source: PUK Media RSS
Before the financial crisis began in the northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, there had been dozens of publishing houses, both small and large, plying their trade. But since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2014, they have been declining steadily.
According to numbers provided by the semi-autonomous region’s General Directorate of Libraries, there were 2,809 newly printed books registered in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2013. In 2017, that number had dropped to 808. Even though the numbers don’t account for all the books published here – some are simply released without a library registration number – that does indicate a significant reduction.
It is true that the number of printed books has decreased. But in many ways that is OK because now a better quality of books is being published.
Some of the books being published in Iraqi Kurdistan were written by local authors and others were translations. But book sellers did well because locals had extra money to spend on things like this. Now it seems books have become a luxury that many can no longer afford.
“Reading doesn’t fill the stomach,” locals say, meaning that in a time of limited resources, they’d rather spend their money on more essential things. Add to this the fact that locals can also find plenty to read online and that reading has never been a great intellectual tradition in parts of Iraqi Kurdistan anyway, and all this spells trouble for the publishing business.
A lecturer at the University of Salahaddin in Erbil, Frsat Rozhbaiany, says that often teachers will prescribe a reading list for students – but they won’t encourage students to do anything further than the bare minimum. Which accounts for a lack of enthusiasm and support for local books.
There is a growing list of casualties. Aras Press was a well-known publisher that had been getting support directly from Iraqi Kurdistan’s government. But now there is a big padlock on its doors and no books have been published there in six years.
In May 2017, Hazar Majid, the owner of the Andisheh publishing house, announced that he was in debt. Part of his business involved a cultural centre and a kind of lending library but he said on his Facebook page that he could no longer afford to stay open and would have to start selling off the furniture. In his message, he asked locals to help him stay open and as yet, the associated Andisheh Cultural Centre still exists.
However, Andisheh has gone from being one of the most prolific publishing houses and the host of many events, to virtual silence.
Government-run publishers are not putting out the same number of books as they used to either. Some of the region’s universities as well as ministries of education and culture used to publish their own books but that number has decreased too, says Nawzat Jalal, head of libraries in Iraqi Kurdistan. For example, the ministry of culture only printed ten books in the last year, Jalal notes.
Xazalnus is another well-known local publisher, founded by two young men six years ago. It had been printing dozens of books but is now struggling, the owners say.
To diversify the owners started a small cinema for Kurdish and international films that had been translated. “There has been a decrease in the number of people who buy our books,” Dana Ismail, one of the owners of Xazalnus, told NIQASH. “But we have not received a single dinar from any party other than our readers. It is they who keep us going.”
A number of booksellers in Iraqi Kurdistan say that the only books people are buying at the moment are textbooks. Store owners in Erbil report two kinds of customers: ordinary readers and then university students. At the moment, the students outnumber the other group by a lot, they say.
One of the only optimists in the business is Soran Aziz, founder of the Maly Wafaey Foundation, which is still publishing. “It is true that the number of printed books has decreased,” Aziz told NIQASH. “But in many ways that is OK because now a better quality of books is being published. Despite poor economic conditions, books are still being sold.”
Up until relatively recently it was not acceptable to criticize religion openly in Iraqi Kurdistan. But this is starting to change and being more openly questioning about Islam is something of a social trend now, in some circles.
Part of it has to do with the security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State. The group, which based their manifesto on a fantastical and often invented version of Sunni Islam, is usually used by critics of religion to make their point.
Hostility to religion has somehow become fashionable.
Another aspect is the expanded possibility for airing views that are other than mainstream on local social media. In Iraqi Kurdistan, those who want to criticize Islam in a Muslim-majority society do so mostly on social media sites like Facebook. Some use their real names – often they are Kurds who live outside of Iraq – and others hide their identity because of the controversial nature of the criticism.
There are dozens of pages on Facebook that publish religious criticism and there are even some that take this kind of content from other languages and translate it into Kurdish.
Of course, being critical of religion is not new in Iraqi Kurdistan. There have always been secular individuals here. But one could argue that these kinds of arguments were not expressed as openly, or as much, as they are now.
For example, in 2010, a well-known Kurdish author and poet, Qubady Jalyzada, published a book, in which one poem saw him accused of blasphemy. Sales of the book were banned after clerics protested about it and copies of the book were seized by security forces in the Iraqi Kurdish capital, Erbil.
