Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Arab Lecturers Go North

Teaching at Kurdish universities has its problems, but for many Arabs it is a better option than staying at home.
By Wirya Hama

A growing number of Arab lecturers are taking jobs at universities in Iraqi Kurdistan, an opportunity that was largely unavailable to them under former president Saddam Hussein.


Iraqi Kurdistan, which consists of three northern provinces, fell out of Saddam Hussein’s control after the 1991 Gulf War. The Kurdish region became autonomous and it was difficult for Arabs from the rest of Iraq to go there and work without drawing unwanted attention from Saddam’s intelligence agents.


Lecturers of Arab ethnicity are now flocking to the Kurdish region to take advantage of its relative security and the high demand for qualified academics. Officials at Sulaimaniyah university say they actively recruit Arabs because they are short of qualified and experienced lecturers.


In the south and middle of Iraq, lecturers face tough competition for a limited number of jobs.


“When I got my master’s degree, I thought of teaching in Kurdistan because I had fewer chances of finding employment in Baghdad,” said Mohammad Thinoon, a sociology lecturer at Sulaimaniyah university.


But Arabs say they sometimes have problems teaching Kurdish students because of the language barrier.


Most of the lecturers use Arabic as their teaching medium, creating a problem for students who went in Kurdish-language schools and have a poor grasp of Arabic.


"Once I wanted to make the lecturer understand me using the little Arabic I know, but my classmates laughed so the lecturer asked me to get out," said Hemin Tahir, a student of Kurdish.


Hasan Abdullah, studying sociology at Sulaimaniyah university, said he was astonished the first time a lecturer gave out Arabic-language handouts and told the class, "you can answer in Arabic in the exams".


Abdullah said he was forced to answer the exam questions partly in Arabic and partly in Kurdish. "Does he give the exams to other people to grade or maybe his children score them?" he joked.


Lecturer Waid Ibrahim says he can understand the Kurdish students’ frustrations, since as a native Arabic speaker himself, he studied Kurdish for three months before coming to Sulaimaniyah, but still cannot write the language.


Ibrahim said the university has found a way around the language problem when it comes to grading exams. "We have formed a committee consisting of Arab and Kurdish lecturers,” he said. “The Kurdish lecturers translate the answers into Arabic and we grade them."


Statistics lecturer Zakariya Yahya said any intelligent academic can find ways of solving the language problem.


But Yahya cautioned that the problem of discrimination against Arabs is more difficult to deal with. "That’s the influence of the Baath media, which made out that Arabs are the main enemy of the Kurds,” he said.


The Kurdish minority was oppressed for decades by the Baath regime, and the experience sowed deep divisions between Iraq’s Kurds and Arabs.


But university officials welcome the fresh expertise the newcomers bring. And despite the hurdles, many Arab lecturers have no plans to leave even if things get better in the rest of Iraq.


"Even if universities in central or southern Iraq wanted lecturers, I wouldn't go back," said Yahya.


Wirya Hama Tahir is an IWPR trainee in Sulaimaniyah.