By Jyotsna Singh
[ For Part I of my trip to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2012 on Chapati Mystery, see here.]
Journey to Dohuk
We fly into Erbil (called Hawler by the locals) on a bright, late afternoon. The gleaming marble airport is hubbub with activity and people, including lots of security guards milling about. The drive to another Kurdish city of Dohuk leads us through bright vistas, gradually closer into the hazy pink and yellow terrain of the low Dohuk hills.1 Our host, who drives us in his spacious American van, makes pleasant conversation. Almost everyday in the past few months, news from Iraq inevitably describes bombings, random violence, and sectarian conflict in Southern Iraq, often in Baghdad, but also in other cities closer to Kurdistan, such as Mosul and Kirkuk; thus, as we drive by small road-side communal clusters of shops, with trinkets and steel dishes hanging below canopies, small car repair hubs, trucks passing by, and at frequent intervals, mounds of water melons piled up for sale along the road side, this normalcy seems to make that other news seem surreal.
We drive by road signs, pointing the other way, proclaiming the cities we are not visiting: Baghdad, Mosul, etc. and we stop, as last year, by frequent check posts manned by young, personable, utterly non-threatening men, who few times, ask our driving host who we are, muttering “Amreeki” and once or twice even as we take out our passports, they wave us forward — often with that Kurdish gesture of courtesy, of holding the right hand to your heart on the left side. This signal of the hand to the heart for me seems to sum up the dominant affect of social interactions in Kurdistan.
Dohuk at early dusk, the sun is still bright and the Dilshad Palace hotel re-emerges as our destination. A stately family-owned hotel with a long swathe of marble steps, terraced gardens with benches, and the interior lobby furnished in gold, faux leather, and marble. The empty swimming pool at the back, with ornate garden sculptures has apparently never functioned or been used and the gym is in poor conditions. The two restaurants, one that serves alcohol, seem busier on this trip. If a year ago, we saw no Westerners, we encounter several men with American accents dining in the restaurant. My American colleagues have heard that a Sheraton hotel is scheduled to open in Dohuk soon, one with a functioning gym no doubt! In the semiotic universe under the marker of “development,” a Sheraton signals a familiar, world-wide sense of normalcy to many Americans!
The Kurdish autonomous region is strategic in a region of fraught geo-politics, surrounded by Syria, Southern Iraq, Turkey and Iran. Ripples of events across these borders are felt in Dohuk; our first day, we hear of Syrian Kurdish refugees coming across the border; the Syrians are in refugee camps, one in close by Zakho; some have come to Dohuk looking for employment, creating “some petty crimes,” one Arab friend notes, but more generally stoking unnamed anxieties among the population. A pleasant young woman at the hotel desk is chatty and tells me she is Syrian and had just come over the border recently. On the other front, we also hear of contacts and movement between KAR and Turkey; “buses regularly go to Diyarbakir” (the big Kurdish city on the border) our hosts tell us, and we hear of the new overtures to Kurds from the Turkish government. In terms of Iran, many young Kurdish friends we meet in the university lived in or were even born in Iran as refugees during Saddam Hussein’s rule; thus they are often bi-lingual in Kurdish and Farsi and have familial ties across the border.
The Kurdistan Development Imaginary
Development is very real in the KAR; one has only to observe the signs of proliferating construction sites all over the city, the advertisements and publicity for development projects in Erbil and Dohuk, and a general sense of a busy life of cars, shops, and people. But part of this edifice of development is also a kind of imagined community of a de facto nation/territory that Western corporations and the KAR government mutually reinforce as a wish fulfillment: this is the “safe” Iraq that the American invasion had promised, and it offers lucrative business in oil and construction, among other things. On Day 2, some of us attend a well-publicized Career Fair, hosted by the University of Dohuk, with corporate and government sponsors, and attended by the chief diplomatic officer from the US consulate in Erbil as well as by a representative of the British Council, and a former Minister of Kurdistan, a glamorous intelligent woman who presents a power-point on development in the region (see photo). The general audience consists of many recent graduates, young men and women. We enter a grand convention center – all marble and bright lights. Tables are lined up in the lobby with glossy brochures and publicity packets from the government and entities like oil exploration companies. The program lists panels on “Expat Experiences and Successful Business Stories,” “Future Jobs in Kurdistan,” and “C.V and job interview preparation”(run by the British Council rep.), among others.
