As Kurdistan strives for a new life, its old traditions are dying

The herders are under pressure not just from Isis, but from a thrusting new urban culture

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

 Erbil, Iraq

The Kurds here are fighting Isis — everyone knows that. Most of us are at least peripherally aware that the brave Peshmerga (Kurdish militia) have proved an effective force against the Islamists, and we cheer them on. What we don’t realise is that as they battle the world’s latest bogeyman, the Kurds are also simultaneously suffering from another sort of crisis.

Traditionally the Iraqi Kurds are nomadic pastoralists. They’ve herded sheep since biblical times, leading their flocks from the mountains to the lowlands and back. The passion they feel for their land is rooted in this pastoral tradition. It’s a weird irony, then, that as their dream of a separate state grows close to being realised, their way of life is dying.

Outside Erbil, you can see the two natures of Kurdistan, traditional and modern, existing side by side. My guide, Reb, and I watch as a herder in a black leather jacket leads his sheep behind two camouflaged men with guns resting on sandbags. The land is dotted with refineries, and every so often spires of flame tower up into the sky, silhouetting the soldiers against the distant city, with its skeletal half-constructed concrete buildings surrounded by crowds of cranes.

It was Saddam who began altering the age-old Kurdish identity. He and his cousin, Chemical Ali, conducted a brutal campaign, — codenamed Al-Anfal — gassing civilians and razing Kurdish settlements. Reb and I pass many shattered villages, still just piles of rubble.

The land, once full of animals grazing, was badly damaged by Saddam. During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war he destroyed the trees so the Peshmerga couldn’t hide from the Iraqi army. Now there are only small, newly planted pine trees on the mountains. ‘Hussein also put mines along the Iran-Iraq border; another obstacle for herders,’ Reb says. And the land remained poisoned from the chemicals for many years.

Following the 1991 Gulf War, Kurds were forced to return to the city to look for work; this was another blow to the countryside. Quickly many decided they were better off here. ‘There have been various KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] efforts to encourage people to return, trying to stimulate agriculture and pastoralism,’ Reb says.

Nothing has worked, and of course it’s the cities now where Kurds want to live. There are Isis car bombs in Erbil, but also kitchen showrooms and shopping centres. In a sea of new-builds, one historic building stands — the 8,000-year-old, Unescorestored citadel. A nearby mosque has photos on the wall of a bygone Erbil, with sheep wandering the streets. Erbil attracts international business, too. Frequent signs point to volatile nearby cities such as Baghdad and Mosul, yet Iraqi Kurdistan has become a haven for western business. ‘It’s safer here than Croydon!’ says Daniel, once a British paramedic, now a medic for a gas company here.

Reb shows me fairgrounds with giant Mickey Mouse figures and ferris wheels. One, Freedom Park, is incongruously next to the Red security building, which was once one of Saddam’s secret prisons and is still full of torture equipment.

After the fall of Saddam came the oil — a mixed blessing for Kurds. It’s made the region rich, but meant another blow to the old way of life. ‘We are always portrayed as nomads, but this perception is out of date,’ says Karwan, the owner of Kurdistan Adventures, a local tour operator, as we walk around the city of Sulaymaniyah. ‘Instead we are deemed to be the next Dubai,’ he continues, pointing at the gigantic rocket shape of the Grand Millennium Sulaimani Hotel.

It’s Isis now that poses the greatest threat to the Kurds’ old lifestyle and their new one. Its forces overran expanses of northern Iraq last summer, capturing the country’s second-largest city, Mosul, and trying for a take-over of Erbil. ‘When Isis came the Iraqi army ran away,’ Reb says. ‘Shame on them as they have lots of weapons, but our Peshmerga aren’t afraid of death! They stood firm.’

One shepherd, in traditional baggy trousers, has a more circumspect view. Many Kurdish boys are now too busy to be herders, he laments. ‘They’re Peshmerga protecting our borders from Isis. But will they ever go back?’

Another herder says that since Isis the price of sheep has plummeted. ‘The whole economy has been affected,’ he says. ‘We finally had peace and now this. But that is the life,’ he adds (a common phrase here).

On one of my final days in Iraqi Kurdistan I stand at the ruins of one of Saddam’s many castles, looking down at the awful sight of Kurdish Yazidis (among the world’s oldest and smallest religious minorities) fleeing Isis. In the refugee camp later, I hear countless tales from Yazidis who had to leave all their animals and possessions behind. Tens of thousands have been displaced.

And it’s not just Yazidis. Separate refugee camps exist for Syrians, and many people are squashed into unfinished concrete buildings. Sunni Arabs also run here from Baghdad. ‘They killed us, but we offer them a flower in exchange,’ Reb says. ‘It’s ironic because it was the Arabs who previously controlled us but now many of them come and herd our sheep, doing our menial work.’

In one refugee camp, Khanke, I meet a Yazidi lady still dressed in black from mourning. She and her children are crowded around a clay stove baking flatbread, which they insist I share with them. She has arrived recently from the Sinjar mountains, she says, where she was trapped with no food for over two weeks, with three of her tiny children. ‘My aunt and cousins were kidnapped by Isis. We still do not know where they are. And they beheaded my father, filming it for YouTube.’

I came here to see if an ancient Kurdish way of life, once the heart of the nation, could possibly survive in the face of persecution, oil, and now war. The answer, I think, is no. Peace is the only objective now, and pastoralism looks like it’s had its day. Reb is excited: ‘Isis and the oil mean that for the first time we can dream of our own state,’ he says. ‘Our flag is full of blood. I want to see it in the UN.’

And after that? Yes, there’s every chance the Kurds will have a state in some post-Isis settlement, but they’ll have to redefine and re-find the soul of that state.

