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Report-Back From October In Southern Kurdistan

By The Renegade

(All photos from The Renegade unless noted otherwise)

While many journalists and internationals continued to flock and return to Ukraine in September, I found myself on a different path. On September 29, the day a travel advisory was issued for Iranian rocket, artillery, and drone strikes a day prior, I headed into the storm for Bashur (Southern Kurdistan, so-called Iraqi Kurdistan).

Wearing my Wobbly hat proudly at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), all airport restaurants were closed due to SFO oligarchy denying its workers of basic rights and turning them to strike. After a grueling flight overflowing with Qatari state propaganda, I landed with Wobbly hat held high in Doha for a long layover, where visible exploitation could be seen once again. I wrote a report-back on this Doha layover.

Welcome to Bashur

Sulaymaniyah at 3am.

Upon entering Sulaymaniyah International Airport, one sees a Mam Jalal (Jalal Talabani, former leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) portrait across from the Asayish (police) booth. I arrived at the Asayish booth, presented my passport and visa-on-arrival, then pointed to the Jalal Talabani portrait:

“Mam Jalal, zor jwana (very beautiful),” I said.

“Jor jwana?” the Asayish said with a grin.

“Zor jwana.” I said.

“Turkish or Qatar?” he asked.

“Qatar,” I replied.

He passed me through.

From then on, one is met with the impenetrable ripple of generational shisha scent embedded in the walls of every building. It is the scent that smacks you and says: “Look fucker, you’re not in the West anymore. This is culture.” One quickly becomes surrounded by women wearing vibrant traditional dresses men wearing shalwar, ancient traditional garbs of the Kurdish people that have not been lost to any occupier. Toward the city centre, one finds a decent number of folks who don’t give a damn about gender conformity, defying the patriarchal tendencies of the region’s party duopoly.

It becomes clear upon entry that one is indeed immersed in Southern Kurdistan, and that Iraq does not exist beyond colonial construction, while Kurdistan is ancient. Do not come without cultural awareness or you will be caught slipping, and you will deserve it. Any foreigner who mentions “Iraq” is liable to be glared at with a million ancient daggers, and rightfully so.

Mam Jalal in Sulaymaniyah.

Mustafa and Massoud Barzani at a shop near the Erbil Citadel.

In the east of Bashur, Mam Jalal stares down upon us all with open hands. Across the city of Sulaymaniyah, Mam Jalal continues to stare from nearly every street. Among him is frequent Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) ruling party imagery. In the west, the Barzani family stares from nearly every street. Alongside them is frequent Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) ruling class imagery. The former an Iranian state-backed social democratic police state, the latter a Turkish state-backed crony capitalist police state. Though the regions of Bashur are controlled by the respective parties, Bashur’s collective administration is known as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

The Kurdish flag flies high at the Erbil Citadel in the city of Hawlêr (Erbil), located in the KDP-controlled west of Bashur.

All along Bashur, Ala Rengîn (the Kurdish flag) arises beside its autonomous people, who fought and martyred for this autonomy over the course of centuries. The land means something to every indigenous human living here, something that cannot be commodified, hoarded, or packaged into a neoliberal spectacle. Every acre of land is as sacred as it is ancient.

Mount Azmar above Parki Azadi.

Piramagrun (left) and Mergapan (right) from Parki Haware Shar.

There is perhaps no place where this energy is more lucid than Sulaymaniyah, where there lives an intense passion for the city that spans countless generations. One will often hear the city uttered in street conversations accompanied by “xosh (nice)” or “bash (good)” in the same sentence. Looking up, Mount Azmar rises over the city while Piramagrun and Mergapan peer over Parki Haware Shar like a serrated machete skyline. One can feel the presence of the martyrs on every street, on every hill, and every mountain.

With the weight of a million martyrs and millennia of defended culture, the community is undoubtedly highly protective. Locals are understandably vigilant about any and all Iraqi state activity in the city. On Fridays there are often Iraqi Army officers on leave and touring the city. They receive frequent glares from every corner, every street, and every building, the community reminding them of what their state has done to Kurdistan.

