I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), in the north of Iraq. The generosity of the KRG, in cooperation with the institution where I study, allowed for around 15 graduate-level students of international affairs to meet with regional officials and to explore some of the sights of that part of Iraqi Kurdistan.
As someone born and raised in India, Erbil seemed rather familiar to me. The layout of the city, the architecture, and the general flatness and climate were reminiscent of my native Delhi. But the people, their outlook, their culture, and certainly their food, spoke far more to my Armenian heritage, to say nothing of their dances. I was expecting as much. I just wish their shourchbar was faster-paced, but maybe they were toning it down for us foreigners. What I was not expecting was how very similar the countryside in Kurdistan would be to that of Armenia: the same rolling hills and valleys, more or less rocky, craggy, without all that much greenery. We saw a fair number of waterfalls as well. Plus, there was a brand-new téléphérique (I made sure to note how long it was, just to confirm that the record set up in Tatev remains unbeaten).
Now, I remember the very first time I crossed a land border in 2000. It seemed such an arbitrary thing, to draw a line, make a fence, and determine a national frontier. The two sides of the border looked exactly the same to me. Then I went to Artsakh for the first time in 2004, and I kept asking myself where I was, legally, politically. It seems silly, but I can always sense where I am in terms of feeling the ground beneath my feet and the clouds in the sky. But the conceptual notion, the social and political determination of my location, is not always so concrete, is it? I was looking forward to experiencing that displacement once more in Erbil.
More than that, however, as a student of politics and diplomacy, and as an Armenian, one of the main reasons I wanted to participate in the trip was to gauge policy, especially in terms of relations with Turkey and the region at large. What do the Kurds think of themselves today in broader terms, as a people and as a nation? Where are they now and where are they going?
Different individuals—the officials and the young people with whom we met and interacted—provided different responses. The students were understandably excited, claiming freedom, either that they had it already or that they would be formally sovereign in the near future. The cautious approach (not always shared by the older folks, mind) was, “Yes, it would be nice to be independent, but…” But, it is a big risk. It might end up costing more than it is worth. The entire region is so unstable. The Kurds of Turkey next door have just called upon themselves to put down their arms, not without KRG participation, by some accounts. The jury is definitely still out on that one. Syria remains a mess. The most pressing disputes, however, are with Baghdad. The KRG controls only part of Iraqi Kurdistan, while other Kurdish-populated regions of Iraq fall under the center. The federal constitution of Iraq has not been fully implemented. Much of the distribution of power and authority is unclear, and there is in general a low level of trust in relations between Baghdad and Erbil. How to exploit and distribute the oil and gas wealth is an exceedingly sore point for all sides. Independence could easily exacerbate the situation.
And the people in Iraq, Kurds and otherwise, have had enough instability to desire goading any more on. The horrors of the former regime, the genocidal campaign against the Kurds of the 1980’s, and before and after, are still very much within the living memory of the people. It was only with the 1991 Gulf War that the north of the country got to rid itself of oversight from Baghdad. But then, the Kurds themselves underwent a civil war, and it was only with the fall of Saddam in 2003 that the Kurdistan Regional Government managed to accommodate the two main parties and get itself organized.
Almost everything that we saw in Erbil was the result of the past 10 years of work. Construction, construction, construction—not unlike Yerevan. Also not unlike Yerevan, the capital possesses an ancient citadel, actually considered to be the oldest such structure to be continuously inhabited. So really rather unlike Erebuni, and more like the fort in Aleppo.
What struck me a great deal—and perhaps I am exaggerating when I state this observation—is how German is used as a foreign language in that country. It’s not so much that it surprises me that English as a standard international tongue has not made it to Iraqi Kurdistan, but that so many Kurds found their way to German-speaking Europe as refugees and that, more to the point, so many have found their way back to their homeland—a marked difference with the case of the Armenians. Israel is similarly a multilingual society. The details of the stories of those peoples diverge considerably, of course, so the comparison is less than fair. Nevertheless, this lack of diversity in language on Armenian streets struck home with me, unexpectedly, as a manifestation of how the homeland has kept up its net emigration flow.
One of the most memorable incidents from this trip involved speaking with university students. I challenged them about independence, about a sovereign Kurdistan as a whole. The Kurds number in the tens of millions; they are diverse in terms of their dialects and the cultural influences that they bring with them, living in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran, as well as their diaspora. (Armenia, too, has a Kurdish population, although most Kurdish-speakers in the country belong to the Ezidi religion, the holy site of which is in Iraqi Kurdistan.) I told the students that we in Armenia have difficulty in such small numbers to accommodate even ourselves, much less any minorities or foreigners. How do they envision a truly plural, stable Kurdistan?
The response was a hopeful one. The Kurds themselves experienced their own civil war in the 1990’s, and the advantages of tolerance and peace are being shown to them right now, in the flesh, as it were, as easily compared with the violence of the very recent past. Besides different kinds of Kurds, the region also consists of other ethnicities and religions, certainly Christians included, and, yes, even Armenians. We visited the KRG’s parliament, where a single seat is reserved for a representative of the Armenian community, although its numbers are disproportionately lower.
Moreover, the Kurdistan Regional Government is making the point of not only having a very liberal, very open investment climate, inviting foreigners to be on equal footing with the locals, but they are putting their own funds into sponsoring students to go abroad and return to the country, to say nothing of having our own group, for example, as guests on the government’s tab. Both the investment legislation and the people-to-people outreach serve to encourage the cause of pluralism and diversity, something many countries in the region might look to as a model.
So far, so good, then. No doubt future generations will have more work to do, especially when the time comes, God willing, when a substantial part of the population does not have adult memories of violence or war. But until then, even the near future looms large over Erbil and the neighborhood, Armenia included.