With just a bit of trepidation, I set off in early June last year for Iraq. I was to be there for five weeks, running performing arts academies in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. I was working as the Communications Director for American Voices, a nonprofit organization that conducts cultural diplomacy to countries emerging from conflict or isolation. This was to be the sixth year of cultural programming in Iraq. On this trip, we held a two-week Youth Excellence on Stage (YES) Academy Iraq program in the city of Duhok in northern Kurdistan. For two weeks, American Voices offered performing arts lessons to 300 Iraqis from across the country. Classes were taught in the areas of jazz, piano, classical symphony, theater and hip hop & bromareakdance. I was essentially the Assistant Director of the YES Academy, and a veritable public diplomacy camp counselor. We also held smaller mini-YES Academies for close to a week in both Baghdad and Kirkuk -- the latter of which I ran as well.
In addition to the more obvious dangers, there was another non-obvious, but obvious one: how would I be received as a Jew? Would I have to hide the Jewish Star around my neck and my strong ties to Israel? Although I have studied in Morocco, and traveled to places such as Pakistan, Palestine and Indonesia, where I never especially bothered to hide my identity, somehow Iraq felt different. The very name "Iraq," which seemed practically synonymous with a near-decade war, gave me pause.
I debated leaving my necklace behind, but I didn't feel comfortable doing this. My ever-wise brother Harry said I should take it and figure out the situation when I arrived.
For a Bohemian, Orientalist Zionist like myself (yes, we are a small tribe), the Kurdistan region of Iraq offered a refreshing paradise and a bit of an Orientalist "Bizarro World." Iraqi Kurdistan felt familiar to other places I had visited in the Middle East, yet everything seemed just a little tweeked. The place was awash in Kurdistan flags to the point that I had to remind myself at times that I was even in Iraq. Styles were both familiar and strangely different, be it food, custom, dress or attitude.
Landing in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, I was quickly dazzled by unrelated aspects. For starters, the Kurdistan region of Iraq seemed to be booming with economic growth. There seemed to be construction going on everywhere one looked. In places like Duhok, Sulimayah and Erbil, the roads were filled with new cars, there was nary an old clunker to be seen.
Kurdish Men wore kaiffayihas but wound up like a round cap or turban on their heads. Older Kurdish men wore traditional Kurdish attire in the form of baggy pants and shirt oft of khaki color but sometimes of darker blue depending on the area, held together with a wide fabric belt. Meanwhile, the Kurdish youth sported more Western fashion, and were clad in the usual jeans and t-shirts. Some but not all women and girls wore the hijab but often in a looser fashion of floral patterns. Some women sported the latest fashions of black sequined abayas coming out of Dubai, while others wore more traditional florid Kurdish dresses; girls mixed it up in combinations of jeans and hijab, or no covering at all.
Kurdish cuisine was similar to food found throughout the Middle East, but with subtle differences that made it unique. Meat was a main staple, and I ate many a delicious shwarma and kebab slathered in pomegranate date sauces in Kurdish pita that had a triangular style unlike anything I had tried before. And the stewed lamb and charcoal-roasted chicken that was marinated in lime juice was sublime. Also, Kurdish salads were both familiar and yet had slightly different styles and tangy tastes. Oddly, being in Iraq where it was 50 degrees or so, soup was a main staple of many a meal. However the rooster soup found in the back alleys of Sulimaniyah was the best fowl bowl I ever had, and would make any Jewish mother jealous. On the whole, Kurdistan's cuisine was delicious and could make for a promising gastrodiplomacy campaign to express Kurdish uniqueness from the rest of the region.
In terms of religiosity, Kurdistan felt laid back. Islam was part of the social fabric and culture, but did not seem to dominate daily life. I met many Kurds who were quite secular. Like Israel (at times), religion felt to be part of the broader culture but not in an overbearing fashion. I happened to be there as Ramadan started, and there were still some restaurants open although they covered their entrance-ways in concealing cloth. Also to note, it was quite easy to find a liquor store to get a Turkish Efes or Danish Tuborg beer, or a bottle of arak named for the ancient Sumerian god of the harvest.