The city of Sulaymaniyah, which is claimed by four different state power structures, has largely evaded every conflict since the 1990s. Surely this is a testament to the resolve of the people of eastern Bashur, who have secured their autonomy and refuse to be sucked into another hegemonic conflict after many generations of colonial warfare. In recent decades the Iranian state, Turkish state, Iraqi state, and the US have all grappled for occupation of Sulaymaniyah, and all have failed.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said in western Bashur, where the Barzani regime has allowed the Turkish state to occupy and terrorize a wide expanse of land along the northern border for over three decades. With numerous armed political factions and unsteady relations since the 1990s Kurdish Civil War, the region remains militarized. Along Road 4 and Salim Street, I drove past about four DShK machine guns mounted on technicals.

A Dual Police State and Its Sharks

PUK 12 in the central bazaar of Sulaymaniyah.

Many underestimate the economic power of the Turkish state in Bashur, both in the west and the east. Given the Iranian state’s historical backing of the PUK, one would expect more Iranian influence in the east. However, there appears to be more Turkish economic presence in both regions via a large number of imports and an occasional Turkish restaurant or shop. That being said, there are still some very noticeable differences between the west and the east.

PUK checkpoint when exiting Hawlêr.

What is immediately evident is that KDP Asayish appears to be protecting more oligarchy in the west, and more seriously. KDP checkpoints are armed to the teeth, and take twice as long to check passports. At some checkpoints, KDP Asayish pull up to the car with ski masks and Kalashnikovs. PUK checkpoints are generally less armed, while there are more technical truck patrols.

PUK martyrs along Road 18.

There appears to be more Turkish companies and securitized “private property” around Hawlêr than Barzani portraits and şehîdan. Meanwhile, there appears to be more portraits of Mam Jalal and şehîdan around Slemanî than Turkish businesses and securitized “private property” combined.

A myriad of social services and labor unions are also more visibly prevalent in the east than the west. More capitalism in the west, less capitalism in the east, but still capitalism. Though statistics have not been updated since 2018, KDP-controlled western Bashur struggles from at least a 3.2% higher poverty rate than PUK-controlled eastern Bashur. The KDP has attempted to emulate Western economies by privatizing public sectors, and most recently the medical sector.

To my Celtic internationalist ass, the Jordanian Wild Tiger energy drink tastes like strawberry lean from SOFEX, and Turkish candy tastes like some bland ass economic subversion. Nonetheless it is refreshing to see a general lack of Western corporations in both regions compared to Qatar, where Western corporations are everywhere. Small businesses clearly rule the economy in Bashur and monopolies are relatively scarce. Even so, the neoliberal sharks are always swimming. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is waiting for the right moment to pounce on the economic crisis, insisting on notorious structural adjustment programs that have destroyed countless local sectors in the Global South.

Conceptualizing Bashuri Capitalism and Social Democracy

Sulaymaniyah bazaar.

Upon experiencing the Sulaymaniyah bazaar, what came to mind from a political economy perspective was: this is market, but this is a local market, a more natural market, with far less of a hoarding profit incentive than Western ones. Yet, prices driven down to the dirt with clear ethical repercussions in foreign subversion and questionable labor practices. This is still neoliberal dystopia, but nowhere near the same neoliberal dystopia one finds in the West.

In Sulaymaniyah, everyone has their space, the shops distanced perfectly beside and across so that no one vendor has an unfair advantage. Demand for basic resources appears to be low as the many toiletry and goods shops are always fully stocked and almost never crowded, which is a good sign. Very few are desperate for basic resources relative to the West. Few monopolies are to be found, the economy dominated by local, independent shopkeepers.

According to some workers I spoke to, there are no taxes to speak of. Rarely does one come across any chain stores. Vertical and horizontal integration appear to be nearly nonexistent in most sectors. The financial sector is questionable, however. Credit unions are scarce and there appears to be a small handful of bank conglomerates dominating the sector. A credit union for refugees was proposed in 2019, but it does not appear to have materialized.

