March 26, 2007

Kurdistan Post-Game: Dispatch from Erbil

Kurdistan Post-Game: Dispatch from Erbil

Some of you felt that last week’s show on Iraqi Kurdistan came off like one big commercial for the region. There was indeed a lot of positive talk and boosterism in last night’s show, which came from having two KRG reps and one adviser on the program.

I had actually booked someone I hoped would act as a bit of a counter to these other guests. Someone to talk about daily life in Iraqi Kurdistan and maybe offer a reality check against the ad campaign. But as you may have noticed when Chris mentioned it on the air, we missed hearing from Bilal Wahab because of problems with the international phone lines. It was really too bad. Bilal is a blogger and NGO worker who grew up in Iraqi Kurdistan, left for a year or so to do a Fulbright scholarship in DC, and has now resettled with his wife in Erbil. When I spoke to him the day before the show, he and his family were headed to Erbil’s biggest park to celebrate the new year, all dressed in traditional Kurdish garb. He said that over 10,000 people were gathered in the park that day. It was a lovely image.

But Bilal also had a lot of criticisms of the KRG and expressed frustration about the small but important inconsistencies of daily life there. Here are some of the notes from our pre-interview. Square them, if you like, against the picture that was painted on the show.

Kurdistan is booming in terms of construction but at a price. Sometimes I think it’s more expensive for me to live here than in DC…When you try to see how the construction boom is affecting people, you find out it’s very elitist. There are very few people benefiting from it. My wife is a school teacher and she earns about $250 a month, and the local hotel is $250 a night.

In Erbil you have only two gas stations that sell at the government subsidized price – you get 30 liters for a week, and you have to wait in a long line for five or six hours, sometimes longer. The other way to get gas is through the black market. The electricity is worse than when I left two years ago. We still have shortages in electricity and power. The local government blames it on Baghdad: ‘It’s Iraq, we don’t have refineries.’

Bilal Wahab in a conversation with Open Source, 3/21/07

With the KRG, at least now you’re talking about one KRG – we used to be talking about two KRGs [when there was a civil war between the PUK and the KDP in the mid ’90s]. The unity government is doing much better than people expected…The public problem we have is that we have 1 million public employees and only 10% of them are needed. The government hands out 60% of its budget in salary. It is a loss in money and manpower. The excuse is that the government is feeding the people in a way. But it plays out badly during elections in our region, where many aspects of life have been politicized. They say, if you don’t vote for me, you’ll lose your job.

The media is more vibrant than it used to be. They’re more critical of public officials and corruption; on the other hand, officials are more immune. Newspapers and magazines no longer beat around the bush but rather name public officials, including heads of parties. We have officials who spend like Gulf emirs – they have villas, they go on expensive vacations – but you have a media increasingly critical of that.

Bilal Wahab in a conversation with Open Source, 3/21/07

Do we ache for what’s going on in Baghdad? My father’s generation does. They have friends there. The generation of my young brother doesn’t. They don’t speak Arabic, they think about Kurdish nationalism and Gap jeans and that kind of thing. Some people realize that this region cannot be stable unless Baghdad stabilizes. Then some think the worse Baghdad becomes the better we become…

I don’t see Kurdistan being an independent state any time soon–there is more talk about independence than work in that direction. One big Kurdish nation that homes all Kurds is a far-fetched dream. The people on the street are increasingly realizing we need electricity and water and sanitation and health care more than we need a flag. If you, an American, ask a Kurd, now they will be nationalistic to the bone. But when we talk at home, as friends, nationalism is not a priority. Our daily priority is filling up the tank and switching from one power source to another. People still cling to a hope that things will become better.

Bilal Wahab in a conversation with Open Source, 3/21/07

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  • I’m really glad you guys came back on this as I was also someone who felt that you went very easy on the Kurds. I really hope that Kurdistan, as part of Iraq or not, has a peaceful, prosperous and democratic future – but its not there yet. Just last week Lydia Khalil writing in the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor had a good article outlining some of the problems and tensions in Kurdistan, based on her interviews with officials in the region.

  • Lumière

    ////President Bush asked for $103 billion for expenses related to fighting the war on terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. He got that and more: not only deadlines for withdrawing US troops from Iraq, but also $21 billion in additional spending, much of it unrelated to war.\\\

    Bilal says: ///They say, if you don’t vote for me, you’ll lose your job.\\\

    Same as it works here in America !

    Put a cap on kickbacks, graft, and corruption – apparently the above bill required only 20% (21B$/103B$) in payoffs.

    28% of Rhode Island workers (1990 census data) are government workers – our state might be the highest per capita in the US.

    My mother had a state job – she makes more in retirement than she did working.

    What makes heaven on earth?

    Get on the gravy train and find out !

  • enhabit

    this is a huge story in my book! where is the coverage?