Despatch from Kurdistan


Just what takes someone all the way from Belfield to Iraq’s ‘Kurdistan’ provence? Journalist and former UCD exchange student Matt Frazer reveals all

When I told my dear old Grandma that I was going to Iraq, she didn’t just gasp audibly, I was very nearly responsible for prematurely ending her exceedingly mature life. Actually, I tell a lie, I didn’t tell her outright I was going to Iraq, I told her I was going to “Kurdistan” – a country that doesn’t appear on any map you’re likely to find. “And where is that dear?” she asked. “Umm… Iraq,” I replied.

Cue myself having to reassure the old duck that the Kurdish Regional Government (“the KRG”) is “basically an independent country”, and that there’s “only been two major explosions since the war began” which is “the same as London, and you let me live there – and as God is my witness, I wish you hadn’t”.

“But you hate the desert,” she poses. Actually, unbeknown to most, much of northern Iraq is actually lush and green for many months of the year – indeed I’ve seen more snow here in the last two months than I did in my whole year at University College Dublin. Some of the untouched natural landscapes here are absolutely stunning – picturesque villages sit at the foot of enormous, snow-capped mountains. Kurdistan rivals Lebanon for the title of “the Switzerland of the Middle-East” – just without all the electricity and clean drinking water.

But no, the reason I actually decided to come here was an intense interest in the geopolitical situation and its importance for the future of the Islamic Middle East. I’ve always been fascinated by questions of ethnicity, minority rights, identity and manufactured identity, legitimate use of force, and above all culture (perhaps because my home country, Australia, itself has slightly less culture than a tub of Tesco’s worst yogurt). So I thought it would be a good opportunity to try and become a journalist proper.

The Kurds are arguably the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of their own. They are an ethnic Iranian people (that is, non-Arab, and part of the Indo-European language group) of at least 25 million, sprawled out across the Middle East. The land of Kurdistan covers parts of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and a very large part of eastern Turkey. The boundaries of these states, drawn up by France and Britain in the aftermath of WWI as they divvied up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire between them, are just as arbitrary, and painful, for the Kurds as they are for everyone else. But whereas in the past being Kurdish and Iraqi was to be native to the least fortunate part of Kurdistan – subject to Saddam’s brutal rule and genocidal campaigns – for the post-US invasion generation, it is to “win the [Kurdish] lottery of life”.

Since the end of the First Gulf War, thanks to the US-UK-France implemented No-Fly Zone, the Iraqi Kurds have been building their nation – but not until the 2003 invasion definitively toppled the Ba’ath regime have they been able to develop a liberal democracy in the heart of the Middle East. The two dominant political forces – the KDP and the PUK – who divide Iraqi Kurdistan along broadly linguistic-tribal lines, have put aside their not inconsiderable differences (in 1994-1997 they fought the obligatory civil war that follows any long-sought-after independence, killing as many as 5,000) and worked together to build an independent Kurdish nation-state, with the benefit of the hefty economic wealth the region’s oil reserves bestow.

Many things about Iraqi Kurdistan might surprise you. For a start, the Kurds of Iraq are perhaps the most pro-American people on the planet – together with Albania, the only two places in the world I’ve been where it is actually a good thing to be mistaken for an American. But they love the West as a whole, and virtually everyone you meet has a family member living in France, Britain, Holland, Canada, or Germany.

Alcohol is freely available and consumed in the big cities; most women do not wear a hijab – in fact, almost 30 per cent of the elected MPs in Kurdistan are female, compared to 13.9 per cent in the Dáil; and, most significantly, there is an incredible amount of gingers. I’ve travelled the world over and I would confidently assert that outside of Britain and Ireland, Iraqi Kurdistan has the highest per capita incidence of ginger hair.

Although all this is true, scratch the surface and not all is as rosy as sounds. Corruption and nepotism are rife – and not the cuddly, ‘Bertie Ahern chucking a few euros aside for his auld drinking buddies’ kind of corrupt, but the ‘beating and detaining journalists kind of corrupt, siphoning off tens of millions of dollars of oil money to Swiss bank accounts’ kind of corrupt.

Nevertheless, the mere fact that incidents of this sort are openly printed in newspapers and discussed on talk radio – albeit with some brave souls having to suffer some cuts and bruises and the odd night in jail – means that the country is headed in the right direction. The national elections this Sunday, 7th March, are crucial; the opposition Movement for Change (Listi Gorran) is expected to win the stronghold of one-half of the governing coalition of Iraqi Kurdistan. If they do, and power changes hands reasonably peacefully, it will be a watershed moment in the history of democracy in the Middle East, and a crushing blow the proponents of Huntington’s obscene ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis.

The best case scenario for the Kurdish region of Iraq is another Dubai without the primitive tribalism and religious extremism, and with genuine civil society and rule of law. The worst case scenario, however, doesn’t even bare thinking about.