Generally the environment in the bazaar and in virtually every market is very happy, and very communal. Cultural fraternity is everywhere, and everyone looks after everyone. The next step is eliminating outsourcing to Turkey and Iran, then the local economy will be in a much better place, the worker of Sulaymaniyah in a much fairer position for their labor. After that, more worker ownership.

In the West, the economic scene is almost entirely unrecognizable to that of Sulaymaniyah. Mega corporations and monopolies control the large majority of most Western economies, local independent shops disappearing rapidly. The Western neoliberal economy results in mass poverty, widespread houselessness, starvation wages, and rampant boss-worker hierarchy. The local economy of Sulaymaniyah results in a much greater sense of collective fulfillment, widespread housing, widespread nourishment, the oligarchy notably reduced to only a few sectors such as oil. There is a more clear, more attainable path to worker liberation, represented by a collective force of coherent movements and organizations engaged in active struggle for broader autonomy. Meanwhile, neoliberal chaos ensues at its pinnacle in the West, and responses to it are shattered into a million shards.

This is only the economic aspect of the market, however. The most noticeable social problem in the Sulaymaniyah economy is gender divide. Men make up a large majority of the shopkeepers while women have much less representation in the markets, even in shops that specialize in feminine products. Patriarchy tends to dominate the social scene, questioned only by socialist and feminist organizations that have little to no electoral power. This is where the patriarchal tendencies of the PUK police state show their ugly face. The markets of Hawlêr hold a similarly disproportionate ratio of men.

Neoliberal infiltration is more social than it is economic in Sulaymaniyah. Many women and even some men can be seen with fresh nose-jobs and bandages on their face showing recent plastic surgery, a symptom of Eurocentric beauty standards plastered on the walls of many beauty parlors.

With some exceptions, mass-produced products and necessities are widely produced in foreign sweat shops. Like in most corners of neoliberal society, mass production has almost entirely replaced local artisanship. Though collateral damage of neoliberalism in Sulaymaniyah happens to be limited relative to Western economies and even Hawlêr, the impact is still very noticeable. Labor standards are questionable, occasional child labor being a noticeable thing in some areas. With a lack of local market oversight, health standards are also lower. Carcinogens and pathogens permeate the air in some places.

Cart with flags of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) founder Abdullah Ocalan (right) and late leader of Gorran Party Nawshirwan Mustafa (left).

Disorganized water maintenance is compounded by a Turkish and Iranian state-initiated water crisis that has been neglected by both ruling parties in the KRG, leaving Kurdish farmers in an increasingly dire situation. Sulaymaniyah is consequently smacked with a double decker of Covid and cholera outbreaks largely owed to the water situation. Despite frequently sanitizing my hands and drinking only filtered and boiled water, I contracted a nasty virus worse than Covid and subsequently amoebic dysentery during my time in Bashur, forcing me to stay mostly bedridden for roughly two weeks. My brain was forced to have an intervention with my Celtic Californian immune system.

The KRG has contracted with Chinese megacorporation PowerChina to build dams with Build & Road labor instead of its own workers, trying to apply a risky bandaid that may actually cause more harm than benefit in the long-term for both water and economy. A growing population of Belt & Road laborers can be found in some neighborhoods.

Immortal Community Under Indefinite Siege

Martyr Nagihan Akarsel. (Photo: Bianet)

On my fourth day in Bashur, Jineoloji (Kurdish feminism) activist Nagihan Akarsel was assassinated by Turkish agents in Sulaymaniyah just over a month after the assassination of Suhail Khurshid Aziz, a socialist political figure. I knew something was off the day of Akarsel’s assassination. The vibes were a little more cautious and vigilant than usual. The day after the assassination, Asayish presence was clearly bolstered around the city. I witnessed two high-speed chases near the location of the assassination, it was unclear if they were connected. Arrests were subsequently announced.

