A country of contrasts

Oct 7, 2021 | Eaglewatch in Iraq, Great job, Video

Associated mainly with wars, terrorism and the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussain, Iraq has got a label of one of the most unstable countries in the world.

The era of chaos has lasted for almost two decades there, but before it had not been much calmer either. In the eighties, Iraq was at war with Iran, and then the Iraqi Kurds were fighting with each other in the Kurdish civil war (a little-known conflict that lasted from 1994 until 1997). There was also the invasion of Kuwait and the First Gulf War. All of those events had different causes, but taken altogether they make Iraq look like it’s a country of never-ending wars.

If we want to understand this complicated situation, we need to start from the root cause of all these conflicts. In 1916, the British and the French made a deal to carve up the Middle East after the end of the First World War. The pact, called the ‘Sykes-Picot deal’ (from the names of its signatories, namely Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot) divided the Middle East into the French and British spheres of influence. The plan’s aim was the partition of the Ottoman Empire, which during the Great War sided with the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary and Bulgaria). Syria and Iraq (Mesopotamia) gained nominal independence, but in practice they were satellite states.

Falling down the statue of Saddam Hussein – 2003. Photo: AP

The Middle Eastern ethnic cauldron

What impact does it all have on events playing out decades, even one hundred years later? The British and the French didn’t bother to establish what ethnic, religious and national groups were constituting the newly created states. During the First World War, the Ottoman Empire carried out a genocidal campaign against the Assyrians and the Armenians that lived within its territory. Decimated Assyrians hoped for some kind of autonomy that would protect them from further massacres. Despite that, they found themselves in a country dominated by the Arabs whom they didn’t trust. Out of the frying pan into the fire. Other minorities, which could be categorized as separate nations, found themselves in a similar position.

That’s how the cauldron was created, and sooner or later it was destined to boil. If we analyze the history of former Yugoslavia, we will find an analogy to how Syria and Iraq currently look like. At the end of his life, Josip Broz Tito saw the problem of inequality among the republics that constituted Yugoslavia. However, he didn’t manage to prevent its gradual breakup which with time was becoming more and more evident. Finally, in 1991 the bubble burst, leading to ethnic cleansing, massacres against civilians and the worst war in Europe since 1945. The conflict lasted for eight years and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

Map of the division of the sphere of influence in the Middle East under the Sykes – Picot Agreement

This short history review aims at showing how complicated the situation of the residents of Iraq is, since many of them are not actually Iraqis. If you ask them about their nationality, many will say they are either Kurds, or Assyrians, or Yazidis. It also depends on who asks this question, since people have learned to adapt to ever-changing conditions. We cannot accuse them of hypocrisy because oftentimes they simply do not feel that Iraq is their country.

Assyrians in traditional outfit. Photo: Vector Hakim

A country of contrasts

The article was supposed to be about contrasts, so let’s move on to that. Many things that make “our world” different from “their world”. I don’t want to describe similarities nor differences, but I’d like to focus on contrasts that can be noticed in Iraq. It is a country with many faces and often our assumptions on how life looks like over there is different from reality. I will add that I haven’t got to know Iraq entirely since we bring help to only a small part of contemporary Mesopotamia.

The first thing that can be noticed here is grandiose. A large arch stretches over the Erbil airport’s exit, while the road leading to the town’s main street has several lanes where one can easily get lost. The streets are wide and the traffic seems to be very chaotic. Honks are used more often than indicator lights and it feels as if people are very irritated. Here and there a quarrel can be heard on the street, but it is more of a local form of expression rather than real outbursts of anger. Two men arguing is a common picture here, but precisely at a moment when it looks like it’s going to turn into a major fight, they usually start smiling, pat each other’s arm and wave each other’s goodbye.

This picture of honking cars, loud conversations and traffic contrasts a lot with the real nature of Iraq’s inhabitants. After this first impression, one can get very surprised because they turn out to be very kind, hospitable and sympathetic. Closer friends, before starting a conversation, exchange greetings for every member of each other’s family.

You should like people whom you help at least a little bit

Had I not met these people before I started my humanitarian work, I could have got the impression that they were nice to me while expecting something in return. I know it’s silly, but we tend to be suspicious when faced with unconditional kindness. Entering a shop in Iraq just to look around you are greeted with cold water from a shopkeeper who always smiles. Sometimes customers are offered some hot tea as well. It is a country where trade has been present for thousands of years, so it may seem like it’s a trick to make people feel obliged to buy something. But usually, that’s not the case. In other Middle Eastern countries, it is considered good manners to purchase at least something small so that a shopkeeper doesn’t feel offended. I have never come across this in Iraq. Many times I was also invited for a dinner by strangers whom I had just met. 

The Iraqis are very family-oriented. I still remember a conversation with a thirty-year-old man who had just started working as a doctor in a hospital. He was a Yazidi. In 2014, he fled to the mountains with his entire family. They got split for several days. The man – a rather tall guy who spoke English very well – told me how worried he was about his parents during those days which were the worst in his life. Luckily the family got reunited and arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan. To this day they have been living there in a camp for internally displaced persons. They haven’t managed to save enough yet to be able to return to Sinjar.

Strong family bonds can be seen among families whom we helped to open workplaces. So far, we have managed to reopen or build from scratch more than 90 such small shops and workshops. The process includes tens of conversations that we have had with those people. Many were small family businesses operating over several generations. It is not uncommon for fathers to pass their professions on to their sons – it is often a direction chosen by the younger generation. It is also very common to see children helping their parents. But they do not lose their identity and if they want to go their own way, they can count on their parents’ support.
Several of these family business have been featured in a movie that you can find on top of this article. I won’t describe them here. You will see whom and why we help. To sum up, I would like to add that Iraq, as contradictory and difficult to understand as it is, is a country on a similar development level to Poland. People love to watch football here, they use – or overuse – smartphones, they like to go to restaurants or on out-of-town road trips. They try to live like everyone else in other parts of the world, but maybe they do grasp and appreciate every moment more than us. They know that tomorrow can be much worse. Despite that, egocentrism, so common in our part of the world, doesn’t exist there. People live for their relatives and want a better world for their children and grandchildren.

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