Magazine: Dreams of Kurdistan

A journey through Kurdish identity.

Magazine Kurdistan Erbil // DO NOT USE
A Kurdish man in traditional dress walks past a construction site in Erbil [Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin]

Kurdistan is a kind of dream: an ancient one that floats across cities and valleys, through crumbling souks and oil fields, stretched across four nations.

Nestled between empires, surrounded by conquerors, the inhabitants of ‘Greater Kurdistan’ have shared this dream for hundreds of years.

The dream is buoyed by memories of a glorious past: the great crossroads leading to the citadel of Erbil and its rich markets; the poets of Sulaymaniyah, dreaming of their hidden nation. It winds down the streets of Mahabad, where the Kurdish hopes of independence bled briefly into reality. The memories relive the invasion of Iraq, which, for many, held the promise of liberation after the injustices of the past.

But on some nights, it is little more than a delusion; on others, a nightmare. 

It is the anger in a stone thrown at Turkish police by a teenager who cannot understand her own language. It is the betrayals of the West and the memory of Saddam Hussein’s terrible vengeance, of the bodies lining the streets in Halabja. It is the quiet end of Mahabad – too small to factor into the great games at the end of a world war.

The nightmare is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), just across the mountains.

But no one knows how the dream ends. And as the forces sweeping across the Middle East pull communities in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran further apart, are Kurds still dreaming the same dream?

Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan


Akar Ahmad Shareef eases his white Mercedes down Erbil’s Gulan Street. The 6.2 litre V8 rumbles and snaps. Then he opens up the engine, going 80, 100, 120km per hour. Tonight he is going to Dream City for dinner.

Akar is opening a restaurant in Shaqlawa, 50km outside Erbil, and today there were problems with the contractors. There are always problems. It is a stressful undertaking, and the speed helps him relax. But he knows his limits.

He slows down as he points out a speed camera. “They know me. Always ticket, ticket ticket,” he says grinning.

Dream City is a gated residential complex in the sprawling, nouveau-riche, northwestern suburbs of Erbil. The streets are lined with playgrounds and new two-storey townhomes. One garage sports a Lamborghini and a stuffed ibex. Akar says each house sells for at least $500,000.

At Barista, a kind of coffee shop-cum-restaurant, Akar slides into a booth and orders. He kicks a Gucci loafer up onto his knee and talks business. Last year he opened a laundromat. Before that, he started an employment company to help bring in the workers needed to keep Erbil booming and a travel agency to ferry in yet more visitors.

“When you make your own business you have more freedom. I read once – I don’t remember where – but there’s an idea [that] for every 10 people in this world, nine of them are working for the tenth. So why don’t you be the tenth?”

For him, being a Kurd means self-reliance, and a kind of adventurous, optimistic capitalism that typifies Erbil’s new moneyed class.

In 1996, during the civil war between Iraqi Kurdistan’s two main political parties, the PUK and the KDP, Akar’s family fled to Damascus and stayed there for six years. When they returned, they joined the investment spree that began after the US invasion of Iraq.

“Before 2003 Erbil was nothing, nothing,” he remembers.

A Kurdish capital?

An elderly Kurdish man sells Western-style clothing to a young man in the centre of Erbil [Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin]
An elderly Kurdish man sells Western-style clothing to a young man in the centre of Erbil [Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin]

For many in Kurdistan, Erbil represents possibility – the dream is of a glittery Kurdish capital infused with money from across the Middle East.

The city itself is shaped like a circle, with ever wider ring roads centred on the citadel – an ancient fortress atop a hill, where narrow alleys and stone houses overlook the cranes dotting the landscape and the expanding rings of the city.

Although Erbil stakes a claim to being one of the oldest inhabited cities on earth, it is a city looking eagerly toward its future.

Only one family still lives in the citadel – kept there to maintain its claim to being the world’s oldest, continuously-inhabited city. The rest is being remodelled with hotels and boutique shopping.

