A celebration of Arab and Kurdish cultures in Arbil (Part II)

A celebration of Arab and Kurdish cultures in Arbil (Part II)
President Jalal Talabani
When my eye first fell on these signs at the arrivals hall in the airport it came as a shock: the letters seemed to take an entirely new direction all of their own. While reading shop fronts in Tehran is also a surprise, it is because you find something in common with Arabic you never though existed. In Kurdistan it is evidence of isolation and division. We constantly questioned the history of the conversion of Arabic into Kurdish. Did it start in 1991? With the fall of Saddam’s regime? Was it that the shopkeepers decided to accompany Arabic shop names with the Kurdish ones they now use, maybe for tourism, or perhaps in response to the Egyptian director Ahmed Ali who said during a meeting between Al-Mada’s Arab guests and the President Jalal Talabani: “We have come all this way from Arbil to Dukan without seeing a single sign we could understand.” All Ali really wanted was to know how to pronounce the names of the Kurdish towns and villages on his route. The few shops that have appended Arabic names to their signs seemed to us not have picked up on a general trend that reflects the public’s desire to express themselves in Kurdish, a language that had been banned (whether written or spoken) under Saddam’s regime. Indeed, Talabani’s Arabic was stronger than his Kurdish, a common state of affairs for those born before 1991 when an Arab flag still fluttered over the Kurdish region. Now, Arabic is in decline, if not on the way to vanishing altogether. This process can be seen wherever you turn: even those who are more accustomed to speaking Arabic now have trouble completing their sentences.

The younger generations are even less attached to Arabic, since it is not imposed on them and they have no need to learn it. “We take one Arabic class a week,” said a 12 year-old girl when we asked her which languages she studied at school. Yet her experience does not seem to reflect a systematic educational policy, since we heard a number of different responses that showed language teaching varied from school to school. In some schools Turkish was the second language after Kurdish, in others English (which appeared slightly more than Arabic on the shop signs we saw). Yet rather than being true “second languages” as the term is used in Beirut’s secondary school, they appeared to be a matter of individual choice. They were more like third or fourth languages when compared with the intense celebration of their mother tongue, an atmosphere that conjured up memories of Moroccans celebrating the French withdrawal from their country by holding up signs written in their own language. Under cover of this publicly uniform tendency towards speaking Kurdish, we found many examples of a more complex picture. Like her contemporaries in other countries a young member of the Sulaimania traditional singing troupe was distinctly proud of her ability to speak English. Lutfi’s three daughters told us that they spoke Arabic well, but had not learned it at school or at home but from TV programs and soap operas on the Arab satellite channels. These young girls, from a generation that had supposedly completely renounced Arabic, then started speaking to us in that very language. It was as if they were readying themselves with skills for an as yet unformed future. As if they had begun thinking that learning these languages would help many people, especially if investors continued to arrive, invest in their future here in Kurdistan. Businessmen were coming to invest their money and settle down while their capital bore fruit. They had started giving names to the places they frequented, the nightspots and restaurants, although it was not yet clear to us which language would eventually come to function as the lingua franca. The park of the Kurdish Martyr Sami Abdel Rahman, spacious and adorned with numerous beautiful flowers and plants also seemed to have been built for the future. It was perhaps the biggest park any of us had seen in our lives, more orderly and better designed than similar parks in other Arab countries. It looked like it had sprung, fully formed, from the engineer’s plans or the designer’s scale-model. The seating in the recreation areas is brand new and the vending kiosks look too neat and pretty to be involved in the profane practices of buying and selling. The trees planted here and there are still no more than saplings.

This self-celebratory is matched by that of the hastily constructed yet sprawling edifice that occupies one corner of the park. This is the home of the Al-Mada Cultural Institute. In its various galleries the Arab past is a living part of the present. Many Iraqis contributed to the various works on display. The bookstalls are full of Arabic publications. In one wing of the building we saw a number of photographs of the poet Mohammed Mahdi Al-Jawahiri, all showing the author middle aged or older. This year the Al-Mada cultural week was devoting much of its output to a celebration of Al-Jawahiri. The institute’s monthly publication placed his name on the front cover and contained many extracts of his poetry and prose. The highlight of the celebrations was the unveiling of a statue of the poet in the Sami Abdel Rahman park (or the Rose Garden as some chose to call it). The artist had depicted him thin and broken, with a face that immediately appealed to the viewer despite been drawn and cracked, a technique designed, perhaps, to convey the frailty of Al-Jawahiri’s body in old age, while preserving the resolution and unquenchable vigor that shine forth in the lines he wrote when in his nineties: “I perceive through my heart and blood.”

Anyone who hears these lines must marvel at the absence of rancor and complaint that so often accompanies a man’s last years. Two marble plaques sit at the base of the statue adorned with lines of verse, the first from a poem he wrote in praise of the Kurds and the second a lyric celebration of Iraq. The juxtaposition of these verses combine a joyful attempt to celebrate local identity with an awareness that regional independence can never be complete. In this context it is important to guard against forgetfulness, to forget to declare, at some public meeting or conference, that one’s allegiance to Kurdistan does not preclude the assumption of an Iraqi identity. When a speaker committed this error of forgetting at the meeting in Dukan, President Jalal Talabani was quick to remind the gathering that Kurdistan was part of Iraq, setting the tone for all subsequent discussion of the subject. Care must be taken that pride in one’s local identity does not move beyond the bound of propriety and slip into excess. Thus it would have better had the interventions on the failure of Arab intellectuals to address the trials undergone by the Kurds been kept understated, just as Talabani could have reminded the solidarity of Arab artists and intellectuals with the Kurds plight and their protests against their treatment at the hands of Saddam’s regime.

The Al-Mada Institute and its director, Fakhri Karim, played a vitally important role in showing how celebration of one culture could also be a celebration of the other. The speaker should take care not to lose himself in his immediate environment, be it in Arbil, Sulaimania or the various villages and townships along the highway that connects the two cities. There can be no doubt that this rich natural environment, with its endless plains and mountains that remain capped with snow through the summer months, will never be able to inspire the caution and restraint shown by the speakers at the conference. At once harsh and mild it has rushed to shake off its distinctive identity. Awed by extraordinary beauty, we visitors never expected its ability to hold the past and the present in a single moment. It has no need of all this nationalism, this flying of Kurdish flags and shop signs that shout to those passing through: you are in Kurdistan. Hassan Daoud

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