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.”

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