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Post Kurdistan Report: The Hidden Country
Created by John Eipper on 08/21/19 11:23 AM

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Kurdistan Report: The Hidden Country (Marga Jann, UK, 08/21/19 11:23 am)

The Hidden Country, or Notes from the Field

I responded to an email about a professorial job teaching architectural engineering in Iraq.  I did so more out of curiosity than seriousness of intent. But what I was to learn would leave me amazed, enlightened and inspired. The position was actually in the northern part of Iraq--an autonomous region with its own borders, visas, languages, and culture. The territory doesn't typically come up on the world map, yet as many would argue exists as a country in its own right.  This is my account of Kurdistan, a little-known and essentially "hidden" country.

As my students were quick to point out, there are approximately 26 religions (including Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, Yazidism, Alevism, and Judaism)(1) and over 7 languages and dialects in Iraqi Kurdistan (Sorani, Kurmanji, Hawrami (a.k.a. Gorani), Zaza, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, Chaldean Neo-Aramaic, Turkmani and Arabic)(2). "The Kurdistan Regional Government promotes linguistic diversity and rights, and schools have been established that teach mainly in Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, Chaldean Neo-Aramaic, Turkmen and Arabic."(3).

Larger Kurdistan spans Turkey, Iran and Syria as well as Iraq. Traditional dress is colorful and women are not obliged to hide their heads or faces. Everyone loves to dance, and music abounds--songs are usually about a woman or place. The people are some of the kindest, loveliest people I have met in the world--and when one understands their terrible history (which includes Saddam Hussein's gassing of the Yezidis in 1988), it is hard to remain impartial.

The region abounds with remarkable historic architecture--monasteries from the Assyrian Christian period (still active), citadels, cave dwellings, ancient bazaars and towns that climb cliffs or perch on mountain tops. The palette is soft and warm--tones of terracotta and sun-baked pinks, yellows and rusts. It is a secure place, surrounded by "bad neighbours" but guarded by the vigilant "Peshmerga" (one who faces death), men and women soldiers who have successfully and often at great cost protected the land from ISIS. Modern construction of the past fifty years or so reflects the Iraqi presence and influence, and this is the style my students are most familiar with. Apart from mental traveling through the Internet, they do not often get the opportunity to travel abroad and experience high-end contemporary international architecture. Refugee and IDP camps abound, and there is much design work to be done--particularly regarding affordable housing, schools, clinics and transitional services.  It is an overwhelming task.

My colleagues are diverse and come from many nations--the United States of course (since I am at an American university), Britain, French Canada, Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, and Malaysia, to name a few. The Kurdish professors are widely traveled and often hold US citizenship as well, having studied in North America. The group is perhaps the most widely traveled and diverse I have worked with, and includes former diplomats, Peace Corps workers, Fulbright scholars, heads of departments, Columbia U fellows, and myriad professionals representing manifold languages and cultures. Commitment is palpable and everyone puts in long, hard hours. Many instructors have worked in "danger" or challenging, far-away posts like Yemen, Bosnia, Saudi Arabia, Samoa, and Serbia. The language of instruction at AUK is English. Many projects are in the works--a most recent one being the adoption of nearby Yezidi IDP/refugee camp, Sharya (nothing to do with "Sharia law"), population: 18,000.

For six months of the year the climate is arid and sweltering hot, although things cool down at nightfall. This year we had an unprecedented amount of rainfall with the surrounding mountains turning velvet green. Mosquitoes are rampant but do not carry malaria or any of the other diseases characteristic of the Caribbean, for example. Historically the region has been oil-rich, but the typical salary is currently less than $850/month and minimum wage is $200/month.(4)  Recently the US State Department ordered non-essential staff in its nearby Erbil Consulate (along with its Baghdad Embassy) to leave, but we haven't seen anything troubling on the ground. Indeed, one US chargé d'affaires I met in the Caribbean recently and who had worked at the Baghdad embassy called it Camp Cupcake.

So though Kurdistan is an incredibly diverse country, there is a strong sense of unity among its people and cultures as independence and land "ownership" are sought (largely due to centuries of oppression, persecution and exploitation)-threatening of course to the "powers that be" (Iraq). This is the backdrop upon which my story unfolds.


1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Kurdistan last accessed 2 June 2019.

2 http://cabinet.gov.krd/p/page.aspx?l=12&s=050000&r=305&p=215 last accessed 2 June 2019.

3 http://cabinet.gov.krd/p/page.aspx?l=12&s=050000&r=305&p=215 last accessed 2 June 2019.

4 http://iomiraq.net/reports/demographic-survey-kurdistan-region-iraq last accessed 2 June 2019.

JE comments:  An e-mail from Marga Jann is a surprise box--you never know what country lies inside!  The last time we heard from Marga, if I remember correctly, she was in Haiti.  Prior to that, Saudi Arabia, and Korea, and Uganda.  Now Kurdistan, from where we've received our first reports since our other WAISer-in-country, Tamara Zúñiga-Brown, returned to the US from Erbil.

The Kurds are not only one of the world's most numerous peoples without a state.  We've also learned from Marga and Tamara that Kurdistan is (paradoxically) the least dysfunctional nation in a region of exclusively "bad neighbors."  Might there be a logic here?  As a "hidden country," Kurdistan like few other places has to show the world it can govern itself.

Marga, how difficult is it to learn Kurdish?  It's an Indo-European language, which must make it more accessible to a Western European than, say, Arabic.

Be well, Marga, and please stay in touch.

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