The developing would-be nation finds much in common with Jews
This is the third part of Decatur resident Benjamin Kweskin’s account of his 10 months living in Iraqi Kurdistan with his wife, Whitney. Find the first two parts at atlantajewishtimes.com.
By Benjamin Kweskin
Kurdistan is not a country you will see on most maps because it is not officially recognized by the international community — yet. But travelers will be hard pressed to find any Iraqi flags flying there, just as they will be hard pressed to find any Kurd who thinks of himself or herself as Iraqi.
Unlike in many Middle Eastern countries, Israelis and those who have Israel stamped on their passports are waved into Kurdistan without any hassle.
No longer isolated and ignored, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is increasingly an economic and political force to be reckoned with. Its military, bolstered by the United States, the United Kingdom and other Western countries, has proved itself on the battlefield against Islamic State terrorists and has pushed them back.
This secular, democratic government is tolerant of different ethnic and religious communities and is proud that there were zero U.S. casualties in the Kurdistan Region when American troops were stationed in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. We know a former serviceman who used to sneak off base into Ankawa so he could purchase alcohol for his men, always making it to the shops and back to base with no trouble whatsoever (other than the tongue-lashing from his commanding officer in the morning).
The economy, sustained through vast oil and gas reserves, has suffered in recent months but is in far better shape than the rest of Iraq. The region has a steadily rising middle class, rapid urbanization and a large youth population that does not know Arab rule or even speak Arabic in many cases.
Infrastructure has vastly improved with highways and tunnels being laid. The region has more than a dozen institutions of higher learning and more new high-rise condominiums and commercial developments than anywhere I have been.
Though the Kurds are quickly modernizing and Westernizing, they have begun to seriously maintain their archaeological, historical and natural sites, such as the famed Citadel, continuously inhabited for over 7,000 years; the Roman-era bridge in Zakho; the dramatic waterfalls of Geli Alig Begg and Ahmad Awa; and Shanidar, a huge cave near a large river where several Neanderthal remains were found in the 1950s by Ralph Solecki, a professor from Columbia University.
Ties between the Kurds and Jews and Israelis draw increasing awareness and interest, and many believe that the two peoples share a great deal of culture, history and values. In 1991, when Saddam Hussein began the brutal suppression of the Kurdish uprising, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) accused the United States of “demonstrating a shameful abdication of political and moral responsibility” and urged Washington to do more. Israeli Kurds demonstrated in front of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s office.
Recently, Jews and Israelis have shown strong support for Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State, and several months ago a Canadian-Israeli woman openly joined Kurdish fighters in Syria. Many Kurds proudly appear with their Jewish friends in photos, and some have visited Israel and experienced the vibrant Israeli Kurdish community, which has an estimated population of 100,000. Kurds have taken to social media in support of Israel and Jewish causes, appeared with Israeli flags, and even had the Star of David tattooed on them.
A couple of years ago, the student body of one of the most prestigious universities in the KRG voted in favor of establishing diplomatic ties with Israel by a ratio of 3-to-1.
On one of our first excursions outside Erbil, Whitney and I traveled to the third-largest city in Kurdistan, Dohuk, near Turkey. A film festival was happening that weekend, and we walked into the hall and saw a large poster for an Israeli movie that happens to be one of my favorites, “Ballad of the Weeping Spring.” Sadly, we missed the screening by one day.
In some Middle Eastern countries, merely screening an Israeli film would be grounds for imprisonment.
Some people seek relations based on the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” philosophy, but that only scratches the surface of deep Jewish-Kurdish relations.
The Kurdistan Region is a growing hub: Visitors will see American and European fast-food chains, multinational companies of all sorts, international development agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and representational offices from institutions such as the International Red Cross, the European Union and the United Nations. More than 20 countries, including the United States, have consulates.
Tourists will be comfortable and well taken care of, especially if they are on tours with larger groups, and security can easily be arranged and coordinated if requested. But the KRG is interested in maintaining an image of peace, tolerance and stability for its citizens and for foreign tourists.
Still, tourists should understand that the KRG has not been able to facilitate the first-class travel experience of other countries because most industries are in their developmental stages.
Luxury services are available, including hotels and resorts, and fine dining is an option in the larger cities. There is at least one ski resort, and you can kayak down a rapid-filled river or climb and hike some of Iraq’s tallest peaks in the first official nature preserve. You also can join in pickup soccer games with the neighborhood boys, who likely will ask whether you prefer Real Madrid or Barcelona.
I am often asked whether I had a good time and how it was living in a place most people have never heard of and can’t locate on a map. It is difficult to convey that my wife and I felt comfortable living in a foreign land that felt comfortably familiar. Perhaps it was in part because I had studied the place and people for so long or because we have so many friends from the Kurdish community.
We both had lived in other countries, however, and traveled to many others before this latest excursion, and we knew how challenging it could be to live in a foreign country. Nearly everyone we came into contact with was polite, hospitable and welcoming of our presence as Americans.
Kurdistan is a mystery for most foreigners, although less so today because of recent exposure from the international media. It is a beautiful, fascinating and developing region that is seeking to balance Eastern and Western influences, and it is a place that has deep links to Jewish history that should not be missed.