Jalyzada told NIQASH he was summoned to court more than once about the book but was eventually pardoned. “However, my book was still banned, and the poetry never did see the light of day,” Jalyzada complains.
This year there is another writer, Sarkaw Hadi Gorani, a Kurdish playwright who lives in France, undertaking similarly allegedly-sacrilegious work. Gorani, who broadcasts live on social media, says he is not an enemy of religion, merely an analytical critic of it.
He says he just wants to raise awareness about the potential damage that religion can do. “I see religion as a social institution and because I come from a Muslim country, and because that had an impact on me, I talk about Islam – because that’s what affected me,” Gorani told NIQASH.
Having said that, it’s definitely not a mainstream opinion by any stretch of the imagination. “Those who attack religion represent only their own opinions and not society,” argues Ameer Othman Mawloud, a senior official tasked with encouraging religious coexistence in Iraqi Kurdistan, adding that his department has sought legal advice on how to prosecute dissenters.
Additionally, when an individual criticizes Islam on social media they are usually rewarded with a slew of fury, anger and indignation from other commenters.
Another young Kurd who has been critical of religion online, Fateh Mahmoud, says that some of his relatives have now blocked him on Facebook because of what he has said about Islam.
“Hostility to religion has somehow become fashionable,” says Awara Najim, a young man from Darbandikhan who often writes back to online debaters with a pro-religious argument. “I worry that if these people get any power they will kill Muslims and burn mosques.”
In saying that he was stepping down, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani has moved in another direction too, towards the transition of power between Iraqi Kurdistan’s older “mountain generation” toward the region’s younger “city generation”.
The description, mountain generation, refers to the older political and military leaders in Iraqi Kurdistan, those who struggled for Kurdish rights and independence from the 1960s onwards. The saying “the Kurds have no friends but the mountains” refers to the flight of Kurdish rebels into the mountains, and their use of the mountains as a guerilla base. This generation includes the likes of Jalal Talabani, Nawshirwan Mustafa and Massoud Barzani. The first two are recently deceased and the fact that Barzani has said he would relinquish power means that the biggest, most senior names in the mountain generation have now passed out of the spotlight.
The era of charismatic leaders is coming to an end. The leaders who are coming next are not as charismatic.
For the past 26 years, all of the important decisions about Iraqi Kurdistan have been made by members of the mountain generation.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s city generation refers to younger Kurdish figures, those who did not participate directly in any Kurdish revolution or fighting, as they were just children or perhaps not even born in some cases. If they were around, they were either growing up in the cities or else living in safety outside of Iraq.
Often these individuals are the children or grandchildren of the mountain generation. They include the likes of Barzani’s nephew, the region’s prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, and his other son, Masrour Barzani, head of the security forces as well as Talabani’s sons, Qubad and Bafel, and Talabani’s nephew. All of these men hold senior positions either in the Iraqi Kurdish government or within security forces. While members of the mountain generation still hold ranking positions throughout Iraqi Kurdistan, the leadership positions are now mostly occupied by the city generation.
“The era of charismatic leaders is coming to an end,” states Fareed Asasard, a senior member of the party Talabani used to head, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK; Asasard is considered a member of the mountain generation. “The leaders who are coming next are not as charismatic. They will distinguish between partisan affiliations and if they can make this work, then their main concerns will be how to maintain prosperity and peace.”
“The mountain generation sought political gains and played upon their legitimacy through revolution to do so,” argues Amin Faraj Sharif, a professor of political science at Salahaddin University in Erbil. “The new generation should serve citizens better. The citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan demand prosperity and peace now and they are ready to move beyond the old classics.”
Locals hope that this changing of the guard might bring a better political and economic situation to Iraqi Kurdistan. They hope that this new generation might be less set in their ways, less nationalistic and not as stubborn as their elders, who grew up fighting for Kurdish rights.
“It doesn’t matter whether those in power are of the city generation or the mountain generation,” says Ari Harsin, a leading member of the party Barzani leads, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and a former soldier. “What really matters is how the person thinks and some members of the city generation have empty minds.”
Harsin believes nationalism and looking after the best interests of the Kurdish people go hand in hand. “No matter what, it will be difficult for the new generation to solve Kurdistan’s problems.”
It is quite possible that the recently deceased leader of Iraqi Kurdistan’s main opposition party, Goran, or the Change movement, was also partially responsible for the growing influence of the city generation. Nawshirwan Mustafa was the leader of the Change movement and he encouraged many younger members to take on responsibilities – people like the speaker of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament, Yusuf Mohammed, and his deputy.
