At Home in the New Kurdistan

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 third dispatch for the Washington Monthly.


AT HOME IN THE NEW KURDISTAN….In the bazaar in Sulaimania I can buy almost anything. It’s my second day in town, and I’m walking through a byzantine maze of stone passages where merchants sell everything from swords to bedroom sets. It’s the latter that my friend Dr. Nazm is interested in, because he and his wife Dr. Shosha are trying to furnish their new home. They are in their mid-20s, roughly my age and recently married. In a scene repeated throughout the bazaar Dr. Nazm enters into fierce negotiations with a merchant, their voices ranging from annoyed to amused.

Dr. Shosha picks up a long, sharp knife, and points it at her husband. “I am terroreest,” she flirts. Seven or eight minutes later, long after I’ve lost interest, Dr. Nazm ends his verbal assault and money changes hands. The couple walks away with four triple A batteries. “For my camera,” Dr. Nazm explains.

With the mountains in the background, Sulaimania is prettier than ramshackle Erbil. It is also in the midst of an economic boom. The approach to town reveals new tree-lined walkways and construction sites. Older buildings crumbling from lack of maintenance are being replaced everywhere by new ones, despite the fact that these too will be poorly maintained. People are spending discretionary income on consumer goods even as the service sector remains undeveloped. An insufficient electric grid? Buy a generator. A crater in the middle of your road? Buy a truck.

It occurs to me that this is the kind of city that Americans love. Centered around the bazaar it is hectic and optimistic, and its people are hungry for knowledge of the outside world. Whenever I mention I’m an American I am met with smiles and questions about my country. Each person that I speak with long enough reveals a horror story from the days of Baathist rule, but the stories hardly seem relevant now. Even the security presence ? heavy by any standard ? is unobtrusive amidst the clammer of pedestrian traffic.

The journey from Erbil to Sulaimania is also a transition from KDP to PUK-governed Kurdistan. Both parties are too powerful for their own good, and each finances a separate peshmerga force as well as a large private economy that serves as a patronage system in their respective zones. Party checkpoints along the road delineate the boundaries. The mobile phone system is also divided, with AsiaCell (PUK) users in Sulaimania unable to communicate with Korek (KDP) users in Erbil. Even the hotel I am staying in is part of the PUK financial fiefdom. The situation is currently peaceful, but armed political parties are in their nature unstable things, and I wonder who stands to benefit if the system ossifies. Perhaps political Islam, a thought that makes the secular Kurdish politicians shudder.

Getting Kurds to talk openly about this situation has been a challenge the past few days, and I suspect the hesitation in voicing criticism is itself a barrier to change. “Free speech yes,” says Dr. Nazm, “but not as free.”

Meetings with government ministers and university professors are a requirement before we can begin our work in Halabja. It’s a bureaucratic minefield, but I am fortunate because my Kurdish friends know how to navigate it. Most of the time I am required only to keep my mouth shut or to eat something. Given the chance to watch the Kurds move about their city, this suits me fine.


Posts in this series:

January 18: At Home in the New Kurdistan
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.