Kurdistan: a post-war paradise?

Dr Saladdin Ahmed

By Saladdin Ahmed Kajarvzadî, PhD:

On July 17, 2013 the New Yorker published on their website a misleading commentary piece by renowned Middle East correspondent Dexter Filkins (formerly of the New York Times) entitled, “From Kurdistan to New York” . The fundamental problem in Filkins’s account is the frame of mind in which he approached it, that is, one steeped in Orientalism. What Filkins identifies as one of the most fascinating pieces of news to share with his English readers is that he saw hijab-less Kurdish women on the streets of Kurdistan (being able to drink beer and have access to uncensored WiFi were also noted). “Women walk[ing] the streets in jeans, their hair blowing free” in any American or European city would never be newsworthy, but that is precisely the point. Filkins’s piece is about the Middle East. He is inherently reaffirming the West’s stereotypical image of Middle Eastern women by virtue of making news of some Middle Eastern women wearing jeans and not wearing hijab.

Up until the first half of the 20th century, orientalists used to give more detailed descriptions of the societies they wrote of, but it seems they paved the way for today’s orientalists to have a simple checklist of things to look for: the use of technology, means of transportation, cuisine, and, of course, “women”. Thus, journalists such as Filkins now only need to spend a few days with the local people and keep a diary in order to give the English reader an “insider’s view” on a part of the Orient. No history, no political analysis, no sociology, and no knowledge of economics are required to report on Near Eastern affairs. Instead, what journalists rely on is the old anthropological sense of examining “culture” and the aforementioned checklist.

After delivering his over-simplified and selective account of the “new” Sulaimaniya, the second largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan, Filkins self-righteously expects Kurds to be grateful to the United States for their newfound relative prosperity. “Especially”, Filkins writes, “for the no-fly zone, erected in 1991, that kept Saddam’s armies at bay, until the U.S. took him and his government down, twelve years later.” Though this no-fly zone (NFZ) imposed by the American-led coalition on parts of Iraqi Kurdistan is now a habitually cited monument to American goodwill, as is also almost always the case when the “safe haven” for Kurds is invoked, Filkins does not mention anything about how that NFZ came about in the first place. It was not an American gift to Kurds, as Filkins implies. On the contrary, it was an American, British, and French emergency cover-up of a humanitarian crisis for which the US and its allies were mainly responsible.

Creating and Containing Zones of Disaster

As the Iran-Iraq War raged during the 1980s, it was the US that politically supported and militarily supplied Saddam’s regime, ultimately making the horrific acts of genocide against Kurds in 1987 and 1988 possible as well. Indeed, the support continued even as Saddam directed his entire arsenal, including chemical weapons, against the Kurdish regions of Iraq. In 1990, however, when Saddam’s army occupied Kuwait, the American-led coalition promptly attacked Iraq and decimated much of the country’s infrastructure.

At the peak of the propaganda war against Saddam’s regime, George H. W. Bush repeatedly urged Iraqis to rebel against Saddam, to “take matters into their own hands”.  In March 1991, the Shias in the south and the Kurds in the north did rise against Saddam. By March 21, 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces had been freed from Saddam’s control. However, far from helping Iraqis in their war against Saddam’s killing machine at Bush’s bidding, the US-backed ceasefire agreement signed that same month allowed Saddam to use his armed helicopters, which, along with Iraqi Republican Guard forces on the ground, played a major role in crushing the uprisings in the south and north.