Ribawar Hamad, the spokesperson for Iraqi Kurdistan’s Islamic group of parties says his colleagues have tried to maintain a balance between the mountain and the city. “This is our vision for the slow change of power,” Hamad told NIQASH.
It’s also possible to see the devolution of power from the mountain to the city outside of local political parties.
In the run up to the referendum on Kurdish independence, Shaswar Abdulwahid, a local businessman and owner of the NRT media outlet, started a campaign named Not Now. A critic of the government, the campaign referred to what many people thought was the wrong timing for the independence referendum. Since then, Abdulwahid has started a new political movement called New Generation, off the back of the Not Now campaign.
From now until the next elections, the city generation has eight months to show what it can do now that the mountain generation is taking a back seat. Two major issues will need to be confronted almost immediately: The fact that many locals have not received their salary from the state for months and how to stop Baghdad from exerting even more pressure on the Iraqi Kurdish region.
However, there is one major sticking point. While the city generation may be younger and in some ways, think differently than the mountain generation, they have certainly been around for most of the important political decisions of the past decade or so. They did not all hold senior positions then, but they participated in politics then too. This is why some locals feel that the city generation must share the blame for any bad decisions made by their forerunners.
The problems in northern Iraq, and in particular in the city of Kirkuk, have led various Kurdish politicians and parties to bandy about accusations of treachery and betrayal.
The two largest political parties in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, have both said the other is largely to blame for what is happening in northern Iraq now. Over the past few years, and particularly since the security crisis sparked by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, the Iraqi Kurdish have been expanding their zone of influence outside of the lines of the region they legally control. Over the past few weeks, those areas and others have been retaken by the Iraqi military.
Everyone is talking about unity, and calling for unity, but nobody is putting any effort into achieving it.
Directly and indirectly, the KDP has said the PUK is taking part in a plot against them, by collaborating with the Iraqi government, Shiite Muslim militias and Iran. Meanwhile the PUK has said that the KDP is to blame for everything that has transpired because the head of the KDP, Massoud Barzani, pushed so hard for the Iraqi Kurdish to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence. They say that pressure brought the Iraqi government down on the Kurdish.
All of the accusations might be partially true. All of them may be partially false. But one thing is for sure: This is not the first time that the Kurdish politicians have engaged in such skulduggery. Although they have been running the Kurdish region side by side for several decades, the two parties were once enemies, on opposite sides of a Kurdish civil war. And both parties have engaged with their enemies before in order to weaken the other.
Kurdish parties have worked with their Iraqi adversaries as well as Iran, Turkey and even Syria to try to eradicate each other. This happened in the 1960s and right up until the Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and the formation of what is now known as Iraqi Kurdistan.
For example, in 1993, both the PUK and the KDP agreed with the Turkish military to strike against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK at the same time. The PKK fight for Kurdish independence in Turkey and are considered terrorists by the Turkish government. They were forced to withdraw from Iraq and make peace with the PUK and the KDP.
During the Iraqi Kurdish civil war between the KDP and PUK in the mid-1990s, the KDP actually sought the help of one of the Kurdish people’s greatest enemies, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s military, to regain control over the city of Erbil, which was controlled by the PUK at the time. On August 31, 1996, the Iraqi army entered Erbil with tanks and tried to expel the PUK from the city. The PUK were far from innocent: Previously the PUK had sought the aid of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, to help them fight the KDP.
PUK supporters often mention August 31, 1996, as a “day of treason”. But now the KDP are repaying them by describing October 16, 2017, as their “day of treason”.
“All of these defeats and incidents of treason have meant that Kurdish unity is really still just a mirage,” says Majid Khalil, a professor of history at the University of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is a dream that will be difficult to achieve, he notes.
To locals on the ground, who now not only fear some sort of Iraqi military incursion but must also fret about further infighting between the KDP and PUK, it doesn’t feel like their politicians have learned much over the years.
A number of campaigns have been started by ordinary people that urge Kurdish unity instead of division, calling on all parties involved to halt their course toward mutual destruction.
The reaction to that kind of public desire from politicians has not been surprising: They support the idea, but they have not done very much about it.
