“God created red meat for us to enjoy,” says Professor Sedat Akar, dean of Ishik University at Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Iraq.
Akar is wearing a navy-blue suit with a light-blue shirt and a matching tie. His grey hair is closely-clipped. He is 49 and sits proudly behind his neatly arranged desk.
Ishik University is a private university, established in 2008. It is a part of Fezalar Educational Institutions, an organization that maintains close ties with Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, an exile in the United States. Some people see Gülen as a wise man and a benefactor, others as a fundamentalist with plans to transform Turkey into an Islamic state, a man whose political ambitions extend perhaps even beyond the borders of Turkey itself.
Before the interview, I was asked not to mention the name Fethullah Gülen in my conversation with the dean. When I ask Akar, who came to Erbil from Turkey in 2010, about the university’s goals and objectives, he replies: “We are here only to educate. Good information is important. I love all people and all animals. I would not even crush an ant underfoot.”
“Are you a vegetarian?” I ask.
“That’s a different matter,” says Akar, a medical man by origin. “Red meat is a basic necessity.” As he speaks, the lights blink on and off several times.
The autonomous Kurdish part of Iraq, commonly referred to by the acronym KRG (Kurdish Regional Government), seems to be in the midst of an economic boom. The Kurdish region, in fact, is considered the “success story” of the new Iraq, relatively safe and prosperous and home to many immigrants. As early as 2010, when I traveled by car from Istanbul to Baghdad, I had been struck by the contrast between Erbil and Baghdad. Erbil was peaceful and seemed fairly Western, while Baghdad, 400 kilometers to the south, was still a combat zone.
Erbil’s brand-spanking-new airport is served by Austrian Airlines and Lufthansa with direct flights from Vienna and Frankfurt. Rising up around the city are shopping malls that cause one to suspect that the Kurds are out to give Dubaia run for its money. At various spots one sees posters announcing the “International Oil and Gas Exhibition” to be held in Erbil in December; forty percent of Iraq’s oil reserves are located in this region. There is enough under the ground here to put the Kurdish Autonomous Region in ninth place among the top ten oil-producing nations. But, almost a decade after the American invasion, the electrical network in Erbil is still not entirely up to snuff.
By the end of this year the last American troops will have left Iraq. Eight thousand American military personnel will remain in the country as trainers, and to guard the American embassy in Baghdad; at least five thousand mercenaries will take over the American soldiers’ tasks.
No one would claim that the Iraq the Americans are leaving behind is stable, not even with regard to this “successful” region. The city of Kirkuk, some one hundred kilometers south of Erbil, is still considered “disputed territory”. The Kurds say the city belongs to the Kurdish region; the other Iraqis say that it does not. According to the Iraqi constitution, a referendum should now be held to allow the inhabitants of Kirkuk to declare their allegiance one way or the other, but the referendum keeps being postponed. There are other disputed territories as well, and the oil reserves play a crucial role there as well. The Kurdish government would prefer not to share the revenues from reserves on its own territory with the federal government in Baghdad, but to deal directly with the oil companies themselves. In fact, the Kurdish government has already closed independent contracts with several smaller companies. And recently even with Exxon, a move some sources say enraged the federal government in Baghdad.
Whenever the government in Baghdad does not comply with their demands, Kurdish politicians have a tendency to threaten, more or less obliquely, with secession. But in 2008, an Iraqi diplomat of Kurdish descent told me that the only thing that could change the borders of the Middle East would be a new world war. The current borders are largely a legacy of the first one. The problem is that Kurdistan has hunkered down on the territory of five separate states: Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran and a tiny section of Armenia. The fact that Kurds in Turkey speak a different brand of Kurdish from those in Erbil only contributes to division. Visitors to the Kurdish section of Turkey cannot help but notice it is considerably poorer than the one in Iraq. The Kurds in the KRG refer to other Iraqis as “the Arabs”, sometimes with slightly disguised contempt.
The Kurdish region operates as a de facto independent state. Travelers landing at Erbil receive a visa only for the Kurdish section of Iraq. Iraqi flags are rarely seen or never. The Kurdish flag, on the other hand, is displayed all over the city. Portraits of Barzani, president of the Kurdish Region – like those of Talabani, the Kurdish president of Iraq – hang in almost every hotel lobby. The Iraqi army is not active here; that is to say, it consists of peshmergas, armed Kurdish forces.
