photo: Eddy van Wessel


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Making space for Jews again in Kurdistan

Baghdad and Tehran don’t like it, and neither do some radical imams. But generally, Kurds are happy with the new Jewish representative in their Ministry of Religion.

Sherzad Omer Mamsani (39) was appointed to lead one of the seven new directorates for minority religions in Kurdistan, set up as a result of a law adopted in the Kurdistan Parliament in May. Next to the Jews, the Yezidis, Sabai, Mandaeans, Baha’i and Zoroaster have their own directorate.

It is not a political post, Mamsani stresses, during an interview in the Kurdistan capital Erbil. In this city he grew up as a so called Benjew – Kurdish for someone with Jewish roots  – and he even still speaks some of the old Aramean language of the Jews of Kurdistan. 

Mamsani will work from his government position for all Jewish Kurds, both in Kurdistan and in Israel. In Kurdistan some hundreds of families still hold on to their Jewish roots, mostly living in anonymity.

Most of the around 150.000 Iraqi Jews left the country after the forming of the State of Israel at the start of the 50s. Those who stayed either converted to Islam, or left in the 70s, when the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein targeted the remaining Jewish community.

For many Moslem Kurds their Jewish ancestry is a well-guarded family secret in the mainly Islamic society. That is what Mansani wants to work on: “We will help those Kurds who want to find out about their Jewish roots and work with the government to reunite families.”

Next to these Benjew families, he mentions some 400 families who had gone to Israel but returned to Kurdistan, partly because they did not want their women to serve in the Israeli army.

An important task on his desk is the reconstruction and building of synagogues. Only a few ruins are left. “We want one in every town; a meeting place for the people. But only after the war, as now there is no money.”

Another issue to be solved involves the property Kurdish Jews who left in the fifties had to leave behind. Many houses, grounds and businesses have been taken over since, but in Erbil most of the houses in the former Jewish quarters still are owned by their original Jewish owners.

The new director of Kurdish Jew Affairs is himself a symbol of the anti-Jewish sentiments that have long festered amongst Kurds, fed by their Arab rulers and Islam. When in 1997, during the Kurdish civil war, Mamsani published a book about the relation between the Kurds and Israel, radical Moslems became enraged. That led to an attack in which he lost his right hand.

Still he did not give up his ideals. He has long been active to improve the ties between Kurds and Israelis, for instance by publishing the ‘Israel Kurd’-magazine and by leading a nongovernmental organisation under the same name. His appointment resulted from his own request to the Kurdistan government for an official bureau, to be able to better work for the cause.

“Those behind the attack on me are now probably with daesh,” he says, using the local acronym for the Islamic terror group ISIS. He thinks that the atmosphere in Kurdistan towards Jews has changed because of the war the Kurds now fight against ISIS, distancing many from radical Islam.

He stresses that his position is purely humanitarian. “We Jews have been friends for ages with Moslems and Christians in Kurdistan. We want to explore how we can work together. And since Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, the relation between Kurds and Israel have been stopped.”

Reactions have been mainly positive, he claims. “Not everybody is happy, of course, but last Friday the mullahs in the mosques just preached about us all being one big family.” 

Yet he does mention a negative reaction he received on Facebook, saying: “If anyone thinks he can do this job better, I am happy to leave. But through my work I will show who I am.”

Negative reactions also came from the Iraqi government in Baghdad, that is not happy with the move but cannot do much against it, as the creation of these posts is within the rights of a federal state in Iraq.

The Iranian consul even visited the Ministry of Religion to complain about the new representatives both for Jews and Baha’i, as the latter are seen in Iran as unbelievers.

The appointment of Mamsani appears to be part of a development towards tighter relations between the Kurdistan Region and Israel, beyond the historical ties between the ruling Barzani-family and the Jewish state. Israeli leaders have openly shown support for the Kurdish struggle for an independent state, and according to press reports most of the oil Kurdistan exported this year has gone to Israel.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Expats promote rugby to help Kurdistan refugees

Rugby is a sport that is hardly known in Iraq, nor in the Kurdistan region. There is not even one rugby pitch in the country. Yet now a group of mainly expats playing rugby has set up a campaign to help refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kurdistan.

“Rugby for Refugees” is the title of the campaign set up to collect money for this cause, said Neil Young, who works for a logistics company in the Kurdistan region capital Erbil. “We want to raise the profile of their needs through rugby, and get as much money as we can through sponsors and donations,” he told Rudaw.

