photo: Eddy van Wessel


Monday, July 22, 2013

Planning or no planning Ramadan, everything stops in Kurdistan. And even a few weeks before it starts, it is already hard to convince people to plan anything. “Let’s wait until after Ramadan”, is the much heard advice.

Not that it is so much easier in the rest of the year to plan things. In Kurdistan people hardly have an agenda, or if they do, they do not use it. They go by the day.

What a difference with my life before Kurdistan! My agenda would be filled with appointments as far as a month ahead. A dinner with a girlfriend would be planned a week before. An interview perhaps even two weeks. A course or workshop could be planned even further ahead, and an appointment with the dentist even up to a year before.

Some weeks I had every evening fixed: dinners, work, theater, and cinema. I was used to it, and having gaps in the agenda made me nervous.

Now look at my agenda: more gaps than appointments, because only those with Westerners usually end up in there. And if I make appointments ahead of time with Kurdish friends, I always confirm a day before. An appointment that is not confirmed, is considered non-existent.

It is a lesson that I learned the hard way. When I was still organizing workshops for journalists in Kurdistan, I had a double-sided planning. I had to plan the event and hire the (Western) trainer months ahead. But inviting and confirming the Kurdish participants would be done only a short time before the workshop.

I got used to it, and now live in the system. Yet sometimes it still makes me nervous. When a Dutch TV crew asks me to organize their trip, how can I explain to them that this can only be done a short time before the date? Because if you do try to do it earlier, people will not let themselves be pinned down. Even renting a car in Kurdistan is a last-minute thing.

I had thought that with more and more foreign businessmen coming in, planning would become easier in Kurdistan. But Kurds do not want to change this habit, because it gives them freedom. that is also the positive thing, I found. If you want to speak to a minister, a governor and someone else in a high position, you just phone the day before and you can usually be fitted in without too much of a waiting time. In Holland, I would have to get it fixed weeks before. Or, the other solution: you walk in and wait with the secretary. But I hate it when people do that to me, as it destroys the schedule of my day.

Not planning gives you freedom. But planning is globally the norm. And with Kurdistan joining the world, it will have to adapt. Although somehow it will never do so completely.

This blog was published in Kurdish in the newspaper Kurdistani Nwe.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Going to an official language is the language of the Kurds. But which Kurdish dialect can we use as the language of Iraqi Kurdistan? Can we develop a Standard Kurdish?

For me, this question seems one of the utmost importance for the future Kurdish state. To unite a people you have to be able to communicate well. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main dialects which are almost languages in their own right, and a couple of smaller ones. And to complicate matters, the two main ones are written in different scripts: in the Arabic and the Latin script.

I know the issue has kept people talking for years, and I know it is drowned in politics. Yet it is too important to ignore.

In my own country, a standard Dutch language has been developed, next to the other languages and dialects. It is for official use, and everybody gets taught the standard Dutch. In the northern province of Friesland, the Frisian language is used next to the Dutch: on the traffic signs, in schools, and in literature.

The same happens in Great Britain, where Welsh and the Scottish are languages in use next to the English – although that is not quite the same as Wales is a region (and Scotland will be soon too), just like Kurdistan is.

The European Union uses English a lot, but has a number of languages of member states that can be used and will be translated for all to understand. That is costly though.

In Kurdistan, through natural development, Sorani is the biggest dialect, spoken by most people. It is now the dialect most of the official documents are written in. Not looking at political implications, it would seem only logical to make Sorani the official language of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Then the traffic signs in the Kermanji-areas can carry both languages. Books and newspapers can
still be published in Kermanji, but kids in school will have to learn the official language next to their own. Provincial and local governments can discuss in their own language, but documents have to be made available in both languages to make them accessible for the government in Erbil.

Of course, then there is the difference between the dialects of Sulaymaniya and Erbil. I come from an area with a dialect that is different from the Standard Dutch, but all official matters are handled in the standard language. In my view, what we need in Kurdistan is a commission that will discard politics and develop a standard Sorani using both dialects, which can become the official language of Iraqi Kurdistan.

We are on the way to becoming a state, so I keep hearing here in Kurdistan. A state needs an official language. So it’s time to let politics be, and let language specialists do their job.
 This blog was published in Kurdish in the daily newspaper Kurdistani Nwe

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Returnees should be valued

Some of the best read blogs here are those about thealth care in Iraq, Don't get ill in Iraq, and the "revisited" blog to that.