“There is a failure to work towards unity because of personal interests,” argues Fadhil Basharati, a senior member of the KDP. “Political parties are more committed to personal and partisan interests than to national or patriotic aspirations,” he told NIQASH, adding that he was still optimistic though.
“Everyone is driven by their own personal interests or their parties’ agendas,” adds Adnan Hama Mina, a leading member of the PUK. “We have to think about what is best for the Kurdish people and go beyond those interests.”
“Everyone is talking about unity, and calling for unity, but nobody is putting any effort into achieving it,” Mina concluded.
There is hardly a single street in the semi-autonomous zone of Iraqi Kurdistan where one does not see a raft of security cameras pointed at passers-by. Many of the security cameras are installed by private citizens but in some parts of the region, the security forces responsible for internal regional security, known as the Asayesh, are compelling owners of public buildings and businesses to install them.
Security cameras have been installed on Iraqi Kurdistan’s roads for many years but now the number of public and private security cameras in action is thought to rival camera-per-capita figures for some of the most surveilled cities in the world. In Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and home to the regional Parliament and other government departments, there are an estimated 8,000 official cameras deployed. The regional Ministry of the Interior plans on erecting another 5,000 cameras on and around main roads in the near future.
Additionally, “anyone who wants to open a store is required to install surveillance cameras or he will not be given permission to open the business,” explains Tariq Nouri, the head of the Asayesh in Erbil. “Companies, restaurants, casinos and residential compounds are all obliged to install security cameras. However owners of private residences can decide for themselves if they wish to do this.”
Additionally, Nouri said, cables for faster Internet are being installed underground, which will make keeping an eye on the various security cameras even easier.
“Surveillance cameras assist us in detecting attacks, especially in crowded areas,” claims Hogir Aziz, the spokesperson for the Erbil police. “We have used the recordings from security cameras after getting court permission.”
Unlike in Erbil, the installation of security cameras is not compulsory in Iraqi Kurdistan’s other major city, Sulaymaniyah.
They don’t violate people’s liberties, they protect their lives.
“We always advise people to install security cameras in their houses or in their neighbourhoods and in markets but we don’t force anyone to do this,” Rzgar Hama Rahim, the spokesperson for the Asayesh in Sulaymaniyah told NIQASH; apparently there was a plan to set up more security cameras in the province but that has been put on hold due to Iraqi Kurdistan’s financial crisis. “Security cameras play an important role in finding criminals and we may be able to reduce the number of crimes committed here because of them. For example, we have found gangs dealing in counterfeit currencies, using security cameras.”
Sarkout Ahmad, a spokesperson for the Sulaymaniyah police, says the cameras are particularly useful for attacks on private homes and for traffic incidents. One of the most recent incidents to illustrate this was a hit and run incident in Erbil on Dec. 25 last year. The police were able to find the driver very quickly.
There are also others profiting from the security cameras. There had been a surge in security camera sales in Iraqi Kurdistan at first but that has changed over the past few years, traders say, also due to the financial crisis.
Farouq Mohammed opened a camera shop in Sulaymaniyah in 2012 and he says that during 2013 and 2014, he sold many of them; most of the ones sold in Iraqi Kurdistan are made in China.
“Shops, supermarkets, barber shops, casinos and many other public businesses need approval from the government and that approval is given on the condition that surveillance cameras are installed,” Mohammed told NIQASH.
Security cameras cost anything between US$25 to US$200 per camera.
Amanj Abdallah, a camera seller from Erbil, has also been selling the surveillance tools since 2012. But after the Asayesh ordered everyone to install security cameras, there has been increased demand, he says.
Both Abdallah and Mohammed believe the security cameras are useful. However, just as in other countries that have used security cameras, there is no real evidence that the security cameras prevent crime.
Just as in other countries where security cameras are in use, locals in Iraqi Kurdistan have criticized the cameras as an invasion of privacy. While security cameras have played a definitive role in finding perpetrators after a crime is committed and in preventing theft in parking garages and on public transport, they have not been proven to actually prevent criminal or terrorist activity in other countries. While security cameras were very useful following the Boston marathon bombing in 2013 and after terrorist attacks on public transport in London in 2005, they did not, for example, prevent the recent attacks in Paris, in cafes and in a music venue.
Local lawyer Soran Mohammed says the situation is completely different in Iraqi Kurdistan. In developed countries security cameras are used to protect public property and lives whereas in Iraqi Kurdistan, they are just installed to protect the authorities and to ensure that officials are not attacked, he says.
