City of Refugees

Jonathan Dworkin, a medical student in his final year at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan from January to March of 2006. This is his second dispatch for the Washington Monthly.


CITY OF REFUGEES….I am in the house of Kak Lolan, a run down but beautiful stone structure in Erbil?s citadel. This is a part of town inhabited continuously since the time of the Assyrians, though in recent decades it has decayed into slums. The house is now the Erbil Textile Museum, an institution begun by Kak Lolan to staunch the exodus of one of Kurdistan?s great art forms.

Kak Lolan grew up in a shepherd’s family surrounded by kilim ? Kurdish tapestry ? but it wasn?t until he studied anthropology in the United States that he developed an appreciation of the tradition as a cultural resource. According to my host, two events nearly destroyed the craft altogether. The first was Saddam?s military incursions ? the infamous Anfal Campaign of 1988 ? which leveled thousands of villages and drove the survivors into urban centers. Cities like Erbil and Sulimani swelled with refugees as the countryside crumbled. The other event, ironically, was the establishment of semi-autonomous Kurdistan in 1991. This opened the country to the UN and foreign visitors, who promptly exported the most exceptional kilim to Turkey and the EU.

The textile museum contains hundreds of colorful kilim, complete with descriptions of their tribal origins. But what makes it interesting from a social perspective is the window it offers into an aspect of Kurdish culture that was buried with the lost villages. Forced urbanization was a central feature of the Anfal campaign, and the Kurdish connection to an agrarian lifestyle was one of its principal victims.

Later in the evening I link up with an American friend, and together with an Arab employee of the Erbil International Hotel we head to Anqawa. This is a Christian town near Erbil, and it is the center of the post-Anfal relief effort, hosting NGOs and hundreds of foreign workers. It?s also the center of beer and shisha, a place where people go for fun without risk of running into their imam.

We settle into a seat at Happy Times, a smoke-filled pizza restaurant that contains colored lamps and a large screen TV. Bare armed beauties in Lebanese pop videos are the only women present in a crowded room. Our Arab acquaintance, who we will call M, is originally from Mosul, and after the American invasion he and a friend worked as interpreters for the 101st Airborne, which was stationed in the Mosul area. These were excellent people according to M. Relations with the Arab population were handled deftly, and property damages were quickly and quietly compensated.

Later a new unit arrived, and the policy became more standoffish. The soldiers had their reasons, force protection being one of them, though M argues that simple cultural incompetence also played a role. But whatever their rationale, relations with community leaders slowly deteriorated, and in the aftermath of the Falluja assault the situation exploded. The Iraqi police force collapsed, and soon afterward M?s friend was shot. A campaign of violence now consumes almost every family that cooperates with the Americans. The reconstituted police are worthless and terrified, he says; they will let anything on four wheels pass a checkpoint. M fled to Erbil, where the Kurds distrust him because he?s an Arab, and he lives in a constant state of fear that someone visiting from Mosul will recognize him.

Looking around when I return to the Erbil International, I notice that many of the employees are Arab. Often they don?t speak Kurdish. How many of these people are Kudistan?s new refugees?

As someone sympathetic to America?s broader political aims in Iraq, listening to M leaves me feeling bleak and irritated. Here is a man, rational and well-intentioned in every way, and he?s a stranger in his own country. No matter how you look at it, the inability of America to protect its friends is one of the defining failures of the Iraq war.


Posts in this series:

January 14: City of Refugees
January 11: First Impressions

Jonathan Dworkin

Jonathan Dworkin Dworkin is an infectious diseases doctor. He’s the author of the first medical study to investigate the long-term social impact of chemical weapons on the people of Halabja, Iraqi Kurdistan. His more recent work has focused on typhoid fever in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimania. He has written several articles on Kurdish culture, Kurdish politics, and relations with America.