Kurdish refugees

Kurdish refugees, 1991

Consequently, in Kurdistan millions of civilians fled the cities to escape Saddam’s violent revenge. The world was shocked by televised scenes of hundreds of miles of cold mountains rolling with human waves moving towards the Iranian and Turkish borders. Every day, thousands were dying from the cold, starvation, diseases, and, of course, the Iraqi bombardment. Then, on April 5, 1991, the UN Security Council passed resolution 688 that gave the US, the UK and France the authority to impose a NFZ forbidding Iraqi air forces from entering the area north of the 36th Parallel. The NFZ was mainly a result of international pressure, particularly from Turkey, but also Iran, in the face of the Kurdish refugee crisis along their borders with Iraq. This was the first implementation by the UN of a plan that ultimately turned part of the victims’ homeland into a refugee camp, thus containing the humanitarian crisis in the least expensive way possible, and at the same time saving Turkey the political consequences of having to deal with more Kurds in addition to its own unwanted Kurdish population.

There are three major facts commentators such as Filkins normally avoid, ignore, or do not know regarding these events:

  1. The NFZ above the 36th Parallel included only parts of those areas that the Iraqi government had many years previously (since 1970) recognized as Kurdistan. That is to say, the NFZ left arguably more than half of Kurds in Iraq, including many refugees along the Iranian border, still vulnerable to attack. In fact, it did not even include Sulaimaniya, the city Filkins describes and where he stayed.
  2. In response to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the UN had also imposed an economic embargo on all of Iraq in August of 1990 and it remained in place until 2003. This was the case in Iraqi Kurdistan as well, even after the Kurds managed to free the entire area, as well as some cities south of the 36th Parallel, such as Sulaimaniya, Halabja, Kalar, and Chamchamal, from Saddam’s control. As a result of this embargo the vast majority of Iraqi Kurds, like other Iraqis, suffered extreme conditions of starvation, malnutrition, lack of medicines, and the destruction of most of the infrastructure that had survived wars.  Additionally, the Kurds under the Kurdistan Regional Government were subjected to another embargo imposed by Saddam’s regime that also continued to varying degrees until 2003. As a result, most Iraqi Kurds were trapped in the three Kurdish provinces while the Iraqi regime and Coalition forces withheld essential food and medicine from them. These years should hardly constitute what Filkins characterizes as an enviable “decadelong head start on the rest of Iraq” for Kurds as a result of the NFZ.
  3. Starting from the end of August in 1991 the US, the UK, and France established a NFZ in southern Iraq as well, encompassing all of the country south of the 32nd Parallel (this was then extended to the 33rd Parallel in 1996). This NFZ covered a much vaster area than the northern NFZ. Therefore, in this sense, too, the Kurds received no preferential treatment from the US, contrary to what many American public figures and even some Kurds believe. Yet, this southern NFZ is rarely, if ever, mentioned in Western media, no doubt because in southern Iraq Western journalists are not treated to deluxe accommodations, parties, and booze.

 Who Helped Who?

In 2003, when George W. Bush’s administration decided to invade Iraq, Kurds unconditionally volunteered to do most of the dirty job on the northern fronts. Thus, for the second time (the first being in 1991) Kurdish forces controlled Kirkuk and other towns and cities with a Kurdish majority bordering Arab Iraq. They accomplished this feat in spite of the fact that Saddam had had an extra 12 years to Arabize these areas since George H. Bush’s 1991 betrayal of Kurds and Shias in Iraq. However, immediately after the fall of Saddam’s regime and upon Turkey’s request, the American forces asked the Kurdish Peshmerga to withdraw from these newly-captured areas and the Kurds obeyed. In doing so, they relinquished all the cities and towns (including Kirkuk and Khanaqin) that had been points of contention for decades.

Still, and often to the Americans’ surprise, naïve Kurds continued thanking America. In addition to granting Kurds the NFZ, America is also now credited with saving them from Saddam’s wrath. The truth, however, is that the U.S. and other Western countries should be blamed directly for making the atrocities Saddam committed against Kurds possible. Then in 2003, the already semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government’s forces were instrumental in assisting the Coalition by securing the northern fronts and later helping the Americans with security.

