Kerbala anthems in Azadi Park

Sports provide a rare space and North-South bridging opportunity for increased interaction between the Kurdish and Arab citizens of Iraq. 

Christine M. Van Den Toorn
18 April 2012

Since its birth after WWI, Iraq has been a divided state. Kurds in the north have consistently fought militarily and politically for more power in Baghdad, as well as more autonomy and independence from it, over the decades. Usually these struggles end in one deal or another, which is eventually violated, re-starting the cycle. However a more strict territorial and political separation came in 1991 when the United Nations enacted a no fly zone in reaction to Saddam’ Hussein’s brutal crackdown on a major uprising. While necessary to protect Kurdish populations from the regime, it created a de facto border, solidifying the divisions between north and south. There was very little contact between the population of the Kurdistan region and the rest of the country until after 2003.  Since the invasion of the south, widely recognized as ‘liberation’ in the north, economic and political contact has increased but divisions remain. Kurdistan is the only constitutionally declared ‘region’ in Iraq, giving it a unique autonomy. The Region has its own government – warmly referred to by all as the KRG or ‘Kurdistan Regional Government’, comprised of ministries and a prime minister, its own political parties, the PUK Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the KDP Kurdistan Democratic Party, its own elections, and even its own visa system. Kurds have their own identity socially and politically: most will say they are from Kurdistan, not Iraq, and Kurdish is the first and second language especially if they attended school after 1991 when Arabic instruction stopped in schools. 

History is currently repeating itself ,with Baghdad and Kurdish parties making and breaking deals with each other. While Kurds enabled Maliki to take power in 2010, his failure to follow through with promises has led Massoud Barzani, President of the KRG, and the Kurds to shelter Maliki’s newest nemesis, Iraqiya party member and Iraqi Vice President Tariq al Hashemi. The Kurds interest for the moment aligns with Hashemi’s as both seek increased autonomy – Kurds for the KRG, Hashemi for Diyala and Salahdeen – and a compromise over disputed territories in said provinces. These federalism issues are intertwined with the debate over how oil wealth should be distributed. Because no one can agree this point, the KRG continues to sign ‘illegal’ contracts with international oil companies (IOCs), sending only some oil south and smuggling the rest to Iran and Turkey for direct returns. In response Baghdad halts payments to the IOCs in the KRG.

Nevertheless, mid-April this year, teams from Kerbala University and Misan University, both located in southern Iraq, travelled for hours to reach the northernmost Kurdistan Region to play their counterparts in a tournament hosted by the American University of Iraq/Sulaimani (AUIS). The American University was founded in 2007 by American academics and Dr. Barham Salih, who recently served as Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). It is a western style liberal arts university in which classes are taught in English and students from all over the country partake in activities like Drama Club and Debate Society. The University reflects the development of its host city: Sulaimani is constantly under construction. There are upscale restaurants, liquor stores, Turkish beauty salons, malls, European style coffee houses where youth meet to socialize, and women wearing suits to work. Kerbala University is located in the holiest of Shi’i cities southwest of Baghdad; Misan in ‘Amara, the capital of the Maysan province, only an hour north of Basra. ‘The South’ here in Iraq has always meant something akin to what it might mean in the United States: more conservative and more religious. In the Kurdistan Region, it also means Arab, which is ethnically and culturally different from its own Kurdish population. And ‘Arab’ still has lingering connotations of Saddam’s regime and the past massacres his regime carried out against Kurds. Since 2003, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, ‘the South’ has also become a synonym for violence and war. Hence, its de facto border is heavily guarded with nearly impenetrable checkpoints.


On the soccer field, Misan University vs AUIS

So for two buses full of athletes from ‘the South’, taking a trip north is much more challenging than it initially sounds, and than might be in any another place, save the Korean peninsula. Whereas identity cards are usually only needed when traveling internationally, athletes from Kerbala and Misan universities needed them as well as official letters of invitation from the KRG to be allowed to enter the gates that protect the safe haven from the rest of the country. These checkpoints represent the autonomy granted to the KRG in the 2005 Iraqi Constitution but are only the most recent symbol of the historic political divisions and mistrust that have defined Baghdad’s relationship with Kurdish political parties and leaders for decades. 

In terms of the population, the checkpoints and political wrangling means that youth from the Kurdistan Region and the rest of Iraq have very little opportunity to interact with each other. Sports, however, have been one avenue by which they have been able to come together. 