The PKK, which fights against Turkey for an independent Kurdistan, and the PJAK, which is seen as a split-off of the PKK and is primarily engaged in a struggle against Iran on behalf of Kurdistan, both operate in and from the Kurdish Autonomous Region. In retaliation for PKK and PJAK attacks, Turkey and Iran regularly bombard these movements’ camps. The Kurdish government nevertheless maintains good relations with Turkey, which is a major investor in the region.
During my visit to the Kurdish section of Iraq, I am accompanied by Nian Bakal, a journalist who was born in Kirkuk but grew up in Erbil, and who fled to Netherlands, for political reasons, with her family at the age of eight. She vividly recalls the civil war that raged in 1994 between the KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party), led by Barzani, and Talabani’s PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). That war lasted until 1996 and claimed five thousand lives. Barzani called in Saddam’s help to drive Talabani out of Erbil. The area around Erbil remained in Barzani’s hands, while Talabani was allotted the area around Sulaymaniya, Kurdistan’s second city. These two parties dominate the region’s political and economic life even today. They have their own militias and their own intelligence services. The difference between a political party and a clan here is marginal indeed.
In a little classroom at Ishik University, Professor Bayan Salim Al-Núman welcomes us with the words: “I’m sorry, but I am an Arab.”
Al-Núman teaches civil engineering and he is from Baghdad. He is in Erbil as a refugee. “It was too risky for me in Baghdad,” Al-Núman says. “The body of Iraqis infected with a virus.”
He speaks softly in English, but punctuates his sentences constantly with the little word “ya’ni”, which is Arabic for “so” or “I mean”.
“America,” the engineer says, “created the ethnic tensions in Iraq. No one in Iraq wants to be ruled by a foreign power. They hate their own family members, so how could you expect them to accept an outsider?” He laughs ironically.
“Iran threw the Americans out ofIraq. Iran gave them a swift kick in the pants. The financial crisis we’re experiencing now has to do with the war America lost in Iraq, and Europe is being dragged down along with it.”
Questions about religious and ethnic backgrounds are tricky almost everywhere, certainly in Iraq, and can be considered insulting. So I don’t dare asking, but I suspect that Al-Núman is a Shiite: whenever an Iraqi extols Iran’s influence on his country, you can almost be sure he is a Shiite.
“In 2006, the Americans searched my home,” he says. “The officers were rude, but the infantrymen were friendly. They saw my books.” He sounds pleased.
When I ask to take his picture, Al-Núman refuses resolutely, as though a photograph could get him into trouble; as though the threat comes not only from Baghdad, but also from within the Kurdish Autonomous Region itself.
Exclusive gated communities with names like “English Village”, “Italian Village” and “Dream City” are popping up all over Erbil these days. A modest villa rents for more than three thousand dollars a month. The communities remind me of those in Dubai and Florida. The anonymity and comfort of globalization: no matter where you go, it all looks the same.
I have an appointment in English Village with Osman Naqshbandi, a young Kurd who worked for awhile for the UNHCR, the UN refugee organization, but is currently employed by an investment company. Naqshbandi sports a beard; he’s wearing a green sweater and has a very bad cold. He takes us out to a Lebanese restaurant; around lunch time, half the customers here are business-people.
“We have the entire range of refugees here,” he says over humus and tabooli. “We’ve got the Kurds from Turkey, the Christians. Arabs come here from the south, because it’s relatively peaceful. There are rumors that the 2007 bombings of Christian targets were set up by America, to alter the ethnic mix in certain areas. I don’t know about that. And the Kurdish refugees from Turkey are always grumbling. No matter what you give them, it’s never enough. They don’t want to stay here, they want to go back, but only once something has changed there.”
“Do they live in a sort of refugee camps?” I ask.
“In a kind of village,” he says. “A little town. But it’s not easy to get into.”
I lead the conversation around to the federal government in Baghdad. “Does it have any real say here?”
“Maliki?!” Naqshbandi laughs -al-Maliki is the prime minister of Iraq- “Maliki is a Shiite version of Saddam.”
That evening I dine with Nian at the Deutscher Hof in Erbil, a life-sized replica of a German provincial restaurant in the late 1970s. There are a few older Germans eating there as well. The waiter is from Bangladesh. Just like in the Gulf States, the “dirty work” here is done by Bangladeshis and Filipinos.
