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NURAY MERT > ‘Navigating challenges’ in Sulaimaniyah

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In the last three weeks, I spent some time in Baghdad and then in Sulaimaniyah and as a result, I ended up feeling very sad although also a little hopeful. Baghdad is a place of “deconstruction” – of a city, of a nation and of urban life and culture. Sulaimaniyah in Kurdistan is the opposite; it is a place of the “construction” of a city, of a nation and of urban life and culture.

Sulaimaniyah of Iraqi Kurdistan is a place of boom, as opposed to the old Iraqi capital Baghdad, which is a place of bombs. It seems that Kurds have finally seized the chance to build their dream home after a troubled century of destitution. That is why, at the end of the day, it is the most hopeful thing that has recently been happening in the whole Middle East. Despite that, Iraqi Kurdistan is not altogether isolated from the troubles of greater Iraq, yet it still feels like a place with a future. Nevertheless, it is a bitter feeling of hope and prospects as long as the rest of Iraq and the whole region are in deep trouble.

I followed the Second Annual Sulaimani Forum: Navigating Challenges in the Middle East (March 4-5) with mixed feelings of hope and sadness. It seemed that, as someone observed, Baghdad was a great city that had become a messy town and that Sulaimaniyah used to be a humble town that is not only becoming a big city, but also one of the capitals of culture in the Middle East. I felt this not only as I talked to photography artist Jamal Penjweny in his Caffe 11 and watched his excellent works. As he said he does not go to Beirut as often as before, I could not help but think of the regrettable demise of Beirut, Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus as capitals of culture and intellectual life in the Middle East. I felt it while I was listening to the panel discussions at the Sulaimani Forum, since there are not many spaces of freedom of expression and proper political discussion in the Middle East. The forum seemed like an oasis, and dynamic urban life seemed to be aspiring to fill the vacuum in the coming years.

After all, it also seems to be no coincidence that Iraqi Kurdistan has turned out to be the last refuge for the Christians of the Middle East, especially after the turmoil in Syria. This is what I knew as I have been trying to follow the fate of Christians in the region for some time, and I spoke with a victim (who survived with wounds) of the church bombing in Baghdad (2010) when I visited her two weeks ago in the hospital where she works as a physician. That is not to say that Iraqi Kurdistan is a place from heaven and the rising star of the Middle East. Far from it. There is no need to say that it has its own conflicts, problems and challenges. Besides, the prospects of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) cannot and should not be thought of in isolation from the rest of the country and of the region. The recent rise of tension between the KRG and the central government is the biggest challenge to be overcome.

However, despite all the political odds in the KRG, Iraq and the whole region, the Sulaimani Forum felt like a small island of hope, even if could not erase my feeling of despair at the present situation in the region and in general. In fact, nothing would be able to do that, since I can never get rid of the feeling of deep sorrow that I especially feel for Baghdad and Damascus, where human suffering is at unbearable levels, even for outside observers like us.

Finally, the biggest challenge to be navigated seems to be the task of overcoming the internal and external reflections of power games which are being played out at the cost of grave human suffering.

March/10/2014

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