As our group from Michigan State listens to the opening round of introductions, we note a young-ish woman enter with a big, bulked-up man behind her; we are told she is the Public diplomacy Officer from the US Consulate accompanied by her security detail. She is the face of the US government, and I was interested in how she represents the US in a region that is the “New Iraq”! We are initially given headphones for simultaneous translation, but soon thereafter, a young organizer takes them back and we are to have a live translator on the stage, translating from Kurdish to English and vice versa. Kurdish sounds sibilant and rich, even softer than Farsi, and of course less guttural than Arabic. Watching the soft-voiced man (a local academic I think) translate from the two languages (in a lightly accented English) was distinctly pleasant. Most of the opening speeches are set pieces of self-promotion for the university, but we are pleased to hear “Michigan State University” in the mix.
Then comes the big moment of the US Diplomat’s speech, a direct address to the graduates in the hall. She deploys a familiar American genre of a commencement address, recalling her own experiences of student life and career trajectory of joining the state department via a very competitive process in which percentages for success are not high. She has a pleasant, breezy delivery, a moment of droll humor occurs in a colloquial breakdown, when she bonds with the students, saying, “I sat where you sit;” (the translator is flummoxed: ‘Sat/Sit? What is that?). The only time the audience laughs!
She apologizes at the outset for not speaking the local dialect of Kurdish (so I assume she is familiar with other variants). Overall, I am struck by a lack of reference to any aspect of the culture or history of Kurdistan – or to specific experiences of students from Kurdistan. As her sources for three inspirational quotes, she draws on Ronald Reagan, Condoleeza Rice, and the basketball star, Michael Jordan! (I am afraid I did not transcribe the quotes, but they all dealt with finding success under challenging odds). I can imagine that the students may be familiar with Michael Jordan’s name, but what about the other names? Is she giving a safe speech with no risky boundary crossings? No partaking of native customs?
In striking contrast to the US diplomat, the British Council representative, also in the gathering, (and with whom we had struck up a conversation earlier) shows all the markers of an Oxbridge, class-inflected education, but coupled with a solid knowledge of the area. He has lived in Syria for several years, knew both Arabic and some Kurdish, and seems adept in recognizing cultural cues! American, liberal good intentions versus a seemingly Orientalist education! Which is more effective?
The Facebook Generation
Our task in Dohuk is to conduct workshops on curriculum design, text selection, lesson plans, etc. with the English literature faculty, who are mostly young-ish men and women (with 1-2 exceptions) in their 20s. Most of them are the equivalent of our graduate student lecturers with MA degrees. A few senior men with Ph.D. degrees sit in too. What is quite uncanny and curious is that through all the upheavals, dictatorships, and wars, the basic British (including some American) canonical texts have thrived in English literature syllabi across Iraqi universities! Several universities across Iraq, for example Mosul, Baghdad, Sulaimaniya, among others, have awarded degrees of MA in English with such texts for many years. Students at Dohuk (like their professors) all read the basic fare of Shakespeare, Dryden, Fielding, Pope, Dickens etc. although with a heavy dependence on on-line notes and aids. Among the participants is a wonderful, urbane senior scholar who has many philosophical reflections and a great knowledge of Western literatures to add. He was (we learnt) a former Minister in the early post-Saddam government in Baghdad.
Our workshop discussions are lively and often with divided opinions among the lecturers, with some fault lines between men and women (Photos). The aim currently is to begin with simpler, short texts and build their language skills before they venture to canonical works, and include some works culturally relevant to the region, such as some works by Kurdish writers who translate into English. The central issue (as in the US) that emerges concerns the value of literature in general, and specifically of text selection. The stronger differences occur over including texts with explicit sexual content, depictions of homosexuality, or of negative actions ascribed to some Muslims (as in The Kite Runner). One woman recounts how a male student had asked some questions on different sexual orientations, and some women students complained about her class. Other members (men and women) said that sexuality and other “uncomfortable” issues were already available to students on the internet, so they may as well confront these topics head long in their classes! Their worries do seem to have some religious inflections, but are also tinged by a general sense of respectability especially as concerning women faculty and students.
Our diligent IREX representative also called an open group meeting inviting all English faculty with us. Some good questions emerged and she was genial, but given her limited time, could mostly check boxes on her paperwork; one could see how the administrative language of “outcomes” –rather than more informal interactions with tea (?) shapes the vision of development work.
At present Dohuk has only one cinema, which no one we met had ever visited. In Erbil, three hours, away, cinemas in shopping malls seem popular with some of our population. After being invited to become face book friends with several junior lecturers, I see, among things, a popular response to the film “The Great Gatsby” showing in Erbil. One young man writes touchingly in the conversation tag, “This is the first time I have seen a film in a movie theatre”!
Facebook (we all express cynicism about it) is obviously an important forum, though some women who have FB pages do not depict any images of them selves (and did not want me to publish them in this memoir). Their FB pages display lots of activity, often in the Kurdish script, with some English links; some local topics include sports and music, and comments and pictures of the outing of friends to see The Great Gatsby. On other pages one can find more political content like a slogan on a Kurdish flag that proclaims: “There is no northern Iraq.”