The renovation reflects the new sense of hope that infused Kurdistan after the war.

“All of these skyscrapers and the expansion of the city started in these past seven to eight years,” explains Dara Alia Khubi, the head of the renovation commission. “With our renovation of the citadel we are trying to bring back some habits, some cultures, some traditional life.”

Just below the citadel is the ancient souk, where everything from traditional Kurdish clothes to light sockets is sold. The passages are narrow and winding, lined with tiny stalls bursting with goods.

The labyrinth guides shoppers to a domed, yellow-brick atrium ringed with shops. There, a young stall owner named Nehad flags down two women and directs them to his shoe-lined walls.

Just 25 years old, Nehad pitches with enthusiasm, pulling pair after pair from the wall in rapid succession and slowly winning over his sceptical customer and her dinars.

Young Kurdish men wearing traditional Kurdish clothes walk through a new shopping mall in Erbil [Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin]
Young Kurdish men wearing traditional Kurdish clothes walk through a new shopping mall in Erbil [Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin]

Nehad was born in Erbil, and says he will die here.

“Since 2005, Erbil has started to boom in growth and things began to change so quickly,” he says.

“Before everyone used to know each other. But after the changes a lot of foreigners came and suddenly the population also became something foreign, where you don’t even know the people you’re living with.”

As the city spreads out from the citadel, new towers and luxury apartments announce the arrival of foreign investment as well as Kurdistan’s middle class.

Hanging off of the 21st floor of one of those towers, Bahram is installing windows in the Erbil World Trade Center. He is a Kurd from Iran and is in Erbil for the opportunities the boom has created.

As his winch swings from side to side, Erbil’s flat neighbourhoods reel out towards mountains in the distance. “The first time I did this, I was freaked out, but I do it out of necessity,” he says.

The Erbil World Trade Center is one of the newest symbols of Erbil’s boom. The project is financed by Turkish investors and relatives of the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani.

“I’m going to go back to Iran and buy a car for myself or a house or get married with the money I get from here,” Bahram says.

Dark shadows


Casting a shadow over the new Hardees restaurant across the street, the Erbil World Trade Center will soon house offices and luxury apartments.

“We are past the dark period in our history,” says project manager Adil Asmar Hasan. “We want to show the world we like to build.”

But the project is entangled in much of Kurdistan’s recent history, evoking the glorious glass and steel era of the past eight years, as well as the painful memories of the previous decades.

“This area was the headquarters for Saddam’s army,” Hasan explains. “Sometimes we find mines or weapons during excavation.”

The buildings share a name with perhaps the most powerful symbol of the so-called ‘war on terror’ – the destruction of which precipitated Saddam’s downfall as well as Erbil’s ascension. Scattered around the steel beams and rebar, the ‘war on terror’s’ most recent victims are helping to build the new World Trade Center.

The advance of ISIL throughout Iraq and Syria has sent refugees from Sinjar, Mosul, Kobane and Kirkuk flooding into Iraqi Kurdistan.

“I’m from Kobane,” says Salah, referring to the Kurdish village in Syria. “But I ran when ISIL came and attacked us. I stayed for three days at the Turkish border waiting to cross and now I’m here [in Erbil] working [in] construction,” he says outside the high-rise he is helping to build. “Erbil is good, but you only have one home. If Kobane is liberated, then I will try to go back” [Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin]

Twenty-six-year-old Wisam Yusuf is a Yazidi Kurd from Sinjar and one of the workers at the World Trade Center. After the ISIL attack on his home, he fled with 22 members of his family.

“You can’t even imagine what the people suffered. Everybody was trying to save himself,” he says.

Wisam says his older brother was captured trying to carry out his two-month-old daughter and has not been heard from since.

He saw things he finds almost too difficult to recount.

“I saw a woman give birth to twins and she had to leave them under a tree,” Wisam’s voice cracks and he looks away. Then he cries.

