Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The American Lens on Iraq’s Sunni-Shiite Relations

By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

On Saturday, I woke up to a new day in Dearborn, an American city where the largest Iraqi community is based.

The chilly weather did not let me sleep as usual, forcing me to open my eyes at dawn to see through my bedroom window snow covering the street and pyramid-shaped rooftops of my neighbors’ houses. Everything was white, apart from a few footprints and big tire prints that looked like the ones left by a crazy driver.

It was the final day of a journalistic visit that I nervously began 10 days ago. I was previously worried that Dearborn-based Iraqis, who are mostly Shiite Arabs, might not welcome me as a Sunni Kurd.

The Arabs and Kurds share a long, bloody history that dates back to the establishment of the modern Iraqi state in early 1920s. This conflict continues until now, when the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi central government in Baghdad remain at loggerheads over oil-rich disputed territories in the north.

Since my trip coincided with a renewed wave of sectarian Shiite-Sunni conflict, I was more worried about my Sunni identity than my Kurdish one. After Iraq’s Shiite-led government issued an arrest warrant for a Sunni Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashimi, the past 10 days saw two major attacks in Iraq’s south. Nearly 100 Shiite worshipers, including women and children, were killed. Some of the dead had cousins in Dearborn where funerals were held.

In the Detroit airport, I caught a ride with a Shiite driver. The first thing I asked him was whether the Shiite-Sunni problem existed among Iraqi-Americans.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “Here, we live together, we marry each other and we celebrate together.”

His answer was like a happiness pill, giving me a feeling of confidence and bravery that I thought was realized by the driver.

Our first stop was at a restaurant where a Kurdish woman from Kirkuk was serving black tea and lentil soup to Shiite Arabs. Admittedly, I was very happy to see her. After speaking to her in Kurdish, I enjoyed my first Iraqi-style breakfast in the more than five months since I came to America.

At the restaurant, a television set was tuned to an Iraqi channel broadcasting news about Hashimi being given refuge in Kurdistan. The feeling I got here was not as good as the one I got from the driver. Just like the Iraqi Shiites, these middle-aged men were voicing concern about Hashimi and the Kurdish government.

“He’s a terrorist,” one guy said, referring to Hashimi.

The next person I met was Saeed Ghalib al-Yassiri, an Iraqi Shiite political activist who has been hosting a one-hour radio show for more than a decade. Aired live on Wednesday at 11:00 pm, it started as an opposition show against Saddam Hussein’s regime before the invasion and is now more dedicated to religious affairs.

Mr. Yassiri fled Iraq after the Shiite uprisings in southern Iraq were brutally quashed in 1991. First stayed in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia and was later given a refuge status in the United States, where his sole child, Mohammed, was born 9 years ago.

While a conservative and religious person, Mr. Yassiri didn’t exude any of the Shiite or Arab extremism that exist in many parts of Iraq. Instead, he invited me to his house every day, telling me how both the Shiites and Kurds were for decades victims of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni dictator.

His son, Mohammed, goes to a religious school and prays five times a day. But he also knows much about America and speaks a fluent American English and Arabic. He has the latest version of Xbox, which we used to play soccer many times.

On the final day, each of us decided to choose our favorite soccer teams. I picked Argentina and lost two games to his team from America, a country that Mohammed says he never wants to leave permanently for Iraq.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Kurdish Nationalism and American Pizza

By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

It wasn’t new to see how food promoted different ethnicities on Michigan’s Merriman Street where Chinese, Greek, Arab and American restaurants are built next to each other. It was, however, both unique and touching to find an American pizza shop in this far corner of the world introducing its international customers to the flag of Kurdistan, a nation which exists only in dreams.

As I stepped into Toarmina’s Pizza with an Arab acquaintance, the red-white-yellow-green Kurdish colors caught my eye. They were swinging next to an American flag and represented the world’s largest ethnic group without an independent state of their own.

