The Other Iraq

I just returned from a visit to the Kurdish region of Iraq.

While the Kurdish region is close to some troubled areas of Iraq, it is quite distinct and separate from them.

Iraqi Kurdistan, as the region is commonly called, is a very safe travel destination if you are a part of a tour group or have well laid out travel plans. The quality of its roads is good, the incidence of violent crime is very low and there aren’t any major health epidemics. It has been affected economically by Iraq’s struggle with ISIS, but its territory was never significantly encroached.

Kurdistan is an autonomous region of Iraq with its own government, its own laws and its own security apparatus. There are indeed commercial and economic connections with Baghdad. However, outside of this, you feel like you are in an independent region.

Kurdistan represents the other Iraq. In describing the Kurdish people, I would say they are hardy and refreshingly honest. I was never hassled at the bazaars and never felt taken advantage of at any of the shops. Their behavior to both the men and to the women of my group always seemed quite pleasant.

I think that the culture I witnessed is a human reaction to a very tragic and unstable past. Under Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi Kurds were subject to mass persecution in the 1980s. This period is referred to as the Al-Anfal campaign or more commonly, the Kurdish genocide. Tens of thousands of Kurdish people were killed. There was also the refugee crisis of 1991 and the mass killing and persecution of the Yazidi people by ISIS just a few years ago.

These events could have served as an intensely sobering and grounding influence on the Kurdish population and on their life outlook.

Over an even longer period, the Kurdish people have been twisting in the world’s political winds. For more than a century, the Kurds have strived for a meaningful level of political freedom and self-determination. However, their geographic distribution has worked hugely to their detriment.

Most of the world’s Kurdish population is represented by minority groups spread across four countries: Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Each of these countries is fearful about how more Kurdish freedoms can threaten their sovereignty. At the same time, even the Kurdish allies are hesitant about promoting an independent Kurdish state. Such an occurrence could threaten traditional alliances and upset the power balance in the Middle East (while the Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed a degree of autonomy since 1991, they are not recognized as an independent state by the rest of the world.)

Dealing with the Kurdish independence dilemma is a politically convoluted one and amounts to trying to push out the Jenga block at the bottom of a full stack. It is almost impossible without at least taking some time to loosen a few of the blocks above. Even then, a subtle miscalculation can cause the entire tower to fall.

So why should we be interested in the Kurdish people?

First, their struggle is symbolic of the plight of many of the world’s minorities.

There is that adage that “majority rules.” However, it has often been a mistake historically to not address the needs of a country’s minority population. Unfortunately, in many cases, minorities get suppressed and this leads to long-term issues.

Second, and in my opinion, the United States has no stronger ally in the region. The Iraqi Kurds have thrown their eggs in the US basket and they played an instrumental role in the defeat of ISIS. They represented many of the boots on the ground and they have done much of what the US and our western allies have asked them to do. The Kurds are also allies of Israel in a traditionally unfriendly neighborhood for this country.

The most interesting aspect of the trip for me was exploring a middle eastern culture that was very unfamiliar to myself and perhaps many others.  It is too easy to generalize the activities within a country or a region and it is amazing what additional insights can be gained by doing some research.

The beauty of travel from my perspective is not only about the destination, but also about those with whom you travel. I was part of a very good tour group. It was an eclectic one containing several young people developing a thirst for travel and for seeing things new. This was mixed with some veteran travelers that had already seen much of the world (some having visited most countries currently in existence). I place myself somewhere in the middle of the two; feeding off the energy of the former while learning a lot from the latter.