Culture in Kurdistan!
by Rob Ferguson
One evening at the German bar, one of our regular haunts, an easy-going new teacher at our university asked me where I was from.
“Guess,” I said. I love playing this game. He’d just told me he was from Colorado.
“California,” he said right away.
I laughed. “Canada,” I said, “Toronto to be exact, although I grew up in Winnipeg.”
“Really?” He looked surprised and a little disappointed. “But your accent and style are totally California.”
“Well every time I’ve visited California I’ve always felt right at home, as if I am from there.”
He eyed me quizzically, like you Canadians, so much like us, but then…. Americans are sometimes slightly suspicious of Canadians, as if we get an easy ride being them in essence but with public healthcare, less crime, boring liberal politics and colder winters.
“I love BC,” he said later, after more beers. “I’d love to live there.” But then he blurted out, “Canada doesn’t really have any culture, does it?”
I laughed, but it stung. If it wasn’t so noisy, if we hadn’t had too many beers, and if I knew him better, I would have argued it out. No doubt at some point I’d have brought up “gun culture.”
“Culture,” according to LiveScience.com, “is the characteristics of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts. Today, in the United States as in other countries populated largely by immigrants, the culture is influenced by the many groups of people that now make up the country.”
Which brings us around to Kurdistan. Disturbingly Lonely Planet Middle East lists “Family Mall,” the biggest shopping center in Erbil, under “Best for Culture” in Iraq. How that happened I’m not sure because the Kurds have a very rich and ancient culture that has survived centuries of repression by Arabs, Turks and Iranians, many of whom still tend to view Kurds with superior disdain. But like other oppressed minorities – think of the Jews, the Basques, Mennonites – Kurds have not only held on to their traditions but are fiercely proud of them. Kurdish music is popular and distinctive and conducive to jumping up and dancing – I have succumbed myself a number of times. The food, particularly dolma, somewhat similar to cabbage rolls, is delicious, social habits if to a westerner seem narrowly focused on marriage and segregation of the sexes (see my blog “Sex and Booze in Kurdistan!”) are wholly theirs, and of course they all speak Kurdish.
Recently on Arab Idol, a Middle East version of American Idol from Beirut, Parwas Hussein, the first Kurdish contestant to participate in the show (note it’s called Arab Idol), created a buzz by reaching the contest’s semi-finals without speaking Arabic – most Kurds under thirty don’t speak Arabic as it’s no longer taught in the school system. Then when Ahlam, an Arab Emirati singer and a judge on the show, said during an episode that Parwas represented Iraq and not the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, she was loudly booed by Kurds in the audience. Later Ahlam apologized to the Kurdish people, and Hussein was introduced on the show as “a Kurdish contestant from the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.” In a letter addressed to the Kurdish people, Ahlam said she considered Hussein’s contribution to the show to be a “message of love and peace.”
That victory was absolutely huge for the acceptance of Kurdish culture in the Middle East.
But Lonely Planet is right that when it comes to sophisticated bright lights, big city culture – alas, Erbil is not a city of the arts. There are almost no art galleries, bookstores, theatres, gentrified neighbourhoods, or any of the other trappings that make big cities urbane, cultured and stylish. Recently, an old friend and fellow Canadian emailed me that he’d just flown over the city on a flight from Entebbe to Istanbul. “What’s it like?” he asked full of curiosity. “Kind of like a Middle East version of Calgary,” I emailed back. But that is likely unfair to Calgary as I understand it’s come a long way in creating its own cultural attractions.
And thanks to oil money, Kurds who have spent time living in the west and young people exposed to global popular culture, Erbil is likely to change too. Already there are cafés all over the city, and despite being alarmingly overpriced, they are filled with cool-looking types with laptops and iPads, some holding business meetings, some quietly chatting online, and others just guiltily indulging in a thick slice of tiramisu cake while they gossip.
There’s even a little pocket of sophistication developing in a suburb called Dream City – yes, that’s really its name – an exclusive neighbourhood being fashioned out of the dusty Mesopotamian plain. In its centre is a cluster of cafés, restaurants and shops around a piazza with an impressive fountain. On a hot summer night – Erbil has months of them – the Mercedes’, Jaguars and Land Rovers are lined up along the street creating an elegant traffic jam, every table on the patio of the Italian café is taken, and upstairs above it a Colombian entertainer is singing in Spanish to the clientele of a smart and properly expensive steakhouse.
But the aspect of culture here that stands out the most is Kurdish unpretentiousness. Erbil is a big overgrown town and most of the Kurds who live here are down-to-earth types, smiling easily, respecting foreigners like me way too much and, outwardly anyway, just going about their lives and enjoying them. Washing cars on weekends and going to the mall are regular pastimes, and Kurdish snobbery seems a contradiction in terms.
And Family Mall? Well, despite its many attractions, apparently it’s about to get usurped by several new more fashionable malls. One of my students told me about one of them just the other day.
“It’s going to have all the best shops!” she said excitably. “It means I won’t have to go to Dubai to buy clothes!” But then she confided, “Of course I’ll still go anyway. I love Dubai!”
Rob Ferguson has worked in communications and as a trainer in his native Canada, Vanuatu, Mongolia, Central Asia, the Caribbean island of Montserrat, Colombia and the Kurdistan region of Iraq. He has also worked as a freelance journalist, editor and instructor of English, creative writing and journalism. He is the author of *Dancing with the Vodka Terrorists: Misadventures in the 'Stans*, available from here. He currently lives and works in Erbil, Kurdistan Region, Iraq. This blog originated here. Contact Rob Ferguson at: FaceBook: Robert W Ferguson. Instagram & Twitter: robertissimmo
More by Rob FergusonThe Jihadists are Coming!
I’m in Kurdistan!
Life in Erbil, the New Dubai!
Into the Zagros Mountains!
Christmas in Gali Ali Beg!
Spring in Kurdistan!
Sex and Booze in Kurdistan!
I Kiss Your Eyes, Habibi!
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