The Kurds are an estimated 30 million people living in adjacent parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, a division that was created following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago.

Originally from Halabja, a town where Saddam Hussein’s government used chemical gas in 1988, Umed Ali is the owner of the small pizzeria. As a man who has lost many neighbors and relatives to the Kurdish cause, it was understandable why Ali revered the flag, which has officially only flown in Iraq’s north where the Kurds have for two decades enjoyed self-rule.

“Since I opened my own shop I have placed that flag there. It’s been 12 years,” Ali said as I enjoyed lunch at his restaurant, where his young daughter in a fluent American accent joined him in serving diverse customers.

“In America, we have freedom and everybody is proud of their ethnicity. Here visitors ask: ‘Whose flag is that?’ and I start telling them about the Kurds,” added Ali.

Despite being a high school teacher and a leader on a local soccer team in Kurdistan, Ali chose to flee Iraqi Kurdistan for the US in 1995, when the Iraqi Kurds were at the height of a civil war that claimed thousands of lives.

Ali’s nationalistic behavior in America reminded me of the famed American author, Benedict Anderson, who a couple of decades ago came up with a new theory discussing a new form of national sentiment called “long-distance nationalism.”

Anderson previously coined the term “imagined communities,” which argues that long-distance nationalism serves as a “phantom bedrock” for communities in Diaspora to experience connections to their homeland.

But Ali’s case adds something else to Anderson’s argument. In an American kitchen, Ali’s hanging of the Kurdistan flag is part a vague process of nation-building abroad. It’s an attempt to find more sympathizers for a kind of nationalism whose birth, if it ever happens, is in the future.

As Ali was an Iraqi citizen, I asked him why he didn’t replace the Kurdish flag with an Iraqi flag, which represents an internationally-recognized nation.

“Under the Iraqi flag, we were massacred and gassed,” he replied.

While the post-2003 Iraqi flag isn’t the same as the one Saddam used, Ali’s answer served as another reminder of how history has made it difficult for Iraq’s ethnic groups to build a unified nation.

“I’m optimistic,” Ali said. “I don’t think Anfal (Kurdish genocide) will ever happen again. But I don’t also think we have totally closed the door on war.”

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Night in Times Square

By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

Wearing colorful party clothes, some arrived at 7 a.m. to secure a good position from where they could see the famous midnight ball dropping on New Year’s Eve in Times Square.

By midnight, nearly a million people had decided that it was worth it to spend the last minutes of 2011 in the reveling square. For a long time, I had wished to be one of these people attending the New York’s largest New Year gathering.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, I had only seen and heard of it on television. Watching people dancing and wearing hats and glasses displaying the numerals of the New Year had given me the impression that New Yorkers had great lives.

It was part of the heavenly image of henderan “abroad” which many Kurds, including me, had longed to be a part of. Many of my friends and relatives equated living in henderan with living without sadness. (Though the word henderan was more often referred to Europe than America, given its geographical location.)

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, many Kurds found it was worth risking their lives to be smuggled by unknown people on illegal boats through Turkey’s Aegean Sea to Greece. Hundreds died before reaching their destination.

But here I was now in America, attending a New Year’s Eve party in the Big Apple, a nickname with which I had become familiar with thanks to a British teacher in Kurdistan. Though I’m yet to understand exactly why it’s called as such, I felt the analogy on New Year’s Eve.

Accompanied by another Kurdish student, I headed to Times Square finding fluorescent lights and Christmas decorations on avenues which police barricaded -- taking people’s freedom of movement for security, a notion that I had been indoctrinated with in Iraq.

“Are you guys also Kurdish?” asked a random Kurdish man curiously, interrupting a Kurdish-language conversation I had with my friend. It was a moment as thrilling as unexpected to meet a fellow countryman in a city whose multi-ethnic nature is as old as its diversity.

