I returned recently from Iraqi Kurdistan where I spent a couple of weeks investigating the Islamic State (IS) group. Working mostly in the vicinity of Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk, I could not help but notice a great many societal and cultural characteristics that somewhat surprised me.
Considering what is happening right next door in Syria, the level of anti-Syrian racism did catch me off guard. I came across such prejudice almost daily. A taxi driver quipped in Sulaymaniyah: “These Syrians are ruining our country.” Another taxi driver was quite upset at Syrian kids who were washing car windows and selling tack. “These are dirty kids.” he said. It was all but unusual that internally displaced persons of Iraqi or Syrian Arab descent who had fled to Iraqi Kurdistan were discussed using such language.
It wasn’t just taxi drivers. In the Sulaymaniyah governorate building, an officer deemed it appropriate to prep us for our interviews in refugee camps in the area. She told me, verbatim, that Syrian refugees “complain about everything”. In another city, a police chief was astonished and disappointed that my colleagues and myself were applying for a permit to work in a camp inhabiting Syrian refugees. The policy chief stated: “But these are Syrian refugees!” There was no shortage of contempt in his voice.
I had been fully aware that Kurdish nationalism flirts with highly questionable portrayals of Arabs, Persians and Turkish people. In Iraqi Kurdistan, I was surprised at how prevalent some of those attitudes seemed to be.
Something I did not know before my stay in Iraqi Kurdistan, however, was the level of conservatism in social life. My colleague, Airin Bahmani, posed me a question in a huge restaurant in Sulaymaniyah: “Look around you. Not too many women around here?” In a huge dining hall full of people, she was literally the only woman there.
On several occasions, Bahmani made the comparison to Iran. In Iran, women are neither de jure nor de facto equal to men. In Iraqi Kurdistan, women are de jure somewhat equal to men, yet de facto they are everything but equal. Bahmani emphasized that in Iraqi Kurdistan, this is not a matter of legislation but one of cultural norms. In open spaces, women were often nowhere to be seen.
Neither were corruption, nepotism or censorship a rare occurrence in Iraqi Kurdistan. A chief of police wanted us to persuade him to let us into a refugee camp after we had already been granted official permits by Sulaymaniyah governorate officials. That we disclose to the chief of police every single question we were planning to ask was a part of this persuasion process. Reluctantly, after we had given him what he wanted to hear, he blessed us with his approval.
An even more telling case was our attempt to get to Sinjar. After Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) officials at a checkpoint had twice arbitrarily refused to let us in, a well-connected friend of ours made some phone calls to relevant authorities in Sulaymaniyah. One of them was among the most influential and high-ranking officials in Sulaymaniyah whose identity I will not reveal for the time being. Our contact presented our case for this high-ranking official. The official responded that KRG must not let reporters get to PKK-controlled areas too easily. At least he was honest.
Getting the permits to get access to and work in refugee camps took days. While waiting in front of a police station that the chief of police would finally show up, another contact of ours told us an illuminating story. He has a friend who had to flee IS advances in 2014. The person is an Iraqi of Arab descent. He had been waiting for over a month to legalize his status in Iraqi Kurdistan as an internally displaced person. He had arrived to the police station every day. Nothing. No service. The officials just made him wait. One day, our contact decided he will personally talk to the chief of police since they are acquaintances. Our contact had presented the case to the chief of police. The chief of police didn’t pay any attention to the facts of the case; rather, he just asked whether our contact knows this person. Our contact answered in the affirmative. The chief of police then replied: “Ok, it’s done.”
Not that different from the way in which quite a few Middle Eastern state apparatuses operate.