Later that evening, in the bar at the Noble Hotel, we meet two employees of the Canadian firm Qualitas, a contractor to the oil companies. The editor-in-chief of the English-language Kurdistan Tribune, Mufid Abdulla, claims that Kurdistan is on the eve of a revolution, but nothing in the bar at the Noble Hotel reflects such a prediction. The Qualitas employees seem to be enjoying themselves in Kurdistan. Compared with Africa, where the company also operates, the Kurdish region is heaven on earth.
From outside the bar comes the sound of loud cheering and the honking of horns. Iraq has won a soccer match against Jordan. “Those are Arabs cheering out there,” Nian says. “Kurds don’t cheer for Iraq.”
As I sit down one morning at a table in the Magko tea house, close to Erbil’s souk, a middle-aged man comes up to me. He asks if I speak English and sits down and tells me that he has developed his own method for teaching English as a second language. His name is Ahmed, from Baghdad but a refugee in the Kurdish region. Trained originally as a civil engineer, he has nevertheless focused on teaching English ever since 1999. While still in Baghdad he set up the Center for Open Learning. There are six instructors working there now, two of whom are his sons. He moved to Erbil because he expects a civil war to break out in Baghdad, after the Americans leave. But he prefers not to talk about that.
He pulls a laptop out of his bag and shows me several of his interactive lessons. “This is the Queen’s English,” he says. “Just listen.” His enthusiasm seems child-like but sincere.
I try to turn the conversation back to Baghdad.
“Saddam had his good points and his bad points,” Ahmed says. “Between 1970 and 1980, the country experienced a huge economic surge. Petrol cost next to nothing. He paid us and so made us his slaves”
A man comes into the tea-house, and Ahmed greets him enthusiastically.
“Kurdistan is a haven of calm,” he says. “Here, I can say whatever I want. Listen: the Shiites chose religion, and what did they get? The Kurds chose to work with the Americans, and they got rich.”
At Costa, I meet with a Kurdish colonel in the Iraqi army. Half way through our conversation, when the subject of Iran comes up, he decides that he doesn’t want to be mentioned by name. “Officially, we’re not allowed to talk to reporters,” he says suddenly. The colonel wears spectacles and a suit, and he sports a handsome moustache. His red necktie is dotted with white highlights. From the looks of him you would think he was a businessman.
Mosul was seen for a long time as one of the most dangerous towns in Iraq. Although the Kurds consider the town to be “disputed territory”, it’s much less disputed than Kirkuk. The colonel was stationed at Mosul for a while and was in charge of checkpoints run jointly there by Iraqi, Kurdish and American military personnel. The tripartite cooperation was meant to build trust between the Kurds and Arabs. I ask him about the security situation.
“Mosul is doing fine these days,” he says. “Ever since the Americans withdrew, everything has been going well. It might be dangerous for your or for me, but it’s all right for the people who live there. Terrorism has tapered out. The Sunnis rose up in arms when the Shiites came to power. But a lot of the terrorists in Mosul were terrorists strictly for financial reasons. It costs about twenty dollars to have someone plant a bomb.”
The insignificant sum surprises me, but the colonel doesn’t respond to my doubts. “I was in a convoy heading for Mosul once. We hit an IED. We sealed off the area and found two shepherds. One of them said: ‘I’m just here herding my sheep, but this boy standing next to me, I’ve never seen him before.’ We arrested him. He was a naïve kid. They had given him a remote control device and twenty dollars and told him: ‘When the convoy comes past, set off the bomb.’ His family came to us, they were poor people. It’s the foreigners who are behind it. A lot of terrorism in Iraq has been organized from Syria. But now that Syria has problems of its own, things are safer here. Former members of the Ba’ath party have been behind it too, they spend a lot of money financing terrorism. People like Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed al-Muwali. Saddam’s daughter backs a lot of terrorism as well.”
“What about Iran?” I ask.
“Iran’s influence on the Shiites has faded a bit,” he says. “The Iranians have a number of fingers in the Iraqi pie. They keep the Americans hopping.” It was at this point that the colonel said he wished to remain anonymous.
“The Iraqi army is in good shape. A lot depends on the politicians, but as long as the politicians do nothing but yell at each other, and the army doesn’t start shooting, everything is okay. Kirkuk is the key city. The reason the referendum is taking so long is that everyone who moved there after 2003 will have to be repatriated. Not only the Kurds, but also the Arabs.”
I tell him that I also have my doubts about whether a referendum will ever come, but the colonel is dead certain. He gets up and pays for our coffee.
