Editors note: This is the first of several dispatches from Kurdistan, where the author is spending four months consulting for the American University in Iraq-Sulaimani.
My electronic plane ticket directed me to the Azmar Air counter at Istanbuls Ataturk Airport. From there Id fly to Sulaimani (the Kurdish spelling of Sulaimaniya), the city in Sulaimani Province of the Iraqi Kurdistan Autonomous Region. The problem: I couldnt find the Azmar counter. The gentleman at the information booth informed me that I should go to the Atlasjet Office on the other side of the airporta big disappointment since my two suitcases weighed a ton, and I was also lugging my computer bag and fumbling with my cane. There, though, the Atlasjet man told me that if I wanted to talk to someone from Azmar, a Kurdish airline, I should go back to the other side. Again, I walked crab-like across the airport, still finding no Azmar. Eventually, Atlasjet (a Turkish airline) took my Azmar e-ticketAzmar, in fact, doesnt exist at Ataturk Airport, which somebody should have told me at some point. I boarded and was on my way.
The Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq, founded in 1991 when the Kurds rose up against Saddam Hussein and were protected by a U.S. enforced no-fly zone, is the nation-state equivalent of Azmar Air: its an independent state that officially isnt one. The Turks have been warming to their own Kurds of lateTurkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, for instance, wooed their votes in the recent electionand to the Kurdish Autonomous Region, too. Turkeys National Security Council, the nations main political conduit of military influence, has recommended improving economic relations with Northern Iraq. The Kurds have reciprocated by claiming that they dont support the murderous Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and would rather like a Turkish consulate in the northern Kurdish city of Irbil.
But in Turkey and in Washington, D.C., Kurdistan dare not speak its name. Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the regions official ruling body, has complained that the Kurds love America but get no respect from Washington. In response, State Department spokesman Robert Wood in February wouldnt even use the word Kurds, referring to them instead as one of Iraqs ethnic components.
The Kurds are the largest ethnic group on earth that doesnt have a state of its own. And theyre not just in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq. There are more Kurds in Eastern Turkey than in Iraq, and lots in bordering Iran and Syria as well. Thats why almost no one but the Kurds of Iraq refers to their region as Kurdistan, and why Kurdistan looks like a state and walks like a state, but no one will call it a state. And in my view, its likely that it cant become a real state without the unraveling of Iraq and a consequent civil and regional war.
I got into Sulaimani, or Suli, at 3 a.m., in a jet-lagged daze. When the sun came up, I discovered that Id landed in a totally different world. Suli is a far cry from Istanbul. My heart sank as I stepped outside to discover that my apartment building sat next to a garbage dump: piles of building debris and other trash and detritus covered the vacant lot next door, though gallant chickens pecked away at the rubble. Across the street, a building under construction looked like a concrete Erector Set joke: no way that the multi-storied pile of cinder blocks would not collapse. Down the rain-slick street ran muddy rivulets of water. I was glad I didnt have to walk anywhere before my contact, driving a big SUV, picked me up. (Climbing into the vehicle, though, I did get a gob of yellow mud deposited on my pants.)
We drove through a warren of similar streets until we came to the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS): a single, large building surrounded by a high concrete wall. The SUV backed into a narrow gate and stopped while a soldier, AK-47 on his back, stuck a big mirror under the car and walked around. Just to make sure that I wasnt riding in a bomb. I made my way to the office of my old friend, the provost, Josh Mitchell, who took over the job from another old friend, John Agresto, former president of St. Johns College in Santa Fe. Soon Josh had to rush off to speak with Barham Salih, Deputy Premier of Iraq, intellectual big-shot of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, and the driving force behind the new university. There was a personnel crisis in the PUK and, I assumed, it must have had implications for the university.
So I decided to stroll around the neighborhood and take some further measure of the city where Id live for the next four months. My impression was again of a ramshackle mess. The streets are littered and smelly and crowded, with madly bustling traffic threatening to mow down walkers who mostly have to dart across streets without the aid of crosswalks or lights. The tiny, tumbled-down shops stand cheek-by-jowl, sidewalks start and stop, and you have to walk carefully because in Suli, most steps are irregular and uneven.
And then there are the guns. The AK-47 is as common as the ant in Iraq, and so, too, in Kurdistan. An armed soldier stands next to my apartment building 24/7. At lunch with some students I held my cane, which has a handle that could be taken for a butt, between my legs. One student asked why I had my gun with me, since theyre forbidden to bring theirs into the building. The demand for Western pistols is so great that the black-market price of a Glock 19 has tripled.
But it didnt take me long to see that Suli is safe. Its a lot like Israel, where its not unusual to see the man in front of you in line with a pistol stuck in his pants. The guns dont denote internal tension or fear, but national pride and common vigilance against terror. The guard standing post outside my building is a young guy with a six-inch sword-tattoo on his arm, a nasty scar on his chin, and four missing teeth. He greets me: Hello teesh, and runs to shake my hand. The Kurds have learned, as New Yorkers did in the nineties, that security is the bedrock of a functioning (well, sort of functioning here) civil society.
Suli is a law-abiding town. Lose your wallet? Someone will call to return it with all the money. Washington, D.C. has more homeless beggars than Ive seen in Suli, even in the bazaar, with its meandering streets and swarms of people walking and hawking and buying. I thought some boys were begging until I realized that they were selling plastic bags for shoppers. As I walked back, two drivers bumped into each other in the crazy-quilt traffic. Both stopped, inspected the small damage (one had to pull a bit at a bumper), and went their separate ways: no arguments, no shouting, and certainly no exchanges of lawyer information.
Sunday, March 8 was the Prophets birthday, so the university was closed on what would have been a normal business day. The holiday was quiet, though most business seemed to go on pretty much as usual. Little food markets and restaurants were open, and the propane-cooking-gas-canister guy passed down the street, a young boy perched atop the truck making the rhythmical banging that, when I first heard it, made me think that Suli has Hare Krishnas.
AUIS was closed the day before, too, which by contrast was filled with raucous festivities commemorating the 18th anniversary of the Kurdish uprising against Saddamthe Kurdish Fourth of July: beautiful girls decked out in colorful Kurdish garb, loudspeakers blaring, big crowds in social halls. As I walked in the swirl, I couldnt go far without young men coming up to ask where I was from and shake my hand. U.S./Washington D.C. elicited replies such as: America and Kurdistan good friends, or White House. One young man even said: Jack Bauer. But invariably, they would ask: How you like Suli? while simply bursting with pride in their freedom and their city.
One doesnt hear the words InshaAllah (God willing) much here, at least as regards things that need doing. Thats not because Islam is unimportant to the Kurds; it is. But in Suli, people dont much count on God to get things done. They do for themselves, which is why, for all its drabness and chaos, the city (or rather half of the citymore on this next time) works. I think thats why its citizens love it so, and why its growing on me, too.