“I’m coming here to make money so we can leave Iraq. Even if peace comes, we will never go back.”

Diyarbakir, Turkey

Kurdish men and women in Diyarbakir [Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin]
Kurdish men and women in Diyarbakir [Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin]

Erkan Özgen dreams in Turkish.

An artist and teacher from Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey, he is one of many Kurds here who speak Turkish first and Kurdish second. Many more cannot speak Kurdish at all.

Sipping a thick Turkish coffee beside a wood-burning stove in a dimly-lit café, he explains how he believes that the Kurds are the moderates of the Middle East: “For me, Kurdish is not only an ethnic identity anymore; it means to oppose these ideologies of those people who cut off the heads.”

The Kurds in Turkey are by far the largest of the four populations that comprise ‘Greater Kurdistan’. Their relationship with, and opposition to, Turkey often defines them.

At the café, Erkan, a visual artist, shows off some of his more recent work. There is a photo portrait of a woman wearing teargas canisters in her hair like curlers and a picture of two women on a raft wearing niqabs; the boat is piloted by a scarecrow who looms over the passengers.

As night falls, Erkan finishes his coffee and heads out into the rain. Old concrete apartment blocks rise up from every direction. In the mist, the ancient city looks almost Soviet.

Diyarbakir is a city without flags. In a country so proud of itself, the absence of the red and white Turkish flag is striking. One flies behind a high, stone wall topped with barbed wire. It is a barracks.

Visible through the mists are the perimeter ramparts that surrounded the city in Roman times. The ancient wall separates the new, modern Diyarbakir from the old.

‘The last time I saw him’

One of Nezhat's sons was killed in October.
One of Nezhat’s sons was killed in October. “Being Kurdish is my history. It is my being and it is my life,” she says. “Now when my two other boys go out its really hard for me. I feel crazy until they come home. We want a life for our children without any war, without any worry, without any fight. We want peace for our children” [Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin]

In October, the streets of the old city burned as angry Kurdish youth protested against the Turkish government’s refusal to help their fellow Kurds in Kobane, just over the Syrian border, as it came under attack from ISIL.

On the afternoon of October 7, the second day of the protests, Nezhat heard the gunshots from her small apartment. She knew her 19-year-old son, Suleyman, was out there, somewhere.

Her husband, Sait, was out there too, trying to bring Suleyman home.

Sait works in construction. He is small but powerfully built, with a square jaw and gray hair cropped close to his scalp. As he remembers that day he starts to stutter. He clears his throat and forces the words out.

He pleaded with his son to leave. “I asked him again, ‘lets go home’ and he said ‘okay,’ but when we got close to the mosque he just disappeared and that was the last time I saw him.”

For Sait, that moment is over. But Nezhat is reliving it, taking sharp, short breaths.

The power in their house goes out and a small, battery-powered lamp is switched on. Nezhat pulls out a photo of Suleyman. She says it is the only one she has of him. 

“Suleyman was killed because of who he was, for his language. He was really a good boy.”

A battle of words

“Language is your being, your honour,” says Mazhar Akta, the director of Ferzad Kemanger Primary School in Diyarbakir [Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin]

Language is perhaps the most significant battleground between Kurds and the Turkish state. For many Turkish Kurds, language, politics and identity are one and the same.

Until very recently, the Kurdish language was banned in Turkey. Speaking it on the street was forbidden until 1991.

In 2012, parliament passed a law allowing schools to teach the language as an elective course. But many Kurds say this is not enough. Now some educators and prominent businessmen have simply decided to start teaching children in Kurdish.

Surrounded by concrete apartment blocks, the Ferzad Kemanger Primary School is trying to educate a new generation of Kurdish children. The school – named after a Kurdish teacher executed in Iran in 2010 – opened this year, for children from the ages of six to 10.

School director Mazhar Aktas hustles the students in. With white hair and a blue blazer, he looks like a teacher. He has a face that can shift from caring and paternal to stern in an instant.

