Talk Radio in Iraqi Kurdistan

Published Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

(SULEIMANIYA, IRAQ) The taxi driver is listening to talk radio and Azad has had enough. Azad Ali Mohammad points and shakes his head. “They are debating how to interpret the constitution. Hakim Sheik Latif is telling listeners they don’t understand Iraq’s new constitution. He says they are interpreting the words with too much flexibility. Words may be elastic, he says, but the ideas are not.”

Azad graduated two months ago from the University of Suleimaniya with a degree in English. He can get translation work easily, but it’s mostly computer manuals. He’d rather become an interpreter, helping people understand each other. Language skills are only the beginning. Empathy is the extra measure for a good interpreter. If you translate well, but lose the shape of what was said, important parts of the communication can be lost. Urgency is conveyed when words are short and close together. Sympathy sounds more like the song a mother might sing. Interpreting is harder work and there’s less of it, but it’s more rewarding.

Azad’s senior thesis addressed the theme of alienation in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” How long can a people wait before hope gives way to despair?

Iraq’s constitution is not yet three years old, and already there are originalist and activist interpretations. The originalists insist the document be viewed only through the discerned intent of its framers. Others insist those framers never could have anticipated the changes the country has seen since, and that the constitution must be seen as a “living” document, adapting to current conditions.

It all sounds eerily familiar.

In Iraq, the “strict constructionists” lean to the left politically. It is the religious and cultural conservatives here who are labeled “activist judges.” And talk radio’s role seems exactly the same.

“People don’t understand the principles of discussion,” Azad complains. “Everybody wants there to be only one voice. But an arrangement needs many voices.”

“Arrangement” — it’s such a good word; and better than “compromise.” More active, less automatic.

I wish I could tell Azad that three years is not enough time for people to learn how to live with “many voices,” but 220 years doesn’t seem to be enough time either, based on the American experience.

The hot-button issue Iraqi Kurdistan concerns Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. It guarantees a referendum for Kirkuk. This cosmopolitan city can choose to align itself with the three Kurdish provinces that surround it on three sides. Or it can remain aligned with Baghdad and the central government to the south.

Kirkuk represents a microcosm of Iraq. It’s home to a mixed bag of traditions and ethnicities. Many sorts of people have lived side-by-side there, peaceably and for generations. But this sort of diversity has fallen on hard times in Iraq. People prefer “one voice.”

The so-called “Surge” has succeeded in large part because of a unified effort between military, police, and tribal authorities to move people into safer neighborhoods. That has meant moving them to areas already dominated by their own tribe or sect. Neighborhoods have been “cleansed” of minority voices. Baghdad has become more civil as it has been made into less of a society. Kirkuk resists this strategy, and hopes to reverse it.

Does talk radio help or hurt? I can’t tell.

Kurds want Kirkuk to show the way to a truly democratic city and eventually an independent democratic state. But then, Baghdad could lose 40 percent of its oil revenues. Neighboring countries worry what expansive visions might take hold in Kurdistan if it became suddenly wealthy. Ethnic cleansing as payback by the Kurds is an international concern.

The taxi passes a line of cars, snaking onto the road and backed up for half a mile or more. “Petrol,” Azad mutters. “The state sells gas, and it’s cheaper but there’s not enough. People wait half a day to fill their tank. Or you can buy at a higher price from middlemen.” They line the road like lemonade stands, one chair under an umbrella beside rows of five-gallon containers, each filled with yellowish liquid. “The dealers come mostly from Iran, and the quality is not always good. You have to taste it first if you buy on the street.”

Iraq has more than enough oil, but lacks the refineries to make it into gasoline. What gas it does produce is not distributed in an orderly way. Cronyism, corruption, and competence are unknown variables that shape people’s lives. It’s shaping the lives of a hundred drivers, pulled over and waiting on this street, right now.

“The oil is more trouble than it’s worth,” Azad asserts. “If Kurds could have Kirkuk, but not the oil, that would be better. Everybody worries about the oil, but not the Kurdish people. We would rather be left alone. Freedom is all we really want. The oil will get us too much attention. If we could be either independent or wealthy, no Kurd would choose wealth. But now it looks like we can be only neither or both. It’s sad.”

An “arrangement” has been sought, but troubles have emerged. How much flexibility does the constitution require? The Kirkuk referendum was originally scheduled for November 15, 2007, then delayed six weeks, and then delayed again for six months. The last official deadline for the vote was June 30, 2008, but no extension was passed. So now, is the vote moot, because the deadline has not been met?

And what exactly is a vote, anyway? Must it be a vote of the people? Wouldn’t a Parliamentary vote, weighted to reflect the population, suffice? It surely would be easier, and it might avert violence in the streets. After all, Americans use an Electoral College, and their current president got the job without winning the popular vote.

These were the lines of the debate in early August. Then the Parliament went on vacation, without making a decision. Now, as before, the people of Kirkuk, Kurds longing for freedom, and drivers needing gasoline, wait.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is writing this week from Iraqi Kurdistan, where he has been part of a delegation for the Christian Peacemaker Teams. All the stories he’s collected are archived at www.dksez.com.