Related to this subject is the matter what happens to those Kurds that left the country and return to help rebuild their country. They hardly get the chance, and that is not helping Kurdistan forward.
Read the opinion piece I wrote on this for here.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Build schools for all

Years ago I made a report about the problems of a primary school in Sulaymaniya. Most prominent was the fact that the school had too many pupils and had for that reason split them in groups: mornings and afternoons. Along with this there was a shortage of almost everything.

I was mortified: how can children be educated well when the foudation is too small – and that must be the case if you get so little time to learn all that needs to be learned. I thought then it was a temporary problem, caused partly by the many internally displaced kids from Arabic Iraq. I thought the problem would be solved soon if new schools were built en new teachers produced.

But as many as eight years later, the situation has not improved. Still Kurdistan does not have enough schools. Still kids come to school in at least two shifts. Still schools lack furniture and materials, and are housed in old buildings what are too cold in winter and too hot in summer.

Does the government not realize the importance of good education; and if so, why does it not build new schools? Yet at the same time many mosques do get built, and some of them are hardly used. Can’t the believers who want to pay for the building of a mosque be convinced the Qur'an also calls for education, so could they please build schools? 

Of course, since then many private schools have opened: Lebanese, British, American, French, Turkish and even German. Here children can be educated in better surroundings, and here the schooldays are not split up. One problem though: these schools generally are asking fees that many parents cannot afford.

So what is happening in this country that still holds on to some of its socialist heritage? Rich children get well educated, poor ones do not. That is capitalism in its worst form. In my country that does not even happen. Rich or poor, government schools or private – all children have the right to the same quality of education and the Dutch government is really strict on this.

Another problem is that in some of the schools children are hardly getting taught in their mother tongue anymore. They learn English and Turkish. How about the Kurdish that the Kurds have been fighting so desperately for to be able to speak, write and teach? How can it be that suddenly that is not important anymore?

I look at my new country with my foreign eyes, and I want to cry. To move forward, Kurdistan needs good education. That starts at the basic level. Yet in Kurdistan, that is where is does not start at all.

This blog was published in Kurdish in the daily Kurdistani Nwe

Monday, July 1, 2013

Smoking kills

Smoking? Kurdistan must be one of the last countries where smokers can do as they please. Perhaps not at the airport, sure, but that is because of international regulations. And in public buildings? Well, many Kurdish smokers don’t let themselves be stopped even where smoking is prohibited.  

What a difference from where I come from! In the Netherlands, smokers have almost been banned out of closed public spaces. Not only in government buildings, but also in restaurants and cafes they can no longer light up. So smokers can be found on terraces, with heaters against the cold and shelters against the rain.

The nergila cafes that started to appear in Amsterdam, found problems. It is not allowed to smoke inside, so the nergila was banned to often cold and windy terraces – not quite the place for it.

Some cafe-owners without terraces got smart after they saw their customers leave. The EU-regulation is meant to protect employees against the smoke of others. Using the holes in the law, some cafe-owners sent the employees home and do all the work themselves, so they could allow their clientele to smoke.

Since the smoking ban has been put in place, many people stopped smoking. It is no fun standing outside with a fag, if your friends are inside waiting for you. It is a hassle to leave your desk to have a smoke in the special smoker's room. In fact it means the policy is working.

Smokers in the West have become outsiders. For a very good reason: smoking is bad for not only your own health, but also for that of those who have to inhale your smoke. And to dissuade smokers even more from lighting a cigarette, huge taxes have been put on the packets.

Kurdistan seems hardly aware of all this. Only polite people ask if you mind when they light up in your presence. Cigarettes are very cheap, and the cheapest ones are certainly amongst the worst possible for your health.

It took the world a while to find out how bad cigarettes are, but now everybody knows the relation between smoking and cancer. We have seen growing numbers of cancer patients in Kurdistan, but warnings against smoking are hardly heard. I would not at all be surprised if the two facts are linked.

In 2012 the Kurdish Ministry of Health issued a warning that any restaurant, cafe or even shopping mall allowing people to smoke, would be fined 500.000 dinars, around 400 dollars. I don't think any fines have been paid, and people have not stopped smoking.

Kurdistan wants to be seen as a state that cares for its people. It does not have to follow Europe in the banning of smoking. But it does have to educate its citizens, and make them aware of the dangers. For the smoker, and for those inhaling his/her smoke. Especially for those people, because they have no choice. And smoking kills. It really does.

This blog was published as a column in the Kurdish newspaper Kurdistani Nwe