“When a crime is committed against an official, the offender is usually arrested really quickly. But if crimes are committed by anyone suspected of connection to an official – especially in targeted assassinations – none of the suspects are ever arrested. Even though there are security cameras everywhere,” Mohammed says.
“Installing these cameras everywhere is a violation of people’s rights,” he continues. “Anything they do could be used against them. Additionally there is no law here that controls how the cameras are being used.”
There is no single body watching over the security cameras either. Previously the Ministry of the Interior would report to the local parliamentary committee concerned but since Iraqi Kurdistan’s government has not been operating properly for over a year, this has not been happening.
“We don’t know how many cameras there are now because we haven’t had any meetings with the Ministry of the Interior for more than a year,” Ayoub Abdallah, chairman of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament’s Committee on Internal Affairs, Security and Local Councils, told NIQASH. “These cameras are installed because of security considerations, we are told. But we want to know why there are another 5,000 coming – especially because they are not under our control at all.”
For obvious reasons, the Asayesh refute any criticisms of the security cameras.
“They don’t violate people’s liberties, they protect their lives,” the Erbil Asayesh’s Nouri says.
“The European countries have the most freedom and they too have security cameras,” the Sulaymaniyah Asayesh’s Rahim justifies the cameras. “These cameras are not a violation of personal freedoms. Rather they are a way of maintaining security and stability. That’s not in any way a violation of freedoms.”
Nonetheless the questions from critics remain: If these cameras are so essential to security, then why have they not been used to find the gunmen killing journalists and politicians in what appear to be targeted assassinations?
In an estimated three months’ time the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah will have its own version of Rome’s Colosseum. An arena for theatre and other kinds of entertainment that is being built in the same style as the famous Italian amphitheatre, is intended to be the crowning glory of the province’s Hawary Shar Park.
“Sulaymaniyah is considered the cultural capital of the Iraqi Kurdish region so it should have a strong infrastructure to support that,” Barham Salih, the senior Iraqi Kurdish politician who heads the park project, told NIQASH. “This [amphitheatre] is only going to strengthen that. It will become a landmark in the park, in Sulaymaniyah and in the whole Kurdish region.”
Salih admits that the theatre project is one of his favourite parts of the whole park and he visits the construction site often. “We’re hoping the project is completed as soon as possible,” Salih said, adding that the new amphitheatre would play an important role in a planned festival of international and local arts and culture.
“The amphitheatre will be the first open-air theatre in Iraq that can accommodate this many people [5,000] and it is designed so that it won’t need a sound system,” boasts Rabeen Jamil, the engineering supervisor at the park. “The person speaking on stage will be able to be heard by those in the very back rows.”
The park itself first opened in May 2016 even though construction started as far back as 2004. Construction was plagued by budgets and planning problems but the park was eventually expanded to almost double the size – it’s now around 240 acres – and should eventually include a zoo, a golf course, various other dedicated areas for sports, a shopping centre and even a Hyatt hotel.
Over 3,000 trees and plants have been added to the surrounds in a valley that was once well known for being barren and lifeless. Planners say it will be the biggest amusement park in the Middle East and around 10,000 people are expected to visit daily during holidays.
Questions about why such a park is being constructed while the region suffers a financial crisis and teachers and other civil servants are not being paid, remain moot. Budgets for the park are old, with money allocated and handed over last year and earlier.
Work on the project actually began when Barham Salih was president of Iraqi Kurdistan. “This was my dream and now it is standing,” Salih says. “We are still working on it, trying to ensure that it achieves all that we want it to.”
In Iraqi Kurdistan, security has been increasingly tight since the extremist group known as the Islamic State took control of the nearby city of Mosul. The semi-autonomous region, which has its own military and parliament, has been protecting its borders and in the capital, Erbil, there are many more armed men, security cameras and checkpoints.
In this atmosphere, it is essential that the local security forces be seen as doing their job efficiently. This is part of the reason why they often publish pictures of the criminals they have apprehended after any violent event.
Even though most locals support those working in the security forces unequivocally, they don’t always believe the hype. Locals are well aware that if the guilty parties are not found, that others from among the prisoner population may be paraded in the media, as evidence that the security forces are doing their job.
Even if local audiences suspect they are being duped, it is almost impossible to tell whether the right prisoner is being shown off. Any arrests – particularly in cases of terrorism – are usually made in secrecy and nothing is announced, unless the security forces themselves make the announcement.
