I am writing from the city of Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan, where I am attending a symposium on Peacebuilding and Education in Iraq. A few months ago I submitted an abstract to the symposium organizers for a paper I would write on developing a culture of peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict setting, and peace education during times of conflict. To my delight my abstract was accepted and here I am in the northern part of Iraq in the autonomous Kurdish province known as the KRG – the Kurdish Regional Government. I flew from Tel Aviv to Amman, Jordan, and from there onto Erbil, Iraq, and overland to Duhok.
There are about 100 participants in the conference, the overwhelming majority of whom are from Iraq. Everyone here knows that I came from Israel, and have been most welcoming. The official languages of the conference are English and Arabic but because of the location (University of Duhok) many of the participants take the liberty of speaking Kurdish. I have learned that although Kurdish (an Indo-European or Indo-Persian language) uses the Arabic alphabet, it is nothing like Arabic. There are, however, many Arabic words in the Kurdish spoken here in northern Iraq.
There are also significant differences between the various Kurdish regions in the area, including within Iraq itself.
Tomorrow I will be visiting a Syrian refugee camp outside of Duhok, which is inhabited primarily by Syrian Kurds.
The Kurdish issue seems much more complicated than the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The KRG, where I am, is stable and secure. There are massive investments being made in construction, infrastructure and commerce. Being very near the Turkish border it is clear that most of the goods are coming in from Turkey, and there seems to be a lot of money in the economy that allows them to bring in those goods, mainly from the oil revenue they get from the central government in Baghdad (17 percent by previous agreement).
Very nearby is Mosul which for us conference participants it is a no-go zone. I don’t quite understand why this region is secure and one hour away there is no security.
One explanation is that in the Mosul area there are large minorities of Sunnis and Shi’ite Muslim Iraqi Arabs. The sectarian strife that has plagued Iraq always and especially after the fall of Saddam Hussein feeds off of historic rivalries and struggles for sectarian control. Both areas are oil rich, but while Mosul is being destroyed, the KRG region is prospering.
The kind of investments being made here demonstrate a great deal of confidence in the continuation of stability and security. Much of the money is coming from Turkey, but a lot is also coming from Kurds who left the country during the Saddam era and are now coming back.
There is a sense that the KRG is a quasi- state, Kurdistan, with a proud people and a clear sense of independent identity.
Kurdish flags are flown all over and Iraqi flags are only seen on public buildings representing the central government in Baghdad.
There is a Christian Assyrian minority here and several other small minority groups. I hope to visit the Assyrian center as I have fond memories of once going to the Assyrian Church in Bethlehem with a friend for Easter mass where they prayed in Aramaic. I was told that the Assyrian Christians in Duhok speak Arabic in order to differentiate themselves from the Kurds. The Assyrian Christian minority is too small to pose any real threat. They have, I have been told, the best bar in town – one of the few places in the area where one can find alcohol. I was told that during the month of Ramadan they even make home deliveries and that many of their customers are Muslims.
But it seems that the minorities in the KRG have become Kurdistanis without being Kurds. This is a very interesting nuance that was pointed out to me by one of the scholars at the conference. It is clear that all of the minorities are welcome in the KRG and are made to feel that this is their home, their state, even though they are not Kurds. It made me think about the Palestinian citizens of Israel and whether or not they would ever really be made to feel welcome as Israelis, even though they are not Jews.
Duhok reminds me a lot of Israel, pre- 1967. The area is quite small. There is a sense of solidarity and pride in the community.
Education is very important.
People have a sense of mission to build their small Kurdish state. With the threat of what is happening next door in Mosul and Kirkuk the people of Duhok and the whole KRG are very protective and take issues of security very seriously. The borders between the regions are open, but very controlled. There are people at the conference from Mosul, Kirkuk, Baghdad and far-away Basra. But there is most definitely a sense that Iraq is not one united country. It has broken down into its sectarian and sub-sectarian pieces.
There is a kind of naiveté in the entire conference motif in which many papers being presented focus on the importance of education in Iraq to create cohesion across this vastly diverse country. I personally like the spirit and I do believe in the power of education. But before education can really have an impact, the politics have to be dealt with. That too is a clear commonality with Israel. Iraq has not decided what it is and who it belongs to. The same for Israel.
There are of course many more differences between Israel and Kurdistan than similarities. Nonetheless, having attended peacemaking and peacebuilding conferences in many conflict areas of the world, it is always interesting, and even compelling to draw conclusions.
I don’t yet know enough about this place to fully understand what is going on here. I wish I had more time to spend here; I would use it seeking out the remnant of the vast Jewish communities that existed here as I have done in other parts of the world where Jews lived, prospered and eventually disappeared. Many of the conference participants told me that they had heard good things from their parents about their Jewish neighbors in the past. I know many Iraqi and Kurdish Jews in Israel who long to visit their former homes. I hope that someday, after we make peace with the Palestinians, that as conference participants told be they would be they would all be welcome to come back to visit.
The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit.
His new book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas from The Toby Press.
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