Foreign Policy Blogs

A journey to Kurdistan

Numerous shards of glass act as a memorial to victims of the brutal Al-Anfal genocide campaign, which wiped out tens of thousands of Kurds in the late 1980s. Photo: Adam Saligman

A sea of glass shards in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan acts as a memorial to victims of the brutal Al-Anfal genocide campaign, which wiped out tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s. Photo: Adam Saligman

My friend and teaching colleague Adam Saligman has traveled all over the world, from the Arctic Circle to Zimbabwe. Adam has loads of interesting stories about the places he has visited and people he has met. I think he would tell you that his more interesting and memorable experiences tend to be found off the beaten path.

In February-March 2015, Adam visited a place that is pretty much as off the beaten path as you can get: Iraqi Kurdistan. A small land with a tumultuous but rich history. Much has been written and discussed about Kurdistan and its place (literally and figuratively) in the Middle East and the world. I wrote earlier this month about its struggles to create unified, non-partisan military force.

Yet it’s challenging to see through rhetoric and conjecture, and learn what it is actually like to be in Kurdistan. So to help give you an idea of exactly that, I asked Adam—who is currently a teacher at the Almaty International School in Kazakhstan—to reflect on his time in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Scott Bleiweis: Why did you choose to go to Kurdistan?

Adam Saligman: Fellow travelers I had met on various trips told me that Kurdish hospitality was among the most beautiful things they had experienced.

SB: What places did you visit?

AS: The cities of Sulaymaniyah and Erbil [Kurdistan’s capital city].

SB: How would you describe the people you met in Kurdistan?

AS: They live up to their reputation of kindness and hospitality. Most of the locals I met on the bus to Erbil, and in Erbil itself, were members of the Social Democrats of Kurdistan, so this might skew the data sample, but the locals I spent time with were eager to talk about the current, stark geopolitical and economic issues that loom over and threaten just about every aspect of life in Kurdistan.

SB: Did you get a sense of the feelings of Kurds towards the United States and/or “the West”?

AS: Kurdish sentiment seems to want to view the U.S. as a friend and trusted ally, especially after U.S.-led forces liberated them from Saddam Hussein’s chokehold over their part of Iraq. This being said, a number of the locals I spoke with were losing faith in the support of the U.S., specifically in regard to its stance on arming the Peshmerga by going through [the Iraqi government in] Baghdad, which leaves Kurdistan in the hands of a government it does not trust at all, and feeling abandoned at the tip of an existential threat like ISIS.

SB: What sense did you get of the role of the peshmerga in Kurdish society? Did you see or interact with any peshmerga soldiers?

AS: The Peshmerga are largely considered heroes in Kurdistan. Even some children would walk around in Peshmerga costumes [see photo below]. I saw a pop music video praising the Peshmerga on a TV screen in a hotel. The Peshmerga are seen as the only force that is there to defend the Kurdish people, and there is deep respect and gratitude for them.

A group of Kurdish schoolchildren, including a boy dressed as a peshmerga soldier, on a field trip to an ancient fortress in Erbil, Kurdistan, March 2015. Photo: Adam Saligman

A group of Kurdish schoolchildren, including a boy dressed as a peshmerga soldier (center), on a field trip to an ancient fortress in Erbil, Kurdistan, March 2015. Photo: Adam Saligman

SB: How do Kurds feel about their government?

AS: Again, the individuals I spoke with expressed trust in Kurdish autonomy, and none in Baghdad. A common phrase I heard was “We Kurds have no one but the mountains.” They feel that the government of Baghdad really does not hold their interests at heart. Policies originating from Baghdad that froze Kurdish salaries really did not help to shake this impression.

SB: How did the Kurds’ battles with ISIS impact your experience? What do Kurds think about the conflict?

AS: I didn’t leave the cities, try to spend time in the mountains, or visit the ancient sites. For the Kurds, life goes on because it has to, but people are not blind to the threats that ISIS poses. Many Kurds see the struggle with ISIS as a fight for their right to exist as a people and as a state.

SB: What did you learn about Iraqi Kurdistan as a result of your visit?

AS: That pride in one’s national identity, and hospitality, don’t need to wane during the worst of times; maybe, this is when it shines the brightest. The Kurds have suffered more than their fair share between literal genocide at the hands of the Baathist Party and what many Kurds identify as cultural genocide orchestrated by other governments (Turkey was named a lot) by breaking up Kurdistan and dividing the people. Every conflict has multiple sides and seemingly infinite nuance, but the Kurdish people themselves, like everyone else, are people, and their culture, hospitality, and openness are beautiful.

Illuminated fountains add some color to downtown Erbil, Kurdistan, in March 2015. Photo: Adam Saligman

Illuminated fountains add some color to downtown Erbil, Kurdistan, in March 2015. Photo: Adam Saligman

 

Author

Scott Bleiweis
Scott Bleiweis

Scott Bleiweis writes on international relations topics for FPA. He has a M.A. in democracy studies and conflict resolution from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in Politics/International Studies from Brandeis University. Scott was formerly a Fulbright education scholar in Bulgaria (views in this blog are his own, and do not represent those of the Fulbright organization or U.S. government).

Scott supports Winston Churchill's characterization of the complex form of government known as democracy: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

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