Don’t confuse Iraq’s views with those common in Kurdistan

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of Benjamin Kweskin’s account of his 10 months in Iraqi Kurdistan. In the first part Feb. 6, the Charlotte native and Decatur resident discussed the appeal of the region for Jewish tourists.

By Benjamin Kweskin

More than a handful of people thought my wife, Whitney, and I were insane when we shared that we were going to live in Kurdistan, technically part of northern Iraq, a country officially in a state of war with Israel, and were moving a mere five days after our wedding.

Photo by Benjamin Kweskin: The bazaar in Erbil is one sign of how the Kurds have thrived as a semiautonomous region without interference from Baghdad.

“Honeymoon in Kurdistan!” my sister opined.

Kurdistan is an amazing destination and has a great deal of Jewish-related aspects.

By coincidence, the day before we married, I met a Kurdish man who works at a local camp as a mashgiach (kosher supervisor). I told him that in six days my bride and I would be moving to Kurdistan for 10 months.

He assured my parents and me that we should not worry because he was confident we would be treated well.

Kurdistan, also known as the Kurdistan Region of Iraq or Iraqi Kurdistan, is roughly 500 miles from Israel, and though there are no direct flights between the countries, you can fly via Amman, Jordan, or Istanbul, Turkey, or from Europe.

You need not fly to Baghdad or any other part of Iraq proper to enter Kurdistan; the identification cards we were issued by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) stipulated we were free to travel anywhere within the recognized KRG but not the rest of Iraq.

While only 6 million of the estimated 40 million Kurds live in northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Region is the closest they have come to attaining complete political and economic independence.

Kurdistan is a semiautonomous region, and the Iraqi army is not allowed to set foot in within the KRG. The Kurds maintain their own armed forces, the peshmerga.

The Kurdistan Region operates as a state within a state with its own regional parliament, police force and education system. The Kurds’ social norms, political views and general values are significantly different from those in the rest of Iraq. Sharia (Islamic law) is only one of several influencing legal codes, unlike many Muslim-majority countries, and religiously conservative Islamic political parties do not receive many votes in elections.

As the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, Kurds have a history that spans thousands of years. Their culture is rich and diverse, and religions that predate Judaism persevere despite the many centuries of hardships.

Entire Kurdish communities were eradicated during Al-Anfal campaign, in which Saddam Hussein’s forces killed 180,000 Kurds and destroyed 4,500 villages, considered a genocide by Kurds.

Kurdistan also had been the home to a remarkable and often thriving Jewish community for nearly 3,000 years. Many villages and towns featured a great deal of mutual respect and friendships, and some villages were inhabited entirely by Jews, such as Sindur Yahud (Jewish Sindur), northeast of Dohuk, Kurdistan’s third-largest city.

I first learned of the Kurds and their vast, beautiful, largely mountainous country in a place with slightly smaller mountains: Boone, N.C., home of Appalachian State University. One of my assigned books included a small paragraph on these non-Arab, non-Persian, non-Turkish, non-Jewish people living in a country that does not officially exist but spans almost all of eastern Turkey and includes northern and eastern Syria, nearly a third of Iraq in its north, and a portion of northern and western Iran.

What began as a purely academic interest grew into something much greater and larger than I anticipated. I learned that these people, though overwhelmingly Muslim, stress “Kurdishness” or Kurdish identity over religion. For example, the centerpiece of their national flag is a golden sun with 21 rays — a Zoroastrian and Yezidi symbol. Though Kurds are mostly Sunni Muslim, they include Christians, Yezidis, Jews and others. Jews who made aliyah from Kurdistan, starting in the 16th century, are estimated to number nearly 100,000 in Israel. The majority live in or near Jerusalem, though several kibbutzim and moshavim are largely populated by Kurdish Jews.

Whitney and I had jobs teaching the children of Kurdistan’s elite and nouveau riche, some of whom came to school with burly bodyguards toting Hello Kitty book bags or had personal drivers escort them from sprawling suburban mansions in the latest Range Rover or Escalade.

We taught English and history and lived in an on-campus apartment, which was convenient and roomy — we had two bedrooms and three bathrooms along with a full balcony and central heating and air conditioning.

Though we were often in town during the week, we had all the freedom we wanted and often took off during the weekends, from visiting the ancient Yezidi village of Lalish, with its ancient, conical shrines and colorful cloth; to the imposing, snow-capped mountains that overlook forbidden Iran; to the small town of Barzan, surrounded by lush green valleys crisscrossed with a fast-rushing river forded by many over several millennia.

Traveling was easy, and though there are some public buses, we mostly traveled in shared or private taxis.

Kurds are renowned for their hospitality; on countless occasions strangers asked where we were from and invited us into their homes — perhaps a strange custom to Westerners but a sign of honor and respect to Kurds and many other Middle Easterners.

Many times our tea was free, and at restaurants our meals were discounted — just because we were guests and the proprietors wanted us to feel welcome in Kurdistan (never did anyone say Iraq).

On one occasion in Amedi, a city built atop a beautiful plateau, a middle-aged man visiting his family from Germany overheard my wife and me speaking and invited us into his brother’s home for lunch. Though we did not accept this offer, it highlights the fact that people always treated us respectfully and were excited to expose foreigners to their culture, history and country.