He has a lot to worry about these days. The school has 112 students, 24 of whom came to Diyarbakir from Kobane, after the ISIL attacks, but it has already been closed four times this year by the Turkish authorities.

Mazhar says police used to come in and lock the doors, while asking him why the school administrators did not ask permission to teach in Kurdish. But every time the school is closed, Mazhar gets it opened again.

He is hoping they will not have to send the children home again this year. “It’s linked with the peace process [between the government and the PKK],” he says. “If it’s going well, we won’t be closed.”

No matter what the difficulties, Mazhar believes there needs to be Kurdish education in Turkey. “Your mother language is like your skin, and a foreign language is like your clothes. You can’t change your skin.”


Inside the classroom, the children are balls of energy, jockeying for the attention of their teacher, Julider Pasha.

Ladybug backpacks hang on hooks, feet swing impatiently above the floor and Kurdish words are spelled out.

“The parents want to send their children to this kind of school because for many years other children have been educated in Turkish and they have lost many things about their culture, their identity,” Julider says.

Mazhar hopes to eventually have around 300 students at Ferzad Kemanger Primary School. “I speak Turkish very well,” he says. “I also speak Arabic. But when I speak in my language, when I cry in my language, I feel better. It comes from inside.”

But most Kurdish teachers do not teach in Kurdish.

In the centre of Diyarbakir’s old bazaar Semra is reading a book in Turkish. She is a teacher at a local school, but it is Saturday and she is relaxing. During the week she watches her children juggle with issues of identity. “Sometimes really funny things happen and sometimes really painful things happen,” she says.

“Because I have to speak Turkish, sometimes I feel like I’m assimilating them.” Semra likes Turkish culture and doesn’t mind teaching in Turkish. “But it’s not the same,” she says.

She doesn’t know what the future holds for Kurds in Turkey, and wonders if it is possible to be both Turkish and Kurdish. “I want to be hopeful. I hope, but I’m not hopeful.”

Either way, language will remain at the heart of the issue – and of Kurdish culture in Turkey.

“The people who speak Kurdish,” says Semra, “can dream in Kurdish.”

Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan

Young Kurdish men drink beer and smoke a water pipe atop a mountain overlooking Sulaymaniyah [Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin]
Young Kurdish men drink beer and smoke a water pipe atop a mountain overlooking Sulaymaniyah [Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin]

As dusk falls over the mountains surrounding Sulaymaniyah, the city lights begin to blink to life in the distance. It is Friday, and groups of people have made their way up the mountain, setting up barbecues and sharing hookah pipes as the sun sets.

Lukman Hassan Salah is sharing some Crown Royal with a friend. The 42-year-old is a veteran of the Peshmerga. “I will be a Peshmerga until I die,” he says.

Lukman says he has been shot seven times. The bullets hit him in the jaw, the back, the shoulder and the neck. There is evidence of it in the form of a dark scar running from his mouth to below his chin. “I was driving an important politician,” he says, without elaborating.

With Kurdish troops proving the only effective fighting force against ISIL, breathless editorials have been written around the world about the possibilities of an independent Kurdish state.

But those predictions mean nothing to Lukman. He says the international community will not allow Kurdish dreams to come true. “The British took it from us [after World War I], I’m not optimistic it will change.”

Night has fallen and a chill is creeping in. Lukman pours another glass and sweeps his hand out over the city. “Each of these lights is a person,” he says. “All these people died fighting for Kurdistan.”

He believes the fight will go on.

“[ISIL] has new equipment, new weapons. The only reason we can fight them is we are fighting for our home.”

Some cars start to wind back down the road. But Lukman stays behind and continues to stare out over the city.

The home of poets

Young Kurdish women have their photo taken by a friend in a park in Sulaymaniyah [Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin]
Young Kurdish women have their photo taken by a friend in a park in Sulaymaniyah [Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin]

There is no hand-wringing about Kurdishness in Sulaymaniyah. It is the home of Kurdistan’s poets, at the heart of its culture. The streets are named after literary greats. There is pride here.

