural imperialism when they dine at ABC Restaurant. Patrons flock to ABC for basic, human reasons. They want to bond with family and friends in a safe, welcoming environment. They want to explore. They want to enjoy life and feel like dignified members of a community both global and local.
To Americans, it may seem odd that Uncle Sam dancing around an American buffet has become so popular in Iraq; it’s easy to broadly assume the entire country would try to reject further influence from the United States given the history of conflict. Maarten Meurs still visits Florida on a regular basis, and says that Americans who hear about ABC often react with disbelief. But the diners of northern Iraq have made Uncle Sam — along with steak, sushi, and a McDonald’s playground — into something of their own. Rather than seeing Uncle Sam as just the symbol of an American nightmare, they’ve hired him as a mascot for Iraqi and Kurdish dreams.
Fatimah Fadhil is an Iraqi American student on a mission to become a cultural ambassador, one cup of coffee (or tea) at a time.
Anthony Kao is a writer who focuses on international affairs and cultural criticism, especially in relation to locales with contested senses of nationhood. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Cinema Escapist, a publication that explores the sociopolitical context behind global film and television.