However, there is another statement around, featuring the same prisoner. But this one is from March 2014.
However, a little bit of digital sleuthing makes it possible to clarify some cases.
A few days after the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group attacked locations in the Iraqi Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk, the Kurdistan Region Security Council, which describes itself as overseeing the “security and intelligence community” in the region, announced that a number of the participants in the IS raid had been captured.
Some of the prisoners were filmed, making a confession.
In one of the videos an individual named Ahmad Hussein Abdul-Rahman al-Azzi makes a confession. In the filmed confession, al-Azzi says that he was originally a resident of Askari, a neighbourhood in Kirkuk, and that he was drafted into the IS group in 2016 by his brother, Mohammed. “I cooperated with the IS militants in the attack on Kirkuk and I was arrested by security forces on October 22, 2016,” the man says.
However, there is also another statement around, featuring the same prisoner, apparently arrested due to a very similar crime. But this one is from March 2014.
In the 2014 statement, released by the security forces working under the Iraqi Kurdish political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, authorities said that al-Azzi and his brother, Mohammed, were arrested in the Zawraa neighbourhood in Kirkuk for planning a “terrorist attack” and for bringing weapons and explosives into the city. The IS group isn’t mentioned by name in this statement most likely because at that stage, it wasn’t prominent in Iraq.
Comparing the pictures that came with the 2014 statement and the video of the 2016 confession, it appears that the criminal is the same man in both cases. Although the still picture has al-Azzi’s eyes hidden, the shape of his face, nose, eyebrows and ears are the same and tellingly, both men have a birthmark in the same place, under the lower lip.
The names are most likely the same too. The 2014 statement describes al-Azzi using the initials of his first name – A.H.A – while the video spells the name out completely: Ahmad Hussein Abdul-Rahman al-Azzi. In both incidents, al-Azzi was arrested with his brother, a man named Mohammed.
Although the details and the photographic evidence match up and appear to indicate that the local security forces have trotted out a prisoner they already had, just to make themselves look good, it is hard to confirm.
There is barely any information on al-Azzi after his 2014 arrest. Additionally in this time of heightened security and ongoing tension, this is a very sensitive subject. Nobody wanted to go on the record about al-Azzi.
But it seems likely he is still in prison and a lawyer that NIQASH spoke with, on condition of anonymity, says that al-Azzi was seen in jail just four months ago. The Kirkuk attacks happened two months ago.
The video, supplied by Iraqi Kurdish security forces, featuring the taped confessions.
Requests for statements from the local security forces who issued the statements went unanswered. A mediator who was trying to arrange an interview with al-Azzi’s family told NIQASH that nobody was willing to talk about the arrest because of the delicate nature of the topic and fear of repercussions. Al-Azzi is a member of the Azza tribe, a smaller Sunni Muslim clan living south of Kirkuk.
“A lot of people are being arrested and often their families have no idea why they were arrested or the charges against them,” says Hatim al-Taie, a member of the Arab Political Council in Kirkuk, a mostly Sunni Muslim body formed to deal with local politics after the IS group has been driven out. “This happens all the time.”
“In many cases people are arrested on terrorism charges and then released,” said another Sunni Muslim, Arab politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue. “In some cases, they are simply substituted for another culprit and they confess to other attacks. We dare not interfere in these cases, even if we know the person arrested is innocent, because we may become targets too.”
In Iraqi Kurdish-controlled areas, where Iraqi Arabs are also present, there have been plenty of complaints about racism and prejudice against Arabs. During the security crisis sparked by the IS group, which bases its harsh ideology on extremist versions of Sunni Islam, these tensions have worsened.
Another aspect that ties into cases like al-Azzi’s is the competition between different security divisions in Iraqi Kurdistan after any kind of attack. Some leading local politicians base their popularity on their ability to be “strong leaders” and to protect the people in their areas. This sees different security forces competing to be seen as the most valiant protectors of a city.
“There are plenty of reasons as to why a scenario like this could be created,” explains Kamran Barwari, a professor of political science at the University of Dohuk, who has been associated with the Change movement in the past. “The security forces want to be more popular with civilians and to intimidate their enemies. In some cases it is even because they want to keep people distracted, so they don’t dwell on more important but less interesting topics.”
It is a tactic used elsewhere in the Middle East too, Barwari adds.
