A journey through Kurdish identity.
Sulaimania, Iraq – A cartoon was making the rounds on Iraqi Kurdish social media sites in the run-up to the Eid al-Adha holidays. It featured two sheep, with one saying to the other: “We’re safe this year. Nobody has the money to buy and slaughter us.”
If the festive spirit has eluded Iraq’s Kurds during this year’s Eid al-Adha holidays, then at least they have not lost their distinctive sense of humour.
Cash has been a scarce commodity for over a year – especially in the past three months. Political squabbling between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional capital, Erbil, has meant that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has not received its share of the annual budget and regional government employees have not been paid their salaries.
People should understand if their salaries are delayed by a few months. There is a war going on, and the cost of this war is greater than what the KRG receives from Baghdad.
“Over 70 percent of the people in the Kurdish region are employed by the government,” said Dana Qadir, a businessman in Sulaimania. “So when the government doesn’t pay the salaries, it’s a problem for the whole city.”
The debacle over the budget, coupled with falling oil prices, has brought business to a grinding halt for the region’s restaurants, supermarkets, shops and even construction firms. The ongoing war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), being fought just 60km from Sulaimania, has not helped either.
Two years ago, it was a boom town with international franchises competing to get a foothold in the Iraqi Kurdish market. Today, investors are either stalling to see how the war pans out, or pulling out altogether.
Mohammad Rafiq Omar Wahby, former head of the municipality in Sulaimania and Dohuk, noted that with a war going on, nobody should expect life to go on as normal.
“People should understand that war is costing the regional government a lot,” he told Al Jazeera. “And people should understand if their salaries are delayed by a few months. There is a war going on, and the cost of this war is greater than what the KRG receives from Baghdad. That’s why they have fallen behind with the salaries.”
But in the bazaar, which ought to have been buzzing with shoppers on the eve of Eid al-Adha, stall owners were both cynical and pessimistic. They were far less inclined to believe theories about having to bite the bullet to help finance an existential war than in days past, and many spoke of corruption and governmental mismanagement.
“If I was bringing in $100 last year this time, I’m getting $30 now,” Diar Mohammad, the owner of an electronics shop, told Al Jazeera. “It’s the fault of the government for employing too many people. If they had had the foresight and a serious economic plan, they’d have spent the past 10 years creating factories that could produce all the little things we import from Turkey or China.”
Holding up a plastic bag, Mohammad added: “We could be manufacturing these things here instead, and employ half the people you see loitering in the bazaar today.”
It is widely accepted as a truism that the two main parties that form the KRG – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – have no choice but to keep the populace on payroll. How else could they bank on their votes come election time?
Dana Qadir said it would take “a brave man” to change the system.
“The people would be furious, of course,” he said. “They have it good now. They come in to work and do what? Everyone wants a government job because they don’t have to do any work. Three people do all the work and everyone else sits around eating and talking all day and then go home.”
For Mohammad, there is no hope.
“The situation won’t improve. Not before five years anyway, and even then, there is too much corruption,” he said. “If I didn’t have a family here, I’d have left this place, like my two best friends who left this week for Germany and the UK.”
Another shopkeeper, who asked not to be named, chimed in: “We blamed Saddam Hussein for all our troubles back in the day. Who do we blame now?”