Kurdistan's Culture Club

Iraqis watch a movie during a screening at the Kurdish Film Festival in the northern Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah. SHWAN MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images Iraqis watch a movie during a screening at the Kurdish Film Festival in the northern Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah. SHWAN MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images

Iraqis watch a movie during a screening at the Kurdish Film Festival in the northern Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah. SHWAN MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images

Last December, the Kurdistan Regional Government finally accorded Suleimaniya, which is about 200km southeast of Erbil, the honorific it has long considered its due, by declaring the city as the region’s “capital of culture”. And the number of tourists has dramatically risen---by thirty percent over last year, according to official statistics.

The Lalezar Hotel sits atop a small hill in the affluent Sarchnar district of Suleimaniya, offering unrivaled panoramic views of the mountainous city. Arguably the Kurdistan Region’s first boutique hotel, the four-star establishment caters to a growing number of oil executives, tourists, businessmen and even American soldiers, who come from every corner of strife-ridden Iraq to sample its legendary signature steak.

Up on the fifth-floor is a modern oriental-inspired restaurant where leading figures of the day---whether they are businessmen, artists or up-and-coming politicians---gather to discuss life, current affairs and the future.The hotel’s owner and managing director is debonair, thirty-something Slivan Kaka Hama, an Iraqi Kurd who had fled to Sweden as a five-year-old child at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, and decided to repatriate in 2005 to help rebuild his homeland.

“At Lalezar, Kurdish hospitality is at the heart of what we do. If in the future we invest in a bigger hotel, we would still keep Kurdish hospitality at its heart---you shouldn't forget your roots,” he says. ''Suleimaniya is a big city that had an important café culture. We need more coffee shops and places for people to gather and relax.” For war-weary denizens old enough to remember the city in its heyday, Lalezar, (meaning “where tulips grow” in Persian) may represent a renewed flowering of their beloved “Kurdistan”.

[inset_left]Suleimaniya fast became a hub for all types of revolutionary currents, whether political, social or cultural.[/inset_left]

Founded in 1784 by Kurdish Prince Ibrahim Pasha Baban, the so-called windy city of Suleimaniya fast became a hub for all types of revolutionary currents, whether political, social or cultural. It was in Suleimaniya that trailblazing Kurdish journalist Piramerd's printing press gave a boost to Kurdish literature in the 1920s. It was in Suleimaniya that modern urban Kurdish nationalist movements first emerged in the 1930s

In 1956, author and politician Ibrahim Ahmad penned his definitive novella, Jani Gel (loosely translated, Birth Pangs of a Nation). It tells the story of one man’s personal struggles as his fictional city---inspired by Suleimaniya---is in the throes of a war of independence. Translated into Persian in 1980, and into Turkish and French in 1994, his daughter Hero Talabani, Iraq’s First Lady, produced a film adaptation in 2007. Screened in Boston, it was widely acclaimed by American critics, winning the Columbine award at the Moondance Festival, as well as being Iraq's entry for best foreign film at the Oscars. Among Kurds, however, it was seen as an homage to her late father’s legacy, and to the affection felt by Kurds for this once great city.

Suleimaniya, after all, had suffered the brunt of Saddam Hussein’s harshest suppression over the years. As if to punish the city for spawning the greatest protagonists of Kurdish culture and political opposition, the late dictator shut down its one and only university and moved it to Erbil in 1981. But if Saddam was able to shut down the university, he could not close down every single tea-house in the city.The Kurdish tea-house---the real bastion of intellectual thought and discourse---has survived the headiest days of turmoil throughout the 20th century.

Café Society

“This city has a long history of tea and coffee houses where both young and old would gather to debate the issues of the day and to educate themselves further,” muses 86-year-old Jamal Baban, a historian and a member of the illustrious Baban family. “It would be nice to see this culture continue and for there to be more places for the youth to go---although I'm not so sure it's what they go out for these days!”

Today, the Chaikhanae Shaab (People’s Teahouse) at the heart of the Bazaar, a time-honoured venue where one can spend hours chewing on thoughts and ideas over gallons of sweetened tea, continues to count among its habitués some of the city’s preeminent figures. If one is lucky, for instance, one might run into poet and publisher Sherko Bekas, an enduring voice of the revolutionary 1960s’ zeitgeist, and currently head of the Sardam Publishing House.

Bekas suspects some sinister motives behind the “culture capital” honorific, suggesting that in certain circles of Erbil, the move may have been intended to belittle the status of Suleimaniya, from a rival political hub to a hoity-toity cultural playground. “We have always been a cultural capital; we didn't need the title,” he says, a hint of defiance in his baritone. "I hope that this title is not just a political game to keep Suleimaniya quiet. I hope they invest and plan properly for the future. They need to ensure they set aside a proper budget to invest in cultural institutions. Perhaps the KRG’s Ministry of Culture should be in Suleimaniya and not Erbil!”

“Right from the day it was founded, Suleimaniya was a place of new ideas---it was unique,” says 73-year-old Bekas, who is also known in the city for his distinctive Bohemian style of dress. “Poets and writers such as Nali, Salam, Mahwi, Hamidi, Piramerd, Goran, Ibrahim Ahmed and my father Faiq Bekas, paved the way with their writings, making Suleimaniya a centre for Kurdish literature, modern Sorani poetry, and music. It all came out of this city!”

Bekas highlights what he calls one unique aspect of the people of Suleimaniya.“Throughout its history, people here have never been afraid to speak out, even when they were not free to do so, and this is why most Kurdish nationalist movements have prospered in Suleimaniya,” he says. “The city has a spirit that cultivates all things new. People here prided themselves on having a more open mindset than other nearby cities.”

Looking to the future

For Jamal Baban, whose great-great-grandfather was a cousin of the city’s founding father Ibrahim Pasha, it is imperative that young people learn about their cultural heritage and the city’s past. “All citizens of Suleimaniya have a duty to preserve and promote the culture of the city. The older ones must pass on traditions and customs to the young ones who must in turn take advantage of new forms of media and education to take the city forwards,” says Baban, a former General Director of Culture and Publishing and Secretary General of the Kurdish Academy in Baghdad.

For his part, Sherko Bekas laments the impact of politics on the youth of today.“We are still attached to Baghdad and we can still feel the fascism of the past towards us. Many Islamic groups have also flourished. These two things stunt the growth of culture,” he says. “My own view is that until we have our own state, our future will always be vulnerable.”

But for the younger generation who have picked up the torch, such lofty ideals as statehood and disputes over who gets what honorific may take second billing to the more pressing concerns of sustained economic development.

Hotelier Slivan Kaka Hama says it just isn’t enough to brand the city with slogans and catchy monikers, stressing upon the need for strategic marketing. “You can't just say that we are the capital of culture and stop there. The government needs to back this up with a strategic plan to develop Suleimaniya,” he maintains. “Part of the problem is that they don't have the experience. The government and municipality do promote the city, but not enough. They need to bring in outside expertise to develop a strategic plan for the next 10 or 20 years to attract investment and visitors.”

And although he has dreams of expansion in the coming years, he warns against selling out.“This development should not come at the cost of our culture. Look at what Turkey did in the 1980s – they promoted their culture, but in a way that made it accessible and enticing to an international market. For instance none of the big hotels here or in Erbil ever run Kurdish cultural nights or events, it is a shame,” he says.

Here, Bekas concurs: “We need to move forward in a positive way… To me, when you stop thinking and forget your past, you have no future.”

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