Diving into a Troubled Past: A Journey to Iraqi Kurdistan

Celebration of Nowruz with the inhabitants of the village of Akre.

Dan Brotman recounts his trip to Kurdistan.

“DDig a hole in Kurdistan,” our local guide said, “and you’ll find a mass grave, oil or antiquities.”

My previous associations with Iraq were Saddam Hussein and war, but I landed in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, with an open mind. The Kurds are a stateless nation of 30 million people, straddling the modern borders of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. They are also the fourth ethnic group in the Middle East, most similar to Persians, and speak Kurdish, not Arabic. In fact, I don’t think I heard Arabic spoken once during my entire week of visit.

About 5 million Kurds live in an autonomous region of Iraq governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government, recognized in the Iraqi Constitution since 2005, after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Although they hold Iraqi passports and use Iraqi money, the Kurds have their own army, known as the Peshmerga, which means “those who face death”.

US-supplied tanks used against the Kurds on display at Sulaymaniyah Red Prison.
US-supplied tanks used against the Kurds on display at Sulaymaniyah Red Prison.

Unlike their compatriots in southern Iraq, Kurds generally hold favorable, albeit complicated, views of both the United States and Israel. They are grateful to the Americans for freeing them from their supreme oppressor, Saddam Hussein, and to Israel for being the only country to recognize their 2017 independence referendum. Last September, more than 300 Iraqi personalities from across the countries gathered at a conference in Erbil, calling for the normalization of relations with Israel.

A complicated story

I was reminded of the complex Kurdish relationship with the United States when we visited the red prison of Sulaymaniyah. Operational from 1979 to 1991, it was the location used by the Baathist regime to imprison, torture and execute Kurdish men, women and children suspected of opposing the government. On display are tanks provided by the US government to Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran war, which he later used against his Kurdish citizens.

Kurds lament that President Donald Trump withdrew his troops from Syria, which led Turkey to bomb Kurdish forces and force tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds to flee their homes.

In the ancient Jewish town of Amadiya.
In the ancient Jewish town of Amadiya.

We entered the museum through the Hall of Mirrors, whose walls are adorned with 182,000 shards of glass, reminiscent of the Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial and representing the number of victims killed by Saddam Hussein’s soldiers. Above were 6,000 ceiling lights representing the number of villages wiped off the map in the late 1980s during a campaign known as the Anfalmeaning “spoils of war” in Arabic.

A new section of the museum pays tribute to Kurdish soldiers who were martyred in the fight against ISIS, including the female fighters ISIS feared most. In the town of Duhok, we had breakfast in a café where the walls are adorned from top to bottom with pictures of martyred Kurdish soldiers fighting Daesh, with 25% of the profits from the café going directly to their families.

The Barzani Genocide Victims Cemetery and Monument exhibits the remains of 8,000 Kurdish boys and men from the Barzani tribe, who are believed to have supported Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. In July 1983, men from the Barzani tribe, some as young as 10, were abducted by the Iraqi army and never heard from him again. It was only after the defeat of Saddam Hussein in 2003 that mass graves were discovered in the south and the mystery surrounding their disappearance was solved. The haunting museum displays identity documents, clothing and even dentures belonging to the victims, some of whom were buried alive in mass graves.

Martyrs Cafe in Duhok, where 25% of profits go to the families of peshmerga killed in the fight against ISIS.
Martyrs Cafe in Duhok, where 25% of profits go to the families of peshmerga killed in the fight against ISIS.

We were the only tourists at Lalish, the holiest site of the 4,000-year-old Yazidi religion, which the Islamic State considered a devil cult. Yazidis have unique traditions, including not wearing the color blue and eating pumpkin, fish, and lettuce. We visited the temple where Yazidis are supposed to make a pilgrimage at least once in their life. We had to take off our shoes when entering the temple and walk through the thresholds of the doors, as these are supposed to be the resting place of the angels.

I had first heard of Yazidis when it was reported that ISIS was killing Yazidi men and selling Yazidi women as sex slaves. This atrocity made international headlines when former Yazidi sex slave Nadia Murad was awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize. There are perhaps more Iraqi Yazidis living in Germany today than in Iraq itself.

Today, Israel is home to over 200,000 Jewish citizens of Kurdish descent. We got a taste of Kurdish-Jewish history when we visited Amadiya, an ancient Jewish town with a rich Jewish history, where the government of Iraqi Kurdistan believes the biblical prophet Ezekiel is buried.

As a Jew, I have identified themes in the Kurdish narrative that are no different from ours, including transnational identity, statelessness, genocide, and resistance.

Although I was in Iraq, I felt completely safe in Kurdistan and encourage others looking to travel off the beaten path to visit and learn about a people most of us know very little about.

Dan Brotman is the Executive Director of the Windsor Jewish Federation & Community Centre. Iraq was his 73rd country visited to date.

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