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Language dispute highlights growing Arab-Kurd tensions

Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 1-Oct-09

An investigative report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, IWPR, has revealed a growing language gap between Arab and Kurdish Iraqis – reflecting a rift that the United States says is the biggest long-term threat to the stability of the country.

Tensions are at their highest since the US-led invasion in 2003, with Baghdad angry over the Kurdish government’s plans to strengthen its autonomy and expand its territory.

As US troops prepare to withdraw, many fear the dispute could turn bloody. The language gap, arguably a symptom of Kurdish-Arab tensions, may also soon exacerbate them, the IWPR report concludes.

Although Iraq’s constitution accords Arabs and Kurds, and their languages, equal rights and status, in reality few young Kurds speak Arabic and even fewer young Arabs learn Kurdish.

Kurdish speakers of Arabic tend to belong to the older generation, including the current political elite, schooled before the creation of their semi-autonomous region in 1991. Subsequently, Kurds reasserted their identity, following decades of repression, by replacing Arabic with their own language. Many below the age of 35 do not speak the language.

Abdullah Qirgaiy, a 60-year-old writer, learnt Arabic during his compulsory army service, and later married an Arab woman. He says military service and mixed marriages helped his generation learn Arabic.

“After the 1991 uprising, Kurds came to regard themselves as independent,” Qirgaiy told IWPR. “They no longer felt obliged to learn Arabic and made no effort to master it.”

“Mutual linguistic ignorance can seriously undercut any effort to build sound relations between the two ethnic groups,” warned Mufid al-Jezairy, an Iraqi Arab member of parliament. “But by learning to speak each other’s language, Arabs and Kurds can improve their relations.”

Analysts told IWPR the next generation of Kurdish leaders could be compromised by their lack of fluent Arabic.

“It is politically dangerous for an official who cannot speak and argue in Arabic to be among Arabs,” said Asos Hardi, a political commentator.

However, independent politician Dhia al-Shakarchi said members of the larger ethnic group, the Arabs, ought to have “taken the initiative in reassuring Kurds of their status as true and equal partners in the new Iraq”.

“It is a pity there is hardly any desire among Iraqi Arabs to learn Kurdish,” he said.

Ali Abd al-Sada, a journalist from Baghdad who learnt Kurdish during a two-year stay in Kurdistan, said Arab neglect of this language is compounded by an ignorance of Kurdish culture.

“To learn Kurdish is to make Iraq’s cultural diversity more than a mere slogan, a living experience,” he said.

Political analyst Saad Sallum agreed that the Arab-Kurdish divide can only be breached when both sides learn each others’ languages. Political solutions that stop short of tackling the language gap are mere “cultural decoration”, he said.

Most Kurds living in Baghdad speak good Arabic and younger Arabs tend to communicate with their Kurdish peers in Arabic alone. But signs on roads and official buildings in each region tend to be either in Arabic or in Kurdish, rarely both. If a second language is used, it is usually English.

Many Iraqis complain of their difficulty in communicating when they visit the Kurdistan’s mountain resorts as tourists, seeking relief from searing summer heat - and sometimes from sectarian strife.

“Kak, Arabi nazanim,” is a common response from the locals they meet, roughly translated as, “Sorry mate, I don’t speak Arabic.”

For more information, please contact IWPR Managing Editor Yigal Chazan, yigal@iwpr.net

ABOUT IWPR

IWPR undertakes capacity-building programmes in more than two dozen areas of crisis and conflict around the world. Established in 1993, its work focuses on training, reporting and institution-building. This includes establishing independent local media; training local reporters, editors and producers in basic and specialist skills; supporting extensive in-depth reporting on human rights, good governance and related issues; disseminating fact-based reporting in developing countries and internationally; and strengthening communications capacity of local human rights, women’s and grassroots organisations.

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