An Impromptu History Lesson

Published Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

(SULEIMANIYA, IRAQ) Dana Hassan’s hobby is history, but his work is very focused on the here-and-now. Hassan welcomes us into his office. He’s program coordinator for R.E.A.C.H. (Rehabilitation, Education, and Community Health), which grew out of earlier efforts by Oxfam International.

The conversation begins with disconcertingly American-style pleasantries, but we don’t mind. The room is refreshingly cool. The first topic is traffic, how long it took us to find his office, how busy this city has become. Suleimaniya was home to 200,000 when Hassan came in 1978. Now its population is 1.2 million. Too big, too fast. Very familiar.

Hassan steers us toward the next small-talk standard, the weather. “How do like this weather? Yesterday a friend came in from the heat. He was dripping with sweat. ‘They say there’s a drought,’ he joked, ‘so why have I no drought?’”

Making people feel welcome or relaxed helps Hassan do his work. REACH thinks long-term about peacemaking and the first step is always gaining or rebuilding trust. Their teams come to a community and begin rebuilding not the physical structures, but the human networks that make a community grow and strengthen over time. “We bring an entire package, from A to Zed.”

Skeptics scoff that they aren’t giving food or electricity, but others are tending to these needs. REACH teaches conflict resolution. Hassan insists his group’s work is not secondary to meeting physical needs. “Since the fall of Saddam, people are lost,” he observes. “Saddam’s regime made it very simple. Join the military and we will take care of you. Don’t think. We come to people’s homes. Often their first question is ‘Could you tell us what we need?’”

“It’s slow work, changing how people think. We teach them they have rights. That gives them hope.” He pauses to reflect. It’s the same everywhere. “Peace is peace,” Hassan says, “It’s a gift from the god.” His statement sounds intentionally singular.

“What about peace between nations, across borders?” I ask.

Hassan pushes back from his desk, stands and smiles. “Ahh! It’s a big question.” Here his hobby helps his work.

He strides to a small wipe-off board and draws a Rorschach blot that represents Iraq. Two horizontal lines near the center divide the blot into uneven thirds. We’re about to receive a history lesson that explains in a few minutes why Iraq has been such a contentious nation since it was formed in 1920. You can’t blame the Iraqis.

“The Sunni are the smallest third, filling the middle stripe. The Kurds dominate north and the Shiites south. The south is bordered by Jordan to the west and Iran to the east, with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in between. Jordan is mostly Sunni, and so is neighboring Saudi Arabia. But the Saudi ruling families are Wahhabi, separate from the leaders of Jordan. Iran is mostly Shiite, but Iraqi Sunnis keep Iraqi Shiites from getting too close. Kuwait is mostly Chaldean, connecting with Baghdad, where most Iraqi Chaldeans live.”

Lines and arrows are filling the board. He’s drawing straight lines, squiggly lines, and dotted lines — trying to map the dynamics between the groups. He wishes he had a larger board and more colored markers.

“The northern borders are just as confusing. Syria’s population is mostly Sunni, but the leaders are Shiite. These Shiite leaders want to work with the Iranian leaders, but Iraqi Kurdistan is in between. Turkey is to the north, but they fear the Kurds. They use the Assyrians to keep the Kurds on both sides of their border apart. Christians are used the same way on the border between Iraq and Syria.”

The details of all these connections, contentions and convolutions spilled quickly out of Hassan, and I’m not sure I kept them straight, but Hassan’s point is clear. When the victors of World War I carved the Middle East into nation states, they made one too many or three too few.

Hassan’s resulting diagram spoke volumes. The borders of Iraq were barely visible beneath all the other lines of interest.

No wonder community identity can’t thrive here without teaching conflict resolution first.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is writing from Iraqi Kurdistan this week. All entries are posted and readers can leave comments at www.dksez.com.