Identities Lost in Iraq

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Staff Blogger
First-year MA Candidate at SAIS Europe

As Iraq continues to splinter along sectarian, ethnic and tribal lines, the country’s youth are caught in the fray, confused about their identity and the country’s future. Yet the three predominantly Kurdish northern provinces, administered under the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), have established some organization among the confusion with their pesh merga security forces and profitable oil prospects.

Recognizing this relative stability in the KRG, thousands of Iraqis from around the country have sought refuge in the region. One such migrant is Nawris Rafiq, a young teacher who left Baghdad in 2012.

“A teenager on a motorcycle killed my uncle while he was walking into my house [in Baghdad],” she said. “The next day I came to Sulaymaniah.”

Sulaymaniah, the second largest city in the KRG and the “cultural capital” of Iraq, lies 200 miles northeast of Baghdad. This Kurdish enclave is technically part of Iraq: same borders, same currency, and same passport.  However, the KRG continues to push away from central Baghdad, advertising itself as “The Other Iraq.”

Although Rafiq is grateful to be safe in this northern haven, she was unprepared to be treated like a second-class citizen within her own country.

“I can speak Kurdish very well, but people here know I am not from here. I am charged more at the bazaar, and I feel humiliated by Kurdish security at checkpoints. They often make me get out of the car,” Rafiq said.

Umniya Nadhir, a student at the American University of Iraq in Sulaymaniah (AUIS), has experienced such marginalization before.  She had to go into hiding because her father, a Shiite doctor living in a Sunni neighborhood, saved the life of a resistance fighter. She feels like a stranger in her own country.

“Growing up I had to lie about being a Shiite under Saddam. All the violence I faced came from someone within my country, from my same religion,” Nadhir said.

She no longer identifies with Iraqis or Arabs.  Actually, she believes the absence of an identity has connected her more with many of her friends.

Indeed, “Arab” itself has become a pejorative term in northern Iraq. Nadhir looked uncomfortable when her Arab identity entered the discussion.

“I do not like the term Arab. I am not an Arab, and I do not believe I am from Iraq,” Nadhir said, “I am just a person who happened to be born here.”

At the end of our conversation, with a smile, she admits that she feels desperately lost, but that this misplacement might be necessary.

“If only everything was as easy as spilling a cup of tea,” Nadhir said.

If it were so, then she would spill it to change her world.

As the rest of Iraq faces protracted sectarian violence, Nabil Ali, another native of Baghdad, understands the stringent security precautions taken by the Kurdish security forces. Ali left Baghdad eight years ago for Dubai and flew to Erbil, the regional capital, three years ago.

“The officer at the airport told that I only have a ten day permit.  I was confused.  A permit? To stay in Iraq? And I am Iraqi?” Ali said.

Ali lives with his brother and must apply for a monthly resident card because he lives without his family.

“After speaking Arabic to people, I realized that the Kurds treatment towards me relates back to the years of brutal treatment the Kurds faced under the previous (Baathist) regime,” Ali said.

Such empathy provides cross-cultural understanding and reconciliation between the diverse groups within Iraq. Overall, he is supportive of the KRG.

“I feel safe here knowing the pesh merga and police are actually doing their jobs.  I no longer worry about people pulling a gun out on me,” Ali said.

With this freedom, Ali established a humanitarian project in the fall of 2012 to aid the Syrian refugees coming into Iraq. Through this initiative, Ali has worked with local NGOs, which he claims were helpful and made him no longer feel like a stranger.

Although most Kurdish youth are staunch supporters of a future Kurdistan free from the Arab south, some, such as Amir Bnar, argue that their Kurdish identity does not clash with their Iraqi one.

“Most of my friends push me to stand for Kurdistan. They call me a traitor when I tell them I am proud to be from Iraq,” Bnar said.

This allegiance stems from Bnar’s participation in the nascent Iraqi Hip-Hop scene. Although many other Kurdish youth separate themselves from the violence in the south of the country, Bnar almost boasts that these are his problems as well.

“I am working on a new song that contains samples of bomb explosions in Baghdad. I will keep rapping about this until the violence stops,” Bnar said.

In “Potentate and the Traveler” Edward Said writes, “Most of all, and most unlike the potentate who must guard only one place and defend its frontiers, the traveler crosses over, traverses territory and abandons fixed positions, all the time.”  Although Iraq shakes in precarious time, there are youth committed to the nation and proud to call Iraq home.

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