This is the ‘other Iraq’: a city of local markets, close neighbourhoods and gently curving, tree-lined streets.

It is Sulaymaniyah’s Establishment Day, the city’s 230th birthday. There are normally big celebrations, but this year the government is starved for cash because of a dispute with Iraq’s central government over oil revenue. And with Kurdish forces fighting ISIL across Iraq and Syria, officials felt the celebrations would be inappropriate.

For many though, that doesn’t matter. A crew of young women is strutting down the cobbled path of the park, past busts of Kurdish heroes. One of them is named after her country: Kurdistan Eymat. Twenty-two years old, she is a student at the University of Sulaymaniyah.

“These things, ISIL and [the dispute with the central government] don’t affect us,” she says. “We are proud of our city and we will keep our culture. No enemy can … destroy our dreams.”

Kurdistan and her friends are dressed in traditional Kurdish clothes: flowing robes of pale gold, aqua, orange and red. Only one stands out. Linda Latif is dressed as a Kurdish commando, complete with black boots, a Special Forces beret and crimson lipstick. She says she’s wearing the fatigues out of respect for the Peshmerga.

The home of memory

A Kurdish man walks through the Hall of Mirrors in Sulaymaniyah's Red Museum. Named after the red facade of the main building, the museum is housed on the old site of Saddam's notorious Mukhabarat intelligence service where thousands of Kurds were imprisoned and tortured. One-hundred-and-eighty-two-thousand pieces of broken glass line the Hall of Mirrors - one for each victim of Saddam's Anfal campaign, and 4,500 lights dot the ceiling - one for each Kurdish village destroyed under his reign [Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin]
A Kurdish man walks through the Hall of Mirrors in Sulaymaniyah’s Red Museum. Named after the red facade of the main building, the museum is housed on the old site of Saddam’s notorious Mukhabarat intelligence service where thousands of Kurds were imprisoned and tortured. One-hundred-and-eighty-two-thousand pieces of broken glass line the Hall of Mirrors – one for each victim of Saddam’s Anfal campaign, and 4,500 lights dot the ceiling – one for each Kurdish village destroyed under his reign [Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin]

If Sulaymaniyah is the home of Kurdish culture, it is also the home of Kurdish memory. The city looks neither ancient nor modern. But it is marked with many reminders of the great and terrible past.

One obvious reminder is Amna Suraka, the Red Museum. The former headquarters of Iraqi intelligence during Saddam’s reign, the compound is now a museum, commemorating the thousands that were tortured there.

“Hundreds of soldiers were killed here when this building was captured,” says Peshawar, a guide at the museum. He is standing in a hallway lined with broken glass and twinkling lights on the ceiling. He says each piece of glass represents a person killed during Saddam’s 1988 al-Anfal campaign, while each light is for a village destroyed.

“It shows our current generation how the previous one was living …. We have to continue to complete their message, we have to continue to press for the right of the Kurds to have their own homeland,” he says.

Al-Anfal dominates Kurdish consciousness, especially in the region around Sulaymaniyah, where many of the largest attacks and abuses took place. Just one hour away is Halabja, where a poison gas attack killed more than 4,000 people. When it was over, television crews broadcast footage of streets lined with the bodies of women and children.

More than 25 years later, Halabja and al-Anfal also dominate the imagination of Sulaymaniyah’s poets.

‘National wounds’


For a large part of the literary world, Choman Hardi is ‘the Kurdish poet’. She has been published across Europe, but says she is little read in Kurdistan. She writes in English. In a way, I’m recreating Kurdish culture in English.

Though her family fled the violence in Kurdistan in the early 1990s, Choman never lost touch, and travelled back frequently to do research.

“In the late 1990s, the Kurdish satellite channels started broadcasting and many of them had documentaries about Anfal ” she says. But none of the documentaries went deep enough. “I had various questions about women’s intimate experiences in the prison camps and mass graves and during gassing and afterwards.”