The Kurdistan region houses about 2 million refugees and IDPs from Syria, the Yezidi region of Iraq and other areas taken over by ISIS.

Read the whole story here

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Don’t waste money on reaching Europe unless you need refuge

Some 15,000 young men are said to have left the Kurdistan Region of Iraq recently for a better life in Europe. Slipping in with the bigger group of refugees from Syria, often posing as Syrians themselves, they took the dangerous road to the future.

Yet their situation cannot be compared to that of most Syrian refugees. These young men might have suffered from the fact that Baghdad has not paid the Kurdish region out of the national budget for the past three months, meaning that civil servants – over 75 percent of all workers – again did not get paid.

They may be fed up with the political situation in Kurdistan, where the conflict among the parties about an extension to the presidential term is slowing down most decisions. Or they may be fed up with living so near to the war.

Among themselves and within their families, young Kurds talk about the refugees entering Europe, and that they may be able to slip in too. Sometimes, parents even give their sons the money to pay smugglers for the trip.

Read on....

Dark details emerge from ISIS-occupied Mosul

The man shaved his beard and then stood in the street smoking a cigarette in broad daylight - two major offenses in the so-called caliphate of the Islamic terror group ISIS.

Before too long, the group’s religious police, the Hisba, came and put the man in their car and drove away. In the car, the man pulled out a weapon and killed them all. He then escaped in ​the car​ of a friend​ that had escort​ed him on his mission​.

This Hollywood-like plot was recently played out for real in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which has been in the hands of ISIS since June 2014. It was reported by Mosul Eye, a historian who blogs in deep secret from inside the city.

Stories that emerge from Mosul are scarce. Mobile phone lines have been cut, so civilians use the Internet to connect with family and others outside the city. They may complain about lack of electricity and services, but are scared to give information because ISIS has warned them they are monitored.

Read the whole story here:

Keep Kurdistan on the world map: stop the infighting

“I am worried about the unrest,” the friend who picks me up from the airport after a trip abroad confides in me. “These protests, will they get us into another civil war?”

Welcome back to Kurdistan where the war against the Islamic terror group ISIS has changed the scene completely in a year, with an economic growth of 10 percent plunging into negatives. Where over 1,300 Kurdish Peshmerga have died fighting ISIS, and over 6,000 wounded. Brave Peshmerga who are honoured by all Kurds and who like most civil servants in the Kurdistan Region have not been paid for months.

As over 75 percent of all jobs are offered by the government, the result is disastrous for most, especially for those who do not have any income other than from driving a taxi or running a business. So it is a miracle really that protests did not start in earnest before, apart from minor ones in the second Kurdish city of Sulaimani.

Read the whole story here

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Eid under hardship for IDPs in Kurdistan

The annual Islamic celebration of Eid al-Adha finds many Iraqis who fled from Sunni areas to the Kurdistan region in a situation of hardship.

Not only have civil servants from Mosul not received any government wages for months, for some, UN food coupons were cut too.

"Just before Eid I finally received two months of my salary from Baghdad. Before that nothing for six months,” said Raed, a former policeman from Mosul. The 30-year-old now works as a barber. His shop in the Harsham refugee camp outside the Kurdistan region capital of Erbil is busy, even though it is Eid, one of the most important Islamic holidays.

His customers are mainly young men he attracted with his skills using the barber’s razor, as they are boasting partly shaved heads. They all originate from Iraq’s second city Mosul and the Shingal Region, both areas now in the hands of the Islamic State.

Read the story here

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Erbil’s celebrated carpet museum struggles to remain open due to war

More than a year after the festive reopening of the Kurdistan Textile and Cultural Museum at the Erbil Citadel in the Kurdistan Region, owner Lolan Sipan is struggling to keep its doors open.

Due to the impact of Kurdistan’s war with the Islamic State group (ISIS) – which has continued since August last year -- he has been forced to send almost all of his staff away and close the museum tea house.

In April 2014 the museum that Sipan had set up 10 years before in a corner of the Citadel reopened its doors after an extensive renovation, paid jointly with German and local funding.

It was part of the revitalization of the Erbil Citadel, which has since been added to the World Heritage list of UNESCO.

The museum suffers from the threat from ISIS and fighting that is raging only miles from the capital. The war has halted the development of the Kurdistan Region into a popular tourist destination and kept most tourists away.

Read the whole story here