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 Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. From there I’d fly to Sulaimani (the Kurdish spelling of Sulaimaniya), the city in Sulaimani Province of the Iraqi Kurdistan Autonomous Region. The problem: I couldn’t 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 airport—a 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-ticket—Azmar, in fact, doesn’t 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: it’s an independent state that officially isn’t one. The Turks have been warming to their own Kurds of late—Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, for instance, wooed their votes in the recent election—and to the Kurdish Autonomous Region, too. Turkey’s National Security Council, the nation’s main political conduit of military influence, has recommended improving economic relations with “Northern Iraq.” The Kurds have reciprocated by claiming that they don’t 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 region’s 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 wouldn’t even use the word “Kurds,” referring to them instead as “one of Iraq’s ethnic components.”
The Kurds are the largest ethnic group on earth that doesn’t have a state of its own. And they’re 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. That’s 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, it’s likely that it can’t 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 I’d 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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. John’s 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 I’d 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 they’re 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 didn’t take me long to see that Suli is safe. It’s a lot like Israel, where it’s not unusual to see the man in front of you in line with a pistol stuck in his pants. The guns don’t 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 I’ve 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 Prophet’s 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 Saddam—the 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 couldn’t 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 doesn’t hear the words Insha’Allah (God willing) much here, at least as regards things that need doing. That’s not because Islam is unimportant to the Kurds; it is. But in Suli, people don’t 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 city—more on this next time) works. I think that’s why its citizens love it so, and why it’s growing on me, too.