He was speechless and happy about it as well, seeing how happy people looked in the fast-approaching new year. One of Roland Emmerich’s movies, 2012, strengthens the eschatological belief that it would see cataclysmic events.

Putting aside all grievances was what I felt in people regardless of their economic status. One man who appeared to be homeless, a poor street vendor, for instance, was shouting on Broadway: “I love you… I love you.” In the Square, people were expecting Lady Gaga and Justin Biebier to sing, marking the demise of a certain year and birth of an unknown one.

It was around 8 p.m. when I arrived in Times Square to see people shoving and pushing to get closer to the sight of the ball dropping in four hours. Not long after I came out of the subway, parts of which were again closed by the police, it was clear that I would not be a witness to it. But missing the ball dropping here didn’t actually sadden me as it would have in Kurdistan, because for me the Big Apple now means having options more than anything else.

* Follow the author on Twitter at #namo_abdulla, or email him at: naa2138@columbia.edu

A Journey to Washington DC

By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

It was three o’clock in the morning when I packed my bag for a trip to a city about which I had heard so much but never seen. I was to visit Washington DC--a city whose decisions had caused death and saved lives in my country.

Back in Iraq I knew it merely as “Washington.” But I see that in America most people refer to it as DC.

Washington was named after George Washington, one of the founding fathers of America--a country made by war but has ever since continued to use a carrot and stick approach to promote her values and interests.

My trip to Washington coincided with the withdrawal of the final US soldier from Iraq.

When the war started in 2003, I was only 16 years old and I spoke no more than a few words of English in Kurdistan. The prospect of an end to Saddam Hussein’s regime, a leader whose forces had destroyed my birth-village, made me happy.

But my mother seemed afraid. After I came home from playing soccer with other children in our neighborhood’s dusty field, she told me to go to the market to buy polyethylene and nails to board up our windows to prevent possible seeping of chemical gas which Washington wrongly claimed Saddam possessed.

My trip to DC started from New York City’s Penn Station where I took a train ride for the first time in my life. When I was a child I hated trains. I thought of them as murderous machines that never stop. Though Kurdistan does not have railroads, I had once seen on television a man trying to save a child stuck on a railroad.

This train, however, was different. It provided my laptop with Wi-Fi Internet and allowed me to chat with my younger brother thousands of miles away in Kurdistan. I opened my webcam to show him the beautiful scenery outside.

“You know there are no checkpoints on the way to Washington,” I told him. “Come on!” he said simply. “I know. How can a train stop for checkpoints?”

The brother, who would go to college next year, has never been on a train or to a country without numerous checkpoints. In Iraq there are countless checkpoints inside and between cities. They are often manned by masked and scary soldiers aiming at finding potential “terrorists.”

“How does it feel to be on a train?” my brother asked curiously. “It feels good,” I replied.

Though Kurdistan is much safer than the rest of Iraq, it still has many checkpoints and they increase as you go near leaders’ compounds. Before you enter a city guards at checkpoints may ask you weird questions as “where are you going?” and demand to see you identification papers.

Whether at checkpoints, party headquarters, highways that link cities to leaders’ homes, or family gatherings, there is one unchanging rule in Kurdistan: No photos. At political places it’s for security reasons unknown to most ordinary people.

Despite the fact that America has some enemies of its own, no one stopped me from taking photos in front of the White House, a place where I saw fewer guards than around the house of low-ranking Iraqi officials. With a Kurdish friend of mine, who is also pursuing a master’s degree in America, I took many photos in front of the Congress, the White House and posted them on Facebook later on.

My friend and I, however, both felt that we represented the happy part of the Iraq’s sad story. We had both learned English during the invasion in a school built after the war.

On the way back to New York, I checked my Facebook on the train and saw two messages: an invitation from an American friend to a party and a story sent by an Iraqi friend about a new political crisis in the war-torn Iraq that once Washington D.C. had pledged to make better.

Follow the author on Twitter at #namo_abdulla, or email him at: naa2138@columbia.edu