The Human Rights Committee of the Iraqi Kurdish government often receives complaints from the victims in these kinds of scenarios, confirms MP Beeston Faeq, a member of the committee who belongs to the Change movement.
“We have had complaints from people who say the security forces threaten to frame them if they don’t confess,” Faeq told NIQASH and gave the 2013 murder of Kawa Garmyani, a local journalist reporting on corruption, as an example. “His family really doubts that the person who is in custody is the person who actually killed Kawa.”
The same doubts linger in the case of another murdered journalist, Sardasht Osman, who was killed in 2010.
Although he had not heard of any cases where detainees were forced to confess to crimes they did not commit, Diya Butros, the head of the Independent Commission for Human Rights in Iraqi Kurdistan, said that he couldn’t rule it out.
“Things like that could happen,” Butros conceded. “We can’t deny there are possibilities they might happen. But we don’t interfere during ongoing investigations; our work starts once the court has made a decision.”
In the Middle East, the length and style of a man’s facial hair can tell observers a lot about that chap. A full, bushy beard with a shaven lip might indicate that the fellow was very religious, wearing his facial hair the way the Prophet Mohammed apparently did. When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was in charge, moustaches were big in Iraq, at first, a symbol of secular masculinity. And in the north of the country, in Iraqi Kurdistan, there was a time when having a full beard meant that you had been off fighting for Kurdish independence in the hills.
But recently fashion in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan has meant that things are a little more confused, and potentially conflicted.
Rasan Kamal, a 23-year-old local of Sulaymaniyah, has a full beard. And he loves it. He doesn’t care what people assume about him because of it, he says, and he grooms it because “it is attractive and people admire it”.
In fact, when NIQASH asked to take pictures of his beard from every angle, Kamel was more than happy to oblige. Kamal’s beard is a fashion statement but he also says he thinks some young men in the region are forgoing a clean-shaven look now as a kind of protest at the current financial and political conditions in the region. Proceedings in the Iraqi Kurdish parliament stopped months ago due to a scrap about who should be president of the region and cashflow in the region has been tight, due to arguments with Baghdad over the federal budget and oil.
When I see men growing their beards I get angry because they are distorting religious looks, for the sake of fashion.
During the 1980s, when the Kurdish men of Iraq took part in an insurgency against Saddam Hussein, many of the fighters would hide in the mountains of what is now Iraqi Kurdistan. Often these men would grow beards – one assumes, because of a lack of shaving gear up in the hills – and during the 1980s, having a beard could mean that the owner was a member of the Kurdish, anti-Hussein militias.
In fact, the beard became such a symbol that the Iraqi government tried to ban beards in Iraqi Kurdish cities.
After the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan began to be formed in 1991, when the Iraqi army left the region, the beard lost its potency as a symbol of Kurdish rebellion. Once again, the beard was claimed by the religious in Iraqi Kurdistan while the military men tended toward elaborate and historic moustaches.
Then once the Islamic political parties of Kurdistan announced that they planned to take a more moderate political path, the religious beard also began to evolve. It started to look more like heavy stubble than a full flow and that trend has continued until today with only the very religious wearing their beards in an extremely bushy way, with a shaven lip.
Local man Karawan, 21, has a beard like that – and yes, it is because he is a Salafist, he says – that is, a man practicing a more extreme version of Islam. And it troubles him that some of his neighbours are growing their beards for the sake of fashion and good looks.
“When I see men growing their beards without shaving their moustaches I get angry because they are distorting religious looks, for the sake of fashion,” says Karawan, who didn’t want to give his full name because of the controversial nature of his opinion. Still, Karawan adds, even though he doesn’t agree with these kinds of beards, he respects an individual’s personal freedom to dress as they like.
Today, beards in Iraqi Kurdistan are, in general, more of a statement of personal style than of political inclination, say the region’s sociologists.
“Today’s beards have nothing to do with political ideology,” says Hawzhin Mala Amin, a lecturer in Islamic philosophy at the University of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. “Young men grow beards to express their own personalities.”
“Religion made beards important,” Amin continues. “But now growing a beard has become a personal issue and when you see a man with a beard, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”
Every Friday, Indian, Nepalese and Bengali nationals gather in the public park in the centre of Sulaymaniyah, one of the two big cities in the semi-autonomous, northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Here they gather together and prepare traditional meals – some of the food is sold so that the foreigners can make some extra money and other snacks are eaten communally, a chance for the outsiders to get together and speak their own languages.