In the eastern part of the Kurdish Autonomous Region, not far from the border with Iran, lies the city of Choman. A typical border town, it has a rather desolate air to it, and compared to Erbil, is as poor as dirt. The town is in a valley; the snow-covered mountains seem close-by. The ridge is where Iran starts, and just to this side of it are the PJAK camps. Smugglers operate in this area as well. Kurds from Iraq pack alcohol over the mountains to Iranian villages, a dangerous, but lucrative, business.
Pesaha Chomani, a photographer lives in Choman, takes us to one of the mountain villages on the Iraqi side, “Over there is an Iranian base. But you can’t see it in this mist.”
In the village of Khoshkan we meet a family that was forced out of its own village, higher up on the slope, by Iranian shelling.
“It was during the summer that we had to leave,” the mother says. Her name is Gül Ahmed, she is 58. We sit on the floor in the living room and eat sections of pomegranate that the family grows itself. Her husband’s name is Omar Azir. He is 82. They have seven children. The only furnishings in the living room are a few carpets, on which we’re sitting, a TV, a little heater and a fan.
“I haven’t seen the PJAK around for the last three years,” Omar says. “I don’t know why Iran has been shelling us. All we do is to grow cucumbers, grain and tomatoes.”
“During the Iran–Iraq War,” Gül says, “we were forced to move too. We spent seven years in Choman. We had to leave everything behind.”
She lights a cigarette.
“Saddam’s people killed my father,” she states. “My father said: ‘I’m not leaving.’ The war broke out. And they killed him. We left without any money, and we never received any compensation for the things we left behind. The war ruined us. My body is so exhausted that everything breaks. I get up, clean the house and I’m just glad to still be alive.”
“It’s quiet now,” her husband says. “Things happen every once in a while, but not like back then. But we had to leave the house. Things had been going very well there for a time, until the shooting started. Our old house isn’t there anymore. This one we built ourselves, with help from friends and neighbors.”
I take a picture of the family, outside, in a little space that looks like a garden. I have a last look at the mountains where the Iranian military base is supposed to be, but they are still buried in mist.
Inspired by the Arab Spring, the Kurdish region experienced a short-lived “spring” of its own. That uprising, however, did not take place in the capital city of Erbil; there, the police quashed all attempts at protest before they could get off the ground. The demonstrations that did take place were centered in Sulaymaniya, until they were violently disbanded there too. According to Amnesty International, this brief “thaw” claimed six lives, while dozens of others were injured or tortured. A report from a group of Swedish parliamentarians spoke of nine casualties, including several children.
In a hotel restaurant in Sulaymaniya, I speak to the Kurdish philosopher Faruq Hamakarim; his second surname is Rafeeq. With his wife Nasik Kadir, a sociologist, he lived for a time in Canada, but he has returned to Kurdistan. They were among the leaders of the demonstrations in Sulaymaniya. They drew up a list of eleven “immediate demands” on behalf of “the Kurdish people in protest” including a demand that crimes and violence against demonstrators be investigated and punished. They also posed 26 “crucial demands” including the establishment of an autonomous legal apparatus in Kurdistan. None of those demands have been met.
“One evening, at the time of the demonstrations, I was eating here with my wife,” Hamakarim tells me. “Someone came up and took my picture. The next day that photograph was published in the paper with the caption: ‘Look! Hamakarim eats in fancy restaurants while the demonstrators suffer.’ As though I’m not meant to eat.”
Hamakarim is a short, rather stocky man with tinted glasses. His wife is a brunette with friendly brown eyes.
“We live in a republic of fear,” Kadir adds, “Corruption here is total, and so wide spread that people are willing to kill for the political system. Almost everyone has something to lose.”
“What about the level of prosperity?” I ask, “Isn’t that real?”
“Of the four million Kurds, one and a half million are on the payrolls of the political parties” Hamakarim says, “No one has any faith in the parliament. The legal system is a joke. Young people are neglected. There are no real universities. The universities here are businesses that wring money out of people. The rents in Erbil are as high as those in New York. In New York, you at least get something for that money. In Erbil you get only corruption. And then, there’s the anti-terror police. We call them the ‘pro-terror police’.”
“Is there no reason for optimism, then?”
“I’m optimistic by nature,” Hamakarim says. But he goes on: “The history of American involvement in Iraq is the history of total failure. They cling to the success of Kurdistan, but that success is a myth. The economic growth here is a bubble, inflated by intense corruption and held in place by a police state. The Americans got rid of Saddam, but they still don’t understand what they got in return: dozens of Saddams.”