The people of Iraqi Kurdistan show us that just as much divides Kurdish people as unites them.
Trying to decipher the goings on in the Kurdish regions spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran is confusing battle of acronyms: PKK, PYG, PUKD, YPG, KNC etc etc. Each region has its own jumbles of letters representing political parties and military groups, some of whose interests cross borders to link with other groups of capital letters. Sometimes they work together, sometimes they try shooting at each other. Reading a news report from the region often requires immense concentration to avoid all the letters fuzzing into an alphabetical soup as you struggle to remember which ones which and what their interests are this week.
This confusion is just the most recent manifestation of divisions that have characterised the Kurds who have been living in the region longer than anyone, so long that the roots are disputed but certainly measured in millennia rather than mundane centuries. They themselves tend to say they are descended from the ancient Medes who ruled the region around 2500 years ago. Whilst not wanting to discredit that, it can be seen as part of their claims for independence as much as historical fact. Much of the region’s terrain is mountainous and along with clan based structures it’s hardly been a recipe for unity. Developments over the last century, such as national borders, have rarely been respected by the Kurds and who can blame them? If your ancestors had been living in a place for the best part of three thousand years, you’re not going to take kindly to some upper class British twit turning up out of the blue and telling you that half your family now live in another country and by the way we’ve installed a new King who’s never even been here before.
The Kurd’s three main dialects have little regard for borders either and there are sufficient differences in them to hinder communication. Sorani, spoken in the more south easterly territories is written in a modified Arabic script, while Kurmanji from the western regions into Syria uses this alphabet. The language itself is Persian in origin and Farsi speakers will find much in common, particularly the numbers which are almost identical.
The Persian roots also explain the existence of the Zoroastrian religion as well as the Yazidis (see previous post) in Kurdistan, although Islam has largely taken their place in recent centuries. But Kurdish Islam is far from monolithic and sometimes a source of disagreement with some of the many Syrian refugees who have fled here to escape the war. For some Syrian Kurds their Iraqi cousins are much too conservative, both religiously and socially, even some Iraqi, Arab Muslims told me the same thing. The female fighters of the Syrian Peshmerga, so beloved by the western media are not much of a thing here, you’re unlikely to even see a woman working in a shop or market stall. That’s not to say the women are in anyway under the kinds of restrictions on work and movement as those in the Gulf countries but that the traditional view of men’s and women’s roles in the family is what governs much behaviour. However, even the couple of hours journey to Suleymaniya, Kurdistan’s second city to the east of the capital Erbil, reveals a noticeably less constrained atmosphere, with many more women on the busy streets and numerous European style coffee shops, unlike the staunchly tea drinking capital.
The difference between the two cities is more than social though as they are both seats of the two main, opposing political parties: Erbil the KDP, Kurdistan Democratic Party and Suleymainiya the PUK, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Such are their animosities that in 1994 they fought a civil war that left tensions still very much alive today. Not that this should be surprising really, as historically the Kurds have always spent more time fighting each other than any of their often belligerent neighbours or empires who have come and gone over the centuries.
The dominant KDP are headed by President Barzani, who’s done a fabulous job at enriching himself and his family and is either almost worshipped by adoring followers or denounced as a crook by those who have not benefited from his handouts. The PUK are headed by Jalal Talibani, who’s done a fabulous job at enriching himself and his family and is…….etc etc. Consequently anyone forming a FLT (Fuck the Lot of Them) party would probably do quite well in the polls.
If there is one thing that all Kurds will agree on is the importance of hospitality, for the guest is indeed an honour. Any attempt to offer to pay if you go out with a Kurd is utterly futile, as personal experience has amply and consistently demonstrated. So, there was never any question that Syrian Kurds escaping the war would be given refuge but that hasn’t meant it’s all been hugs and flowers. Some told me that they felt the Syrians at times took their hospitality for granted, whilst the Syrians felt that they were only grudgingly welcomed and were particularly stung by the corruption which meant that they were often obliged to pay just to get anything official done. However, it’s hardly as if the locals aren’t affected by the corruption that blights the entire country, for example one Iraqi teacher looking for a job told me that without coughing up several thousand dollars you’d never get a teaching job in Iraq, whatever your abilities. Regardless of the merits of any of these claims, at the heart of the issue are the inherent cultural differences between the two groups which tends to fuel mistrust. I can’t be sure that my encounters were entirely representative but both sides did seem to think they were better than the other and no one reported making close friends with each other.
A common thread in Kurdish history that probably restricts the acknowledgement of their differences to a bit of grumbling much of the time, is that of persecution. Even if we limit it to to the last few decades, all of the Kurdish communities have suffered at the hands of oppressive regimes, Syria only being the latest example. Saddam Hussain’s gassing at nearby Halabja is a horror commemorated among all Kurds and during later attacks on the population many sought sanctuary in the Turkish areas. Whatever Iraqi Kurds may say about the Syrians they know that they would always be sheltered by them if events were reversed.
The history of Saddams’s repression is documented in the Amna Suraka museum in Souleymaniya, home to one of his notorious prisons. If I could use one example to sum up why this period should not be forgotten, it is in the words of a fifteen year old boy, innocent of any real crime, faintly scratched onto a cell wall, saying that the doctors have declared him to be eighteen, so as to be eligible for execution. The banality of being seen to follow the rules to add legitimacy to an atrocity only renders it more horrific.
Walking the streets of Erbil, you’d never get a sense of these tensions simmering away behind the smiles and sincere welcomes to Kurdistan, as you’d be hard pressed to find a busy capital city that’s so quiet: barely a horn would honk or a harsh voice break through the mumble of everyday business. You can bid a hearty roj bash (good day) to anyone and expect a pleasant response as you amble through the crowds without having shove. It may only be 60km to the nearest ISIS fighter making a last stand in Mosul but the city has been free of violence for years, no doubt due to the overt militarisation of society but soldiers and guns never lent an oppressive air to the scene, simply brothers in arms defending their fledgling and hopefully soon independent nation. Looking down upon the gentle hubbub and interminable fleets of cream Toyota Corrola taxis that serve as a public transport system is the ancient citadel, site of one of the oldest cities to have ever graced the planet. The restoration work plods along with little sign of urgency but what’s another decade when you’ve sat and watched empires rise and crumble too many times to count over the ages? With the ancient tenancy of the Kurds only accounting for half of its life, the citadel has seen far greater strife in its life than the current squabbles. Doubtless it will do so again but for the moment, despite the divisions, the recent stability offers at least the hope of attracting proper tourists who would rather learn of the great things Kurds have done together through the ages, instead of low budget weirdos like me rummaging through their historical dirty laundry.