The cooks park carts and equipment alongside the road that runs by the park. Passers-by can smell the spices and hear the crackle of boiling oil and are attracted by the hot, exotic fare.
Anuj, who only wished to give his first name, came to Iraqi Kurdistan about three years ago to work as a cleaner with a private business here. He makes about US$300 a month, barely enough to support himself. But when he comes to cook food at the park every weekend – he specialises in pasta – he is able to make about another US$300.
Yorkan is working with Anuj – she is also from Nepal and is selling home-made biscuits, flavoured with Nepalese spices she brought from home, in small bags for about IQD5,000 (around US$4.40) per batch. Yorkan’s three children are still in Nepal – two daughters are at university and a son is in high school – and she sends nearly all the money she earns back home to pay for their education. “With the US$300 I am able to send back, I can pay for rent, my children’s schooling, their food and clothing,” Yorkan told NIQASH. “I can also afford to support my parents in Nepal.”
“This place reminds me so much of home,” says Aron, a young Nepalese man eating dumplings – his eyes fill with tears and he falls silent.
But Yorkan is lucky. Her employer gives her Fridays off so she can work on her culinary sideline. Many of the other foreign workers here in Iraqi Kurdistan only get one day off every month; they wouldn’t be able to do what Yorkan does, so instead, they simply come to the park to relax with their country people.
In recent years, Iraqi Kurdistan has seen more foreign workers arriving in search of better paid employment opportunities. Special companies arrange the entry of the workers and usually they find jobs in areas like cleaning, child care and labouring.
The companies that bring the workers in set up contracts. A standard two-year contract might see the company receive around US$3,000 for its services. The worker, who is obligated to stay for the entire term of the contract, would then receive about US$300 per month and that amount is paid to them directly. The company pays the worker’s travel costs and the employer keeps the employee’s passport.
Obviously this can lead to problems when there are issues between the parties to the contract. There are no local outlets where an employee can go for legal help in these situations so often foreign workers are virtually held hostage in Iraqi Kurdistan. And then after two years working in Iraqi Kurdistan, the workers often face bigger problems should they want to stay on; they don’t have many rights.
For several months now, some of the foreigners making extra money selling their home-made snacks have also had another issue. At the end of last year the municipal authorities in Sulaymaniyah told them they must all gather in one place so as to avoid causing a public nuisance. They have done this, moving all the carts to the park, but they also fear that eventually they will be forced to close down altogether.
Nothing more has happened on this front. So for now, the foreigners in Iraqi Kurdistan are more concerned about making a profit and sharing a meal. It’s possible to buy a meal for around IQD5,000 (about US$4.40). And next to Anuj’s food cart there is another cart where a young Nepalese couple is serving dumplings, also called momos. This cart is surrounded by Iraqi Kurdish locals, all of whom wanted a taste of the spicy snacks.
“This place reminds me so much of home,” says Aron, a young Nepalese man who’s also eating dumplings – his eyes fill with tears and he falls silent, and concentrates on his food.
A little bit further down the road, there are several carts belonging to Bengali traders. They are selling different dishes and sweets, fried balls of sweet dough for IQD250 (US$0.21) each. Other carts are selling spiced eggs, chicken wings and fried rice dishes.
When local children come to the Bengali carts, the cooks give them the sweets for free. Asked why, they say they’re trying to introduce this style of sweets, which is actually quite similar to some Kurdish and Arab dishes, to the locals.
Sulaymaniyah local, Bhaman Khalid, 30, is standing at one of the carts selling vegetable-filled pastries, flavoured with cumin. His three children are also getting the snacks. This is the first time that Iraqi Kurdish people can easily taste food like this from southern Asia and Khalid says he had not been expecting that food made by the foreign workers would be so delicious.
Anuj points out that he and the others need to be careful with their flavouring because the locals don’t like foods to be too spicy. Also, with some of the foreigners there is a language barrier and they can communicate only haltingly about their sales. But others have a firm grasp on the Kurdish language and speak eloquently about the snacks they’re selling.
Because of the low prices and the good tastes, the foreign workers are now competing with local Iraqi Kurdish food sellers.
Kiwan, 23, sells falafel and other sandwiches near the park where the foreign workers get together. But Kiwan, who also only wanted to give his first name, wasn’t too worried about the competition. “God gives every person his share, according to His will,” he said.