Kurds and Jews

KURDS AND JEWS….When it comes to social decorum doctors in every country are the same. The old ones want their asses kissed, the young ones are waiting for the day when their asses will be kissed, and the medical students resent all the asses they are kissing. Kurdistan is no exception, and the social amenities of medicine mesh nicely with the local custom of showing deference to the wishes of older men. As a medical student I’m firmly in the should-be-kissing-ass group, but tonight I am fortunate to be present for an exception.

I sit down with Dr. Z at the Kameliati, a social club situated in Sulaimania’s Azadi (“Freedom”) Park. This area, a large section of town, is the site of a former Baath military base, a universally dreaded place where hundreds of city residents once disappeared without a trace. When I first met with Dr. Z he had been reserved and formal, and we spent ten minutes posing for photographs in front of a portrait of Jalal Talabani. But at the end he had invited me to the Kameliati, and I suspect what he really wanted was a drink.

The waiters ? most of them patients of the doctor ? bring out several courses of hommus, vegetables, and salads. The doctor drinks scotch and I have a few beers. The Islamic taboo aside, many Kurdish men enjoy alcohol when removed from the public gaze, and it helps break past the formalized behavior that the culture requires in public. As the conversation turns to politics, I realize that Dr. Z is liberal by Kurdish standards, declining to say anything derogatory about Arabs or Turks, even when we discuss the atrocities.

He then pauses for moment. “Let me ask you this,” he says. “Is it true that the Jews escaped on September 11th?”

Dr. Z is one of the most educated people in Iraq. “No, it’s bullshit,” I say. I’m trying not to act irritated. I want badly to get further into this, but there are some things I’m still not comfortable revealing. “I think so too,” he concludes.

In Kurdistan, unique amongst Muslim countries, there is a pro-Israel sentiment. This is by no means universal, and on some occasions Kurds that are working with me receive hostile comments because I am “not Muslim.” But the Israelis helped the Kurds militarily as far back as the 1960s, and before I left New York I spoke with an Israeli doctor who had been with the KDP guerrilas in their mountain fortress of Rowanduz at that time. In Sulaimania I met one doctor who described Kurdistan as “the second Israel,” though he intended the comparison as a gripe against the Americans for failing to support the Kurds more unconditionally.

Another friend, a KDP man, explained to me that he supports Israel because he believes chauvanism is an ingrained feature of Arab politics. “They have 25 countries,” he said. “And still there is this talk of pushing the Jews into the sea. In Kurdistan we have been fighting this thinking for centuries, and believe me we are very tired.”

Over kebabs and arak my KDP friend tells me a Kurdish parable. A man is crazy. He believes he is a flower and birds are trying to eat him. A doctor takes him to the hospital. After months of treatment he improves. “I am not a flower,” he tells himself. As he is walking home from the hospital he looks up at the sky. “I know I am not a flower,” he thinks. “But those birds still want to eat me. How do I convince them that I am not a flower?”

I thought about this for a few minutes, and it gave me a better understanding of both Kurdistan and Israel.


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. Other posts in this series:

January 25: Kurds and Jews
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.