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Show comments
  • cartimandua

    Hopefully they will drop FGM.

  • Alex Atroushi

    Good day Kate Eshelby
    Please note;
    Kurdish Peshmerga is not Militias, ISIS is Militia.

    It is widely accepted that the Peshmerga is a legal entity under Article 121(5) of the 2005 Iraqi constitution, whose role is the safeguarding the internal security of Iraqi


  • jim

    Hmmmm…Couldn’t be bothered reading all of this.A bit more concern for our own traditions which are being relentlessly trampled upon might be in order.I think our loss is greater.

    • takasar1

      nice to know that every single article written regarding the british isles, regardless of theme and/or style, should uniformly concern itself with the sole topic of jim’s choosing….

      • jim

        .That’s my point Sherlock.The white christian west spends all it’s time wringing it’s hands about the fate of indigenous cultures all over the world while it’s own culture and society is mutating as we speak.Understand now?..Good.I knew you’d grasp the concept once I’d explained it to you.

        • takasar1

          its called sarcasm watson. would you have us take every single story and kill it purely so we can pander to the whims of a bunch of lonely little fools at the bottom of society who’ve clearly lost at life? no more football, style, fashion, cluture, travel or even international news. all cameras and reporters to london. understand now? i doubt you’ll grasp the concept even after i’d explained it to you.

          • jim

            I’ve explained it once.Do I want to go through it again?Not really…On the other hand,I would like to help the confused and angry whenever I can..Some might say we even have a duty do so….I’ll try again.It’s like this:we spend too much time worrying about THEM and not enough time worrying about US…There.Maybe he’ll get it this time.Let’s wait and see……If this doesn’t work I’ll be reduced to cardboard and crayons.

          • takasar1

            its what happens when you can’t explain properly…
            how charitable of you, quite ironic though. bit like the beggar handing the banker a few cents.

            i’ll have a go at it, for your sake of course: how do you define ‘too much time’? rather subjective methinks. funnily enough, you can find more articles on ‘us’ than ‘them’ on this site. care to peruse before revealing one’s short-comings? if we go by such failed logic, we’d be stuck in a never-ending spiral of isolation. if you wish to throw another tantrum, do so elsewhere. this is getting sad.

            crayons?!?! and here i was convinced you were still in the rattle and dummy stage.

          • jim

            Cardboard and crayons it is then.I’ll get back to you.In the meantime it might be an idea to stay away from the keyboard.People might think there is something wrong with you.I mean,it’s OK that you say these things to me but others might not be so patient.

        • Kennybhoy

          “The white christian west spends all it’s time wringing it’s hands…”

          Thing is Maister J. It comes with being a Christian or a sub-Christian…

          • jim

            True enough.But it will also destroy us.The waves of immigrants heading our way trust that the “compassion” of the white christian west will not allow them to drown.When we are less white,less western,less christian,they won’t be so certain.Who else takes compassionate self sacrifice to such a ridiculous extreme?It’s a stupid way to lose a civilization.Most empires fall due to military defeat or some kind of natural disaster.We’re going under at least in part because of a masochistic appetite for noble self sacrifice.Socialism with a christian spin is poisonous.They are both used to argue against our own interests.

  • Kate Eshelby

    Thank you Alex for reading, and responding to my piece. You are right. Although the Kurdish Peshmerga are often referred to as militia forces, they are the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan.

    ‘Militia’ is often used as quite a loose term, whereas militants is a word with a more aggressive connotation. I would agree that ISIS are militants.

    But as you rightly point out the Peshmerga have been formally organised as a national fighting force for the Kurdish people. But their roots are that of a guerrilla fighting force, raised from the civil population like militias are.

    The term militia does not deny that the Peshmerga were key in toppling Saddam Hussein, and are now key in the fight against ISIS.

    Perhaps the fact that sometimes the Peshmerga are referred to as militia is because there is also the Iraqi army from central Baghdad.

  • Kate Eshelby

    I would also like to respond to Jim and Takasar.
    The loss of a tradition in a foreign place, does not belittle any loss of culture here.
    There is a place for both dialogues.
    And I don’t deny that oil (and urbanisation) are seen by most Iraqi Kurds as a good thing: the wealth from oil, for starters, increases their chance of independence.
    But this does not mean their history of herding should be forgotten. It’s
    just a ‘quieter’ story to the topical news story of ISIS.
    Iraqi Kurds have a strong bond with their land because of their history. And the past is particularly important in Iraqi Kurdistan, because it must never be forgotten what happened under Saddam Hussein’s rule.
    Hussein and his party killed so many rural communities, and others fled from their land in terror; a reason for the demise in herding which has happened on these lands
    since biblical times.

  • Mohammad Kayani

    Tribal leadership is the main problem, which has plagued the Kurds and hampers modernisation of the Kurdish political, economic and society. This type of leadership sees every aspects of nation’s live, wealth and in fact its very existence through themselves and their personal interests. The Kurdish oil income and lands are distributed and used and abused by a few. the ordinary people are nothing to them but a mean for them to be in power and generate wealth. their offsprings are at race for who amass greater amount of money in a shorter time on the expenses of the poor and needy. All aspects of economy is controlled by them and the get a share in the profit of any business valued over $ one million. There is no free market in Kurdistan but free pricing, and the trade is controlled by those parasites. The development of industrial infrastructure has been blocked to develop by the greedy officials at the very top of the Kurdistan power structure. The oil revenue is exclusively for the top political and governmental officials and use some of it on bribing foreign dignitaries, ex- diplomats, generals and middle men. I can go on and on. but leave it here. It is a chronic malignant disease need a major operation to get rid of it but if the operation starts now it will kills the patient before excising the tumour.

  • ramin