And although al-Anfal is a central pillar of Kurdish history, Choman says nobody, either inside or outside Kurdistan, truly understands it. “What happened between February and September 1988 is a large part of the story, but what happened afterwards is also part of the story and that tends to get not much notice.”

One thing that rose from the ashes of Anfal was Kurdish nationalism, something that has always been defined, in part, through its relationship with the outside world. “History proves that national wounds create demands of national independence,” she says. “Kurdish identity has formed in relation to threat.”

Choman recently moved back to Sulaymaniyah after two decades in Europe, to take a position at the American University of Iraq. She says both her and her journalist husband felt they needed to be in Sulaymaniyah.

They arrived not long after ISIL swept across Iraq and Syria, but Choman says they want to make it work. Sulaymaniyah is home.

But she is under no illusions about the independence of Kurdistan. Over the course of her travels and research, she has seen first-hand how different the Kurdish experience has been in each of the four regions.

“For me personally – and I know many people will think that I am a traitor – I don’t believe that we need to have an independent united Kurdistan, from the four different parts. I want to see the Kurds’ situation improve in all the places they live. Not just in Turkey and Iran and Iraq and Syria.”

Choman says if countries in the region became more democratic and more welcoming of their Kurdish populations, the cries for an independent Kurdistan would quiet down.

“Of course the way it is now … it’s very difficult to see how that, suddenly, overnight could change,” she says.

‘Victim or dictator?’

Sarkash sits on the turret of an old Saddam-era tank in Sulaymaniyah's Red Museum.
Sarkash sits on the turret of an old Saddam-era tank in Sulaymaniyah’s Red Museum. “My uncle was arrested and held here for 18 months,” recalls Sarkash. “He was later rescued. After he was released he was sick psychologically. He didn’t like to go to crowded places or parties but liked to stay alone. This museum reminds me how people used to have to live and how I am able to live now. It makes me feel better but also allows me to think about our past” [Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin]

For anyone listening, Kurdish novelist Sherzad Hassan has even worse news. He has just finished giving a talk at Ghazal Nus, a bookstore in the old section of Sulaymaniyah that holds discussions with Kurdish writers and poets every Friday. 

Sherzad is happy to tell anyone who will listen the problems he believes Islam and traditional values have wrought on the Kurdish personality.

“In an emergency case, in a tragic moment, like now, it is not easy to define yourself,” he says.

Sherzad sports a mischievous grin. He explains that he enjoys pushing the collective buttons of the Kurdish nation. “You have to say the truth, even to yourself.”

He believes that after so many years of oppression, the country many dream of may not end up as the hoped-for Kurdish utopia. “All people here have the possibility to be a victim [and] at the same time can be a dictator.”

He is talking now about the civil war that tore through Iraqi Kurdistan during the mid-1990s. As many as 5,000 people were killed in less than three years, and tens of thousands more fled. The conflict was just a few years removed from the massacres of Anfal and the fight to remove Iraqi forces loyal to Saddam. Newly autonomous, the country split in two.

The leaders of the two factions – Masoud Barzani of the Kurdish Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan – are still Kurdistan’s most powerful politicians.

The invasion of Iraq by US forces and the past decade of prosperity have helped many forget the clashes, but the rifts that the conflict created remain.

For now, the forces are working together to push back fighters from ISIL, who Sherzad calls the “faithful boys of their forefathers”.

The Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq recently reached a deal with Baghdad over contested oil revenue. Across Iraqi Kurdistan, the red, green and white flag with a sun in the centre flies over the buildings.

But Sherzad likes to quote Jalal Talabani who, when he was president of Iraq, told reporters that greater Kurdistan was a “dream in poems”. Sherzad laughs as he remembers it. “If you say it is like a dream, that means it’s not real.”

This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine. Download it here for iPads and iPhones and here for Android devices. 

Source: Al Jazeera