Kurdistani Photo Essay

by Ian Maclellan

I went to Iraqi Kurdistan to investigate what it means to be Kurdish and to learn more about how that idea has evolved. Kurdistan is an autonomous region within the mosaic of Iraq, which is managed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). What I quickly found out though is that the modern Kurdistan identity is more complicated than just the Kurds and the expression Kurdistani seems more apt to refer to residents of Iraqi Kurdistan.

A flattened village near Kirkuk, Iraq.

Traditional Kurdish dance for a university in Erbil

Kurdish culture has its roots in extremely ancient societies along the Tigris River and has been repressed and destroyed for centuries. Their culture is now a creation and amalgamation of both indigenous and ancient Iranian traditions and a reaction against modern Turkish, Persian and Arab influences.

Erbil Citadel is the longest continually inhabited city in the world.

All inhabitants were evicted from Erbil Citadel in 2007 except for one family to keep the citadel continually inhabited.

Money exchangers in Erbil. Because of a lack of organized banks in Kurdistan money for construction projects and everything else can be exchanged at small family owned money exchangers.

The region suffered for decades under Saddam Hussein especially during the Iran-Iraq War and Al-Anfal Campaign from 1988-1989, when Saddam flattened 4,000 villages, displacing more than a million Kurds and killing approximately 182,000 Kurdish civilians. Anfal means literally the spoils of war and the expression has since become a proverb for anything that has been lost in Kurdish society.

Cemetery for the Barzan men and children who were taken away when the village was flattened.

Young men and boys were taken from their families and put into mass graves in the south, robbing Kurdistan of a generation of potential. The impact of the massacres lives on in deep psychological scars in the region for decades.

Repairs on a mosque near Halabja, the site of chemical bombing during the Anfal Campaign.

Morgue in Erbil investigating the identification of mass grave victims.

The residents and government of Kurdistan have largely put aside their personal grievances together as a region for a peaceful, democratic, federal Iraq rather than fight for their own independent state. Problematically though this democracy was not an organic creation for Iraq and Kurdistan.

Kurdistan Regional Government Parliament building.

International support for Kurdistan has historically been strong enough to keep the Peshmerga alive and fighting, but not to win their freedom because of the international trouble that would cause.  Turkey and Iran are also worried that if Iraqi Kurdistan becomes free and too powerful their own Kurds would follow suit and try and form their own independent North and West Kurdistan.

Kurdish mountains.

Historically the Peshmerga were simply the people who sacrificed their life for their own people’s right to get freedom and democracy. Peshmerga translates to those who face death. The Peshmerga, like the rest of Kurdistan, need to transition from fighting in the mountains to organizing a region and providing regular services. Within this myth there is also a sanctification and proliferation of political figures and icons like the Barzani and the idea of the mountain.

Zerevani Kurdish Special Forces mess hall

Zerevani Kurdish Special Forces training

A woman in the Zerevani Kurdish Special Forces

Women Zerevani watch a Taekwondo demonstration

Taekwondo demonstation by the  Zerevani Kurdish Special Forces

The region is populated now with Kurds, Turkmen, Armenians, Yezidis, Roma, Mandaea, and other ethnic groups from across the Middle East all living in the same cities and villages. There is a recent influx of Iraqi Christians into the safe haven of Kurdistan as they flee persecution and terrorist attacks.

Yezidi shrine at Lalish.

Yezidi shrine at Lalish.

Christian church in Ainkawa.

Iraqi Kurdistan has gone through swift development after a no fly-zone was created in the 1990’s and then after the toppling of Saddam Husein. Erbil, Sulaimaniya, and Dohuk are full of rising skyscrapers, tourist attractions, and brand new malls and amusement parks. Though these buildings are going up the people lack basic services including an appropriately sized sewage treatment and water filtration systems.

Erbil city skyline.

Suburbia in the Kurdish Mountains.

Christmas tree in the Majidi Mall in Erbil.

One of the most contentious issues right now for the Kurdish people is the question of who will govern Kirkuk, which is currently out of KRG control, but historically and culturally largely Kurdish. The composition of the Kirkuk region was Arabized during the Anfal campaign, bringing Arabs from Southern Iraq to Kirkuk and kicking Kurds out of the region.

Kirkuk street scenes

Kirkuk Citadel may also be of similar age to Erbil Citadel.

Young women walk home from school in Kirkuk.

The Kirkuk region has valuable natural gas and petroleum reserves and produces electricity for Baghdad, but residents have power for only a few hours a day. Security is also a much larger concern in Kirkuk than Kurdistan because of foreign intervention into the politics and a proliferation of terrorism. On the street and in the neighborhoods of Kirkuk Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen intermarry and live harmoniously, but the debate rages at a much higher political order as the city has also become a symbol for Saddam’s oppression of the Kurds.

Peshmerga in the Eternal Fire of Kirkuk.

Peshmerga in jail used by Saddam Hussein that has since become a stable in Kirkuk.