Quite striking to me are the generational differences between older (administrators in their 50s and older) and younger men (in their early 30s and younger) in terms of affect, style, and interactions with women of all ages. The latter seem more comfortable and familiar with women in all kinds of friendly/social situations. Friendships seem to abound among the young men and women in the department. I jokingly make this observation to one of the young men and ask why they are different; he replies “We are the Face book generation; we see the larger world”!
Imagining the Kurdish “Nation”
Kurdish flags festoon every building, corner stores, university and government buildings, and are also sold as souvenirs –replicas in gold and silver – in the Souk. Images of Mustapha Barzani “the father” of the Kurdish peoples are ubiquitous – in varying stages of his life (photos), sometimes depicted with his son, the current KAR President Masood Barzani. All students are required to study Kurdish culture and society, under the label of “Kurdology,” and Kurdish music and language seem to bind the communities.
Here I want to pay special tribute to the local hospitality of Kurdistan! Is it just the generically Middle Eastern/ Muslim emphasis on the centrality of sharing food as a marker of community? Coming from South Asia, I am familiar with hospitality (mehmaan nawazi in Farsi and Urdu), and of a Mehmaan or Mehvaan (guest in Kurdish), but the absolute excess of Kurdistan hospitality makes every meal (even in the campus cafeteria) a veritable feast of a seemingly endless sequence of dishes (excess of variety and service) followed by tea and baklawa of many kinds. In our food-obsessed culture (especially on the media) in the West, however, the ethos of such excess as well of feeding visitors (especially from afar) seem quite marginal to the production of meals in special (often expensive) settings!
Overall, one is led to ask: is there some Kurdish identity, heading toward a de facto Kurdish nation in Northern Iraq? We are often reminded that the population consists of Christians, Arabs, Kurds, and Yezidis (a regional sect and a wonderful vibrant community akin to Zorastrians in some ways). Among many Arabs we meet, they seem to be happy to find refuge in the KAR away from the dangerous cities like Mosul. A young Arab woman who teaches in a nearby university and has a Ph.D. from Europe tells me that her parents and other family members live in Mosul, but she is happy to live in the Kurdish region, where she is not expected to wear a hijab. When in Mosul, she has to fully cover, as there are some conservative Islamic elements. For my American friends seeing women in hijab signals religious coercion, but (as I wrote in my earlier memoir) the young women in Kurdistan are quite remarkable in their beauty, sexual affect, participation in education, some moving to cities away from their families and taking up jobs, and many Muslim women varying their styles of covering or uncovering their hair. I do hear about instances of men taking more than one wife among Muslims, though it does not seem commonplace. Interestingly, I am told of one educated professional woman in her thirties who agrees to be a second wife to a university dignitary as the number of single men gets limited then. Perhaps, a not too unfamiliar problem for women in other parts of the world too?
Other young Kurdish people we meet came from the diaspora – having fled to Iran, for instance, or return from forced exile to Southern Iraq. One woman in the university tells me that her family (when she was young) was forcibly uprooted to Ramadi in the South and only few years ago were able to come back “home” again.
While the Kurdish Autonomous Region certainly offers a kind of “homecoming” for many Kurdish peoples, the world of capital flows and Western power grabs is also closing in on them! It brings a welcome opening of worlds (like FB) but also unexpected mutations in their culture no doubt. Dohuk at present has no Western hotels, banks, money ATM machines, restaurant chains, or shopping malls, including cinemas. It has wonderful family dining restaurants, a Souk with a dominant culture of buying gold, a growing university and technical schools; the Kurdish flag flies everywhere and Mustapha Barzani looks over everyone. I was just happy to partake of this moment of changes, even while we (like the Kurds) look over our shoulders at the dissonances across their borders to other countries of the Middle East!
My thanks to my friend and colleague, Salah D. Hassan, who shared many of the experiences of this trip, and whose animating presence and preparation were crucial to the success of our workshops.
- One year ago I visited the Kurdish Autonomous Region, flying into Erbil (Hawler to the locals) and spent a week in Dohuk, one of the three cities of the Kurdish governate. We were a small group of 3 friends/colleagues, working in a project via Michigan State University, for IREX (see Irex.org).
We returned this May in a larger, more official group of six: two senior administrators, three faculty, and one graduate student. Our visit also coincided with that of the representative of IREX in Dohuk. We had been in contact with several faculty members in the English Language and Literature Department at the University of Dohuk since our last visit. We were returning to conduct workshops for a new curriculum design for the literature program. [↩]