Analysis |

A Good Time to Start Learning Kurdish

While Iraq battles Sunni militants, its northern Kurdish district is eyeing independence. But Kurds in neighboring countries are less keen to break away.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, June 24, 1014.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, June 24, 1014.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Two new shopping malls are being completed in the city of Sulaymaniyah, in Iraq’s Kurdish district. One is called Family Mall, while the other is Majidi Mall. The owners have invested about $100 million in their construction, and roughly 60 percent of the stores in Family Mall have already been rented out. The owners, who have already built similar malls in Erbil – the district capital – said the world’s best brands will be offered for sale there, and that the renters are from Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Asian countries and, of course, include Kurds.

These malls are just the latest sign of the enormous prosperity that has been sweeping over the Kurdish district since 2003. Malls existed there before that time, but as early as 2007 – when car bombs were exploding in Iraq every day and thousands of people were being killed – life in Kurdistan looked as if it was happening on a different planet.

High-rise residential buildings were being built by Turkish companies, Iran opened a consulate there, two airports were constructed – one in Erbil, the other in Sulaymaniyah – and foreign airlines began flying there. Today, Kurdistan is flooded with hundreds of local and foreign companies, real-estate prices have soared and farming has been abandoned.

Who needs to work the land when the uncultivated land brings in millions? Kurds are also producing roughly 120,000 barrels of oil per day on that land, and they hope to produce more than 300,000. The “private” Kurdish army, known as the Peshmerga (literally, “those who confront death”), which protects the security of the approximately five million inhabitants and is funded entirely by the Kurdish administration’s budget, has more than 350,000 combat troops.

The border crossing with Turkey is managed by the Kurds, although officially the Iraqi government is in charge, and non-Kurdish Iraqi citizens are allowed to enter the Kurdish district only if they have a written invitation from a Kurdish sponsor. It is the Kurdish flag, not the Iraqi one, that flies over government and residential buildings, and the teaching of Arabic is steadily disappearing.

“Arabic is the language of the enemy,” a university student in Erbil told me several years ago. “Our generation does not need it anymore.” Arabic is not the only thing that gives rise to uneasy feelings. On one Kurdish website that reported the news of the malls’ construction, several commenters responded with anger, saying, “Again with those English names! Have we forgotten our own language?” When the mall’s owner said proudly that he wanted to turn Sulaymaniyah into Dubai, one commenter wrote, “We do not want Dubai. We want to stay far away from the Arabs. What’s the sense in having the most beautiful city on earth when the women there must cover up from head to toe?”

Another commenter wrote, “Islam is the religion of the Arabs, not of the Kurds. Geographical proximity should not be a reason for imitating the Arabs. The Kurds should stay with a democratic regime to ensure human rights. The Arabs spit on women’s rights and they are also racist. Why must we imitate the nondemocratic structures of Dubai and the Arabs?”

This claim is interesting, but not quite right. The majority of Kurds are Muslim. Although some are Shi’ite, most are Sunni, and, of course, there are Jewish Kurds as well. Women’s rights in Kurdistan still have a long way to go, but women are members of the government and hold high-ranking positions. During the first week of the war against Islamic State militia, which conquered Mosul and Baiji, Kurdistan also suffered from a severe fuel shortage. Long lines of cars stretched out in front of gas stations, and women drivers complained that they were subjected to attacks and curses by male drivers, who also cut in front of them in line. The administration responded by setting aside gas stations for women only to keep them from being attacked.

President Massoud Barzani, 68, rules this area with a firm hand, together with his nephew, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. After his former partner and rival, Jalal Talabani, suffered a stroke that left him incapacitated, Barzani was seen as the undisputed leader of the entire region. And despite the political disagreements and his rival’s complaints that he was running a “dictatorial regime,” there doesn’t appear to be any other leader who can guide the Kurdish autonomous region through the political turbulence there.

Barzani made two significant strategic decisions recently. One has to do with the independent sale of Kurdish oil via Turkey; the other was to take control over the city of Kirkuk. The sale of oil and the construction of an oil pipeline from Kurdistan to the port of Ceyhan in Turkey started a stormy political war with the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Besides the significant economic implications, this was a direct challenge and an extraordinary declaration of independence to the central government. Although Maliki has threatened to sue any country that buys oil directly from the Kurds, he has no power to do anything about it. Not even Washington – which is still sticking to the policy of Iraqi unity and applied pressure to stop the sale of the oil – impressed Barzani. After all, the large American firms are also partners in the production and marketing of the oil.

A few days later, in an interview with the BBC, Barzani said that a referendum on independence for Kurdistan was a matter of months. He added that independence was a natural right of the Kurdish people. As expected, this statement sent shockwaves through Washington, Ankara, Tehran and Damascus. The White House hurried to announce that it opposed any measure that would damage Iraqi unity. Iran joined this stance, showing once again the similarity between its interests and Washington’s. The last time it joined with the American position was when it demanded to fight against Islamic State and even proposed, like the United States, aiding Iraq in the war.

In comparison, Ankara did not get all that upset. “In Turkey, the word Kurdistan makes people nervous, but its name really is Kurdistan,” said Hüseyin Çelik, the spokesman for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party. “If Iraq is divided and it cannot be avoided, they [the Kurds] are our brothers.” But he was quick to add that an independent Kurdish state “was not our number one choice.” Although Erdoğan qualified the statements, it looks as though Turkey has undergone a historic turnabout. The threat of Islamic State, the desire to placate the Kurds in Turkey before the presidential elections, and the disputes with the Iraqi administration have made the Turks face a new reality.

Although Syria has no status or influence on the Kurds’ decision, it seems that the Syrian Kurds could be a challenge for Barzani. Salih Muslim Muhammad, head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party – which controls Syria’s Kurdish region – opposes the idea of independence of the Iraqi region on the grounds that “nation-states make enemies.” He himself established an unofficial autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, but it is doubtful whether he will want to unify with the Kurdish region in Iraq. The same goes for the Turkish Kurds, most of whom want to establish cultural autonomy but continue living as an integral part of Turkey. Barzani, who understands the conflict, has said that he has no intention of establishing a Kurdish state in all the regions of “historical” Kurdistan, but only in the Iraqi portion.

But quite a few Kurdish politicians close to him see the wars going on in Syria and Iraq as an opportunity to fulfill the dream. This is a dream whose fulfillment could imprison independent Kurdistan in a geopolitical cage surrounded by four countries, each of which has good reasons to oppose Kurdish independence. Moreover, this would be a state where most of the nation lived outside its borders. Therefore, it is too early to hold our breaths or appoint ambassadors to the new state. In the meantime, we can start learning Kurdish.

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