There were at least two artillery strikes, four drone strikes, two car bombings, and two assassinations around the proximity of Sulaymaniyah during my time there, followed by Iranian threats of invasion. Drone and artillery munitions, many of them Western-made, frequently falling just a few miles away. This was a much rougher month than average for Sulaymaniyah region, which has a reputation of being a safe space for dissidents.

Even so, it felt considerably safe walking the streets of Sulaymaniyah both in the day and at night relative to US cities. Drones and spies aside, strangers actually look after strangers. There is inherent value in community that is universally recognized, ensuring a mutual sense of security. It became obvious after the assassination of Akarsel that everyone looks after everyone in Sulaymaniyah. I was immediately offered safehouses by some hevalan (friends) who shall not be mentioned. Everyone I know in the city reminded one another of their mutual support.

In Sulaymaniyah, where threats are more external than internal, there is a different storm than the US. PUK Asayish do not have the same problem with brutalizing and killing marginalized people in the name of capitalism as US cops do, so the streets are generally safer for everyone. Nonetheless, Asayish in Bashur are still limbs of a capitalist police state, not to be seen as friends. Their ability to identify spies has become more questionable in recent years, putting more people at risk.

I overhead a French tourist saying “They call this the most dangerous country in the world. Turns out we were all wrong.”

A Dutch tourist replied: “Yeah, I feel more danger walking in Spain.”

Komala (CPI) base in Zrgwez.

After recovering from the virus and ensuring I was not infectious, I visited Komala bases in the town of Zrgwez, about 10 miles to the south of Sulaymaniyah. Here I interviewed Komala (CPI) central committee leader Hassan Rahmanpanah and Komala (TK) cadre Mohammed Hakimi respectively. In spite of the recent bombings and threats of invasion from the Iranian state, children played and laughed boisterously, and members of Komala members did as well. Here I learned that nothing could stop the people of Zrgwez, nor the people of Kurdistan, from laughing and singing and mocking the big ideas of the world.

The report-back of my time with Komala and interviews can be found in the article: “Alongside Komala Guerrillas In the Mountains of Kurdistan.”

Martyrs Speak From Amna Suraka

Few museums, if any, better encapsulate state terrorism than Amna Suraka (Red Prison), the former prison and northern headquarters of Baathist Iraq’s Directorate of General Security. Baathist forces made their last stand here against Kurdish rebels during the 1991 Battle of Sulaymaniyah. 30+ year-old bullet holes still drape the walls of the complex. In the courtyard, trucks, tanks, and armored personnel carriers are still empty from the departure of their last passengers: killed and captured Baathist personnel.

"I am in isolation my darling--Tasting no sleep--Until the star of your eyes--Turn up to me" written by a prisoner on the wall of a cell.

One navigates a maze of torture rooms where political prisoners and their families were raped, electrocuted, whipped, and suspended, often in front of other prisoners. Beside these rooms are the cells, within them the writings of former inmates.

"Mines which are found in Kurdistan are made by these Countries."

Across the courtyard, one finds the shoes and clothing of those killed in Anfal, surrounded by the faces of those who were lost, from babies to elderly. Upstairs, the portraits of martyrs in the war against Daesh (ISIS) dot every wall. Another room is filled with a sea of defused IEDs. The last three decades of Kurdish sacrifice, all encapsulated in a single complex. At Amna Suraka one hears the voices of the martyrs loudly.

Kurdistan Remains Immortal

From the serrated mountain ridges to the bazaar, Sulaymaniyah sings and dances with its martyrs and ancestors. In defiance of many daily struggles, light and life is found everywhere. Regardless of which struggles emerge in the future of Bashur, what is certain is that there will be a people here that create light even when it seems there is none left.

Every occupier that has come here has been wholly incapable of uprooting the many uncles mocking the big ideas of the world on every street, the many aunts who move mountains, the many children who laugh and play in their homeland, and indeed the many queers who have resisted patriarchal norms no matter where they come from. As the struggle for humanity against a collapsing neoliberal order intensifies, it remains clear that the social will of the people of Bashur prevails everyday.

Kurdistan remains immortal.


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