Published Saturday, August 30, 2008 in The Register-Guard.
(SULEIMANIYA, IRAQ) Jamal Fuad hears about various plans to withdraw United States troops from his homeland Iraq and he’d like to make a suggestion. Any president considering such a move should first try a simple experiment. That resident of the White House should announce a date “with certainty” to lay off the entire police force in Washington, D.C. They need be off the job only a few days, maybe a week — enough time to see how the good people of Washington, D.C. chip in and step up to solve their own problems.
“That is the city where your leaders live, and there is a killing almost every night,” Fuad points out. “What would it be like without protection? You’d have a thousand people dead in one night. Then they will see how it will work to remove the protection on a certain date. How can they expect Iraqis to do better?”
Although Jamal and his wife Cathy Pearce are now farmers outside of Suleimaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan, they are not simple people who are unaware of the world around them. Cathy taught nursing and English at the local university and has traveled the world from her original home in California. She met Jamal in India in 1999, when he was the Minister of Humanitarian Assistance for the Kurdish Regional Government. He went on to be the KRG’s Minister of Agriculture until 2003.
I could tell he was an influential man. When we handed him a copy of a book about Iraq, he opened it first to the index. He wanted to see who he knew listed as topics or sources.
Fuad went to college at the University of North Carolina and continued his studies in the United States, earning a PhD from the University of Minnesota in agricultural science. He was schooled in the United States, but his family and his heritage is in Kurdistan. He talks more easily about “his people” than “his country.”
The Treaty of Sevres guaranteed the Kurds a nation state in 1920, but the treaty was never ratified. It was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne, which supported the division of Kurdistan, but not full independence.
Today, Kurds constitute 28 percent of the population in Turkey, 24 percent in Iraq, 12 percent Iran and 10 percent in Syria. Kurds can also be found in Lebanon, Armenia and Azarbaijan. Taken together, they number 26 million.
Fuad’s new farm is several miles from his family’s roots, and it makes a noticeable difference. Fuad laughs easily about what confusion he can encounter with a simple exchange at the nearby grocery store. Sorani is spoken by most southern Kurds (and by Fuad), but Kurmanji is dominant farther north (and used by Fuad’s new grocer.) Think about how “soda” and “pop” are used differently in the United States, and then imagine if those differing vocabularies were separated by only a few miles.
Language and nationalism are woven together for the Kurds. Do the Kurds speak a single language with distinct dialects, or do these constitute separate languages? Linguists don’t agree. In fact, the language is written in three different scripts — Latin in Turkey, Cyrillic in the ex-Soviet Union, and Persian in Iraq and Iran.
Governments determined to diminish the national identity of the Kurds have forbidden the use of their native language. British playwright Harold Pinter wrote about this form of brutality in his one-act play “Mountain Language.” Educated Kurds know this play. Americans should know it better.
“How can it be against a law what language I use?” Fuad asks. Turkey has only recently and sporadically recanted its prohibition of the Kurdish language, after it was deemed a human rights abuse by the European Union.
Faud pivots in his seat to break the rhythm. Brutality is still the topic, but Fuad knows diplomacy. He softens his voice, unclenches himself.
“Our trouble is we love peace.” Fuad laments. “America respects force. Bad boys get scolded, but then America respects them. We are not fighters.”
Kurds may not be natural fighters, but this Kurd married one. Cathy Pearce had some parting advice for us, how to tell others back home about what we’ve heard: “Don’t be so nice! People are dying.”
Don Kahle (email@example.com) is sharing his experiences from Iraqi Kurdistan with readers of The Register-Guard. Each is also posted at www.dksez.com, where you can see a photo of Jamal and Cathy, plus a link to a map tracking the use of “pop” and “soda” across the United States.