The AUIS – Kerbala – Misan tournament was initiated and organized by Muhammed Ahmed, a student at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani from Hillah, better known in the western world as Babylon. He remembers when his friends warned him against going to university in the Kurdistan Region for two years ago because, “Kurds don’t like Arabs.” He found differently, particularly on a weekend trip he took to Ranya, a town north of Sulaimani nicknamed ‘Darwazay Raparin’, or ‘Gate to the Revolution’, because there, Kurds started to rebel against Saddam in 1991. He felt “welcomed” by people in Ranya. He now wants to show this side of Kurdistan to other Iraqis from the south, “I want students from the north and south, Kurdish and Arab, to exchange culture and traditions and learn about each other.”  Ahmed hopes that students from Kerbala and ‘Amara will also change the way they think of each other in the south, where politically at least, Sunna and Shi’i identities have become a potent source of division between former neighbours. “Up here,” stated Ahmed, “they will be far from those identities and see how here at the American University we have people from all backgrounds in the same classes and on the same teams.”

Athletes from all of the teams echoed Muhammed’s sentiments during the tournament. Agri Taimur, an AUIS men’s basketball player from Koya, a city about midway between Sulaimani and the KRG’s capital Erbil, commented that the games “were a good chance to play and meet teams from other parts of Iraq.” His teammate, Shwan Hamaali of Sulaimani, thought the tournament would lead to “a better connection with other universities, and help students communicate with others in a better way.” While their AUIS basketball team was king of the court winning both of their games, Kerbala and Misan ruled the field, both winning their football matches against AUIS and then tying each other. Muthanna, a football player from Kerbala University said “it’s great to come up here and meet other players from different parts of Iraq and learn about their habits and traditions”. Diyar Hoshyar, captain of the AUIS men’s football team, agreed with his fellow athletes that, “it was fun to meet guys from the south and to play football with them” because “nothing matters on the field, just the ball.” 


Basketball, Misan University v. AUIS

Iraq is full of sports teams – universities and private clubs – that play one another on a regular basis in matches and tournaments. Every day local TV stations broadcast football, ping-pong, volleyball, handball, and basketball games between teams from all over the country. Teams from the Kurdistan Region, however, rarely travel to tournaments held in the rest of the country. Last month at the annual national universities’ tournament in Basra, colleges from the north did not participate. Similarly, Kurdistan frequently holds regional tournaments in which teams from the main cities, Dohuk, Erbil, and Sulaimani, participate, along with the prestigious Peshmerga teams. (Despite having been institutionalized as the KRG’s military, the forces are still affectionately called Peshmerga, or ‘freedom fighters’, from their days fighting Saddam’s regime.) With the violence that has plagued the rest of the country since 2005, however, Kurdistan has become somewhat of a host for national tournaments. Next week, for example, badminton championships will be held here in Sulaimani. In the Fall of 2011, the national women’s basketball championship was in Erbil. Players from Kerbala University had traveled up to the Kurdistan Region once, twice, or three times to play in tournaments; and AUIS hosted the University two years ago for a similar tournament. This was Misan’s first visit to the Kurdistan Region since it was founded in 2007.  Because of their visit, plans are already in place – no less than 86 invitations were offered throughout the weekend – for a delegation of AUIS staff, faculty, and athletes to travel south to Kerbala and ‘Amara. 

So despite Iraq’s historic divisions and violence, and current physical hurdles – checkpoints – and political obstacles – quarrels and stalemates in Baghdad over disputed territories and the hydrocarbon law – her students and athletes are still ready, willing, and able to find space and opportunity to engage on soccer fields and basketball courts. Dr. Walah Fadhil, Assistant Dean of Kerbala Sports College, emphasized that, “it’s very important for our [Kerbala] students to see and get to know your [AUIS] students.” AUIS player Taimur differentiated between people and politics: “regardless of the political issues in Iraq, we are all brothers and sisters” and mentioned that when playing sports, “all of the problems of daily lives are gone.” Hoyshar also confirmed the value of sports, “it’s about universities and football, not race and ethnicity.”

Dance off

Kerbala University players celebrate in Azadi Park, Sulaimani

On Friday night after the basketball games, several AUIS faculty members went to Azadi Park with the Kerbala and Misan teams and their coaches. ‘Azadi’ means freedom in Kurdish, and the park is located where Saddam’s military base used to be here in Sulaimani. We picnicked, walked around, went on the train ride, and the evening ended with an impromptu performance by Kerbala athletes in the middle of the park. They sang Kerbala city anthems and danced like people – Arabs – from ‘the South’. I turned to another Professor, Edith Szanto, with wide eyes, semi-concerned that some locals might have a problem with this kind of southern tribute. I noticed several locals in traditional Kurdish dress gather around curiously. Muhammed Ahmed, the AUIS student who organized the tournament, grabbed them and began the traditional Kurdish dance – shoulder shrugging and combined with a back and forth foot step that must be done in a line with no space between those next to one another and in total sequence. Muthanna, one of the player’s from Kerbala University, had a dance off, which is really a shoulder shake off, with one of the vendor owners in Azadi Park.  If only this could happen more often. 

Second year AUIS student-journalist Muhammed Abdullah Ahmed contributed to the reporting of this story.

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