Nonetheless, with the passage of time and the circulation of such turns of phrase as “safe haven” or “liberation from Saddam” in reference to Kurds in Iraq, American soldiers, politicians, and even tourists have gradually started to feel they deserve to be thanked. Filkins is one of these many Americans who believe the lie. Hence, his above-mentioned shortcomings are by no means unique to his commentary. In fact, Filkins is merely repeating the narrative that has been so shrewdly crafted over the years to vindicate two botched U.S. invasions of Iraq with Kurdistan’s recent economic growth. Very rarely are the unjustifiable 13 years of embargo mentioned. Even less often, if ever, is the actual American role in the Kurds’ 2003 loss of Kirkuk mentioned. Nor do these superficial accounts of “the other Iraq” ever identify the largest beneficiaries of Iraqi Kurdistan’s booming economy, who are of course seldom those who suffered through the hardships of Saddam’s reign.

But Filkins also missed other facts that require no awareness of the events of the 1980s and 90s. For instance, the US is today the main supplier of weapons and military intelligence to Turkey in Turkey’s fight against the Kurdish movement for liberation. Does Filkins know that the Kurdish population in Turkey is at least four times larger than the Kurdish population in Iraq? Is there anything those Kurds should thank America for?

Likewise indicative of his blind faith in the US as a noble, modernizing force, Filkins also makes it sound as if American intervention in Iraq is the reason women in Kurdistan can walk on the streets. He seems to be ignorant of the fact that the 2003 American invasion in fact empowered the now numerous religious parties in Iraq, which terribly affected women’s freedoms in the entire country. Rather than emphasizing such realities, Filkins, after portraying a picture of prosperity for which he expects Kurds to thank the US, delivers the final orientalist touch by romanticizing daily life in Kurdistan.

There, according to Filkins, tradition and new technology co-exist in harmony; women are free to flaunt their hair and dance arm and arm with men; and children know no fears. The widespread corruption which disproportionately produces poverty for the sake of a very few elite who live in fortified villas, have bodyguards and servants, and deposit their millions in European banks in a country that still bears all the scars of war, seems to have escaped Filkins. Did he not notice the number of children forced by their circumstances to peddle everything from cigarettes to phone cards along busy streets “crammed with cars”?  With regard to women’s freedoms, Filkins makes no mention of the degree to which public space in Kurdistan remains male-dominated. Even the image of a picnic in Kurdistan, which was posted with his piece, excludes women entirely.

In truth, one cannot fail to see social oppression everywhere in Kurdistan, but let us make no mistake about this: the underlying ideological implication of Filkins’s commentary is that for Kurdistan, situated in the Middle East as it is, we can only expect so much.

Dr. Saladdin Ahmed holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Ottawa. He writes on topics varying from social and political philosophy to literature and Kurdish affairs. Some of his recent work has explored totalitarian space and the culturalization of political phenomena.

Blog: http://saladdinahmed.wordpress.com

Twitter: @sKajarvzadi

Copyright © 2013 Kurdistantribune.com

2 Responses to Kurdistan: a post-war paradise?
  1. kawa
    August 24, 2013 | 11:44

    Mr Filkins satisfaction when he visits Kurdistan is that Kurds embrace western culture. We should understand that we as human being always feel more comfortable when we deal with people close to us culturally and linguistically. For many westerns, the outcome of new Middle East is that Arabs, Turks and Persians, unlike 1970s, are proudly holding to their own culture and religion. Westerns love to see a big nation like Kurds where majority of them put culture and religion aside following western culture. The way I see it that after 40 years or so we [Kurd] will realize that we are in wrong path as our neighbors did only lacking behind 3 or 4 decades.

  2. Suleiyman
    August 24, 2013 | 11:44

    Nice critique. Sulaimaniya is very diverse and I must say I am proud of the level of coexistence in this city. You walk on the streets and you can see people on both soectrums ( easily see women who wear full hijab and others who drink as the article says) and no one goes to force their will on others. However, many mislead and ignorant western journalists would make a big deal out of it mainly to serve their own profiles and agendas.

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