As I began establishing personal relations, I encountered some real surprises: on learning that I was American, people were effusively friendly and welcoming. Many Kurds showed me mementos from their service with the U.S. Army, or simply gave me thumbs-up when they found out I was American. When learning that I am Jewish, both Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Arabs expressed warmth and curiosity.
On learning that I was Jewish, the Kurds I spoke with often mentioned their historic Jewish community, and shared about the Jewish history of Kurdistan. I heard over and over again that Kurdistan had so many Jews, and a sense of lament that they had left.
This warmth was not just confined to the Kurds though. An Iraqi Arab girl named Shahad from Baghdad saw my star fall out of my shirt and asked if I was Jewish. When I replied, "Na'am, ana Yehudi," (Yes, I am a Jew) she smiled and said "shalom aleicheim!" Even more to my surprise, she proceeded to count to ten in Hebrew with a big smile on her face.
Another fellow, an Iraqi Christian friend from Mosul, when he found out I was Jewish, replied "Ah I didn't think you were Jewish. I thought all Jews had the last name "Shteyn, Shteyn, Shteyn." That night ended with a rousing version of Fiddler on the Roof in the car ride home among my Iraqi friends. To life, to life, L'chaim.
Mostly though, I got a lot of smiles and a lot of questions. Do the Jews read the Quran? What is the difference between the Torah and the Talmud? Do Jews believe Jesus is God like the Christians? Why do Jews have those curly things hanging near your ears? Are Jews really cheap? I also received a number of requests for copies of the Torah by some earnest burgeoning Muslim religious scholars. In short, there was a tremendous amount of curiosity at my Jewish identity and beliefs.
But what jumped out and shocked me was the support of the Kurds for Israel. I was aware of long-standing support for the Peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) from the Mossad. But I wasn't prepared for the actual sense of reverence that Israel held for the Kurds. Part of the support comes from the classic Middle Eastern dictum, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" and as such the Kurds and Israel had a bevy of common enemies over the years such as the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein.
Another part of the support seemed to come from a similar identification. The Kurds are a nation divided with parcels of historic Kurdistan attached to Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. They are the largest people in the world without their own state. The notion of being a stateless people, I believe, helped shape the Kurd's affinity and identification with the Jews and Israel. Like the Jews, Kurdish history has been peppered with heartbreak. There is a saying: "the Kurds have no friends but the mountains," a notion that reflects the Kurdish sense of longstanding betrayal and misfortune. Many of them mentioned feeling an affinity to Israel as another beleaguered outpost in the midst of bigger enemies.
Finally, another aspect of the affinity is drawn from the centrality of Iraqi Kurdistan for the rest of Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan has taken on a Zion-like centrality for the rest of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Diaspora. I was sitting one night with a friend in a mountain café, waiting for our food, when one of the servers came to give us plates of salads. My friend Aram said something to him, but couldn't understand his response. Aram said he thought the server was likely a Turkish Kurd. Iraqi Kurdistan, Aram explained, had become a hub for Kurds in the region. He noted that Kurdistan's President Masoud Barzani had spoken of an open-door policy for Kurds of the region, and that many had flocked here for work and to live in freedom. Kani Xulam, the Director of the American-Kurdish Information Network once remarked to me a similar notion of Iraqi Kurdistan's centrality: "Five million Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan have become a beacon of light for the 35 million Kurds who live in Turkey, Syria, and Iran. That beacon of light is keeping us awake at night and is filling our hearts with hope."
Trying to understand the sentiments better, I asked an Iraqi friend about Kurdish support for Israel. Paradoxically, he said that while the Kurds support Israel, they still saw "Zionism" as a taboo word -- as if Israel and Zionism were separate entities. He mentioned that while Kurds may hold affinity with Israel from a similar sense of isolated status, the term "Zionism" held a connotation of conspiracy that is often rife in the rest of the Middle East. He mentioned that while not everyone differentiates Zionism from Israel from Judaism, and hold some hostility to all three as an inseparable enemy, most Kurds see Israel within a similar beleaguered paradigm and with similar enemies, and harbor sentiments of support. Kurdistan is an easy place to fall in love with. The warmth of the people and the beauty of the landscape make for a captivating place, and its iconoclasm makes for ample fodder for thought and questions. I wish Kurdistan all the best as it navigates that maelstrom that is the Middle East, and inshallah I will return soon.