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Echoes of Arabic Fade From Kurdistan

Young people in semi-autonomous region reject Arabic language, amid rising tensions with Baghdad.
By Najeeba Mohammed
Shaida Khidir is dreading teaching students in the language she spent four years studying at college.

A recent graduate of the Arabic department at a major university in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, the 24-year-old complains that her education did not give her the confidence to speak everyday Arabic.

“We only studied Arabic grammar and literature,” she said. “Why should we have to learn about the poems and life of an Arab poet who lived hundreds of years ago?

“After years of learning, I cannot speak Arabic. I’m scared of teaching at a school with Arab students.”

Arabic is officially the second language of Kurdistan and the primary language of Iraq, a country in which Kurds are the largest ethnic minority. Though studying Arabic is currently compulsory in Kurdish schools, the number of Kurds who can speak it fluently is rapidly shrinking.

Kurdish speakers of Arabic tend to belong to the older generation, including the current political elite, that was schooled before the creation of their semi-autonomous region in 1991. Many below the age of 35 do not speak the language.

The Kurds’ growing neglect of Arabic corresponds with a longer standing neglect of the Kurdish language by Iraqi Arabs.


The widening language gap coincides with an intensifying dispute between Kurdish and Arab leaders that the United States has highlighted as the biggest long-term threat to Iraq’s stability.

Tensions between the two groups are at their highest since the US-led invasion in 2003, with Baghdad and the Kurdish government at odds over the latter’s plan to strengthen its autonomy and expand its territory.

The areas in dispute are to the south and west of Kurdistan, where Kurdish and Arab communities abut each other. In one of the contested provinces, Nineveh, language studies have acquired a political accent.

Arab leaders in the province have accused the Kurds of imposing their culture on minority groups to strengthen their claim over the region. Kurdish leaders deny this, saying they seek merely to reverse the policies of Saddam Hussein, who suppressed their culture and did not permit their language to be taught in the province.

On a recent visit to the town of Bashiqa in Nineveh, a senior Kurdish official, Khasro Goran, called for more emphasis on teaching Kurdish.

“The Kurds or any other nation should not forget their mother tongue,” Goran, a former deputy governor of Nineveh, later told IWPR. “Most of the Kurds [in Bashiqa] cannot speak Kurdish.”

Goran denied that his call for more Kurdish classes had a political motive, pointing out that he was also in favour of Kurds learning Arabic. “The tensions between the two nations have nothing to do with education,” he said.

Suspicion between Arabs and Kurds, he said, had been fostered during the rule of Saddam Hussein and now stood in the way of closer linguistic exchange. “For the Arabs and Kurds to learn each others’ languages, the political issue should be solved,” Goran told IWPR.


The language gap, arguably a symptom of Kurdish-Arab tensions, may also soon exacerbate them. Analysts say 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 commentator. “A Kurdish official who knows Arabic well is 10 times better [equipped] than another official in the same position who does not know the language.”

Fareed Asasard, head of the Kurdistan Centre for Strategic Studies, agreed with Hardi, saying the region’s future leaders must speak fluent Arabic if they are to represent Kurdish interests in Baghdad. Kurdish youth no longer speak Arabic well, he said, because “they have less interaction with [Arabic-speaking parts of] Iraq”.

Iraq’s current president, foreign minister and former deputy prime minister are all Kurds fluent in Arabic. The Kurdish bloc in the Baghdad parliament has a reputation for punching above its weight, acting as kingmaker in Arab-dominated coalitions.

Abdullah Qirgaiy, a 60-year-old writer and journalist for Rudaw magazine, said he perfected his Arabic as a young man conscripted into the Iraqi military. He later married an Arab woman. He says military service and mixed marriages helped many young Kurds of his generation learn Arabic.

In the period between the Kurdish uprising of 1991 and the US-led invasion of 2003, the three provinces that form Kurdistan gained effective autonomy in Iraq. In schools and offices, Kurds reasserted their identity after decades of repression by Baghdad by replacing Arabic with their own language.

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


Naznaz Mohammed, head of the higher education committee in the Kurdish parliament, described the period after 1991 as an experiment in asserting the strength of the Kurdish language.

Until the uprising, she said, most Kurds who pursued higher education were from wealthier families. However, as numbers increased, standards fell. “After the uprising, the door was flung open and this led to overcrowding in schools. The level of literacy began to fall,” said Mohammed.

She said the government was planning to update the curriculum, as well as build more schools and improve teacher training.

Dr Othman Amin Salih, an assistant professor of Arabic at Salahadin University in the Kurdish capital, Erbil, said many graduates in Arabic could not speak it fluently. “Politics and the Kurdish stance towards Arabs are the main reasons,” he said. He also blamed an outmoded curriculum for failing to equip students for colloquial Arabic.

The Kurdish government’s education minister, Dilshad Abdulrahman, confirmed the region’s language curriculum was being reviewed – but did not give a firm date for the introduction of a new system.

“The plan will be applied in years to come,” he said. He added that poor schooling alone could not be blamed for the decline in Arabic. Cultural exposure also played a part.

“Learning a language does not depend completely on education,” he said. “Before the uprising, television and radio broadcasts were mostly in Arabic, so the public had to learn Arabic to understand them.”

Hardi, the political analyst, also said it was unfair to blame the education system for a problem whose roots lie in individual indifference.

“The new generation does not feel the need to learn Arabic. It has nothing to do with the curriculum,” he said, pointing out that the older generation managed to master Arabic using the same textbooks.


Recent years have seen a slight revival in Arabic teaching in Kurdistan. Schools that specialise in the language have been opened to cater for refugees displaced by violence in other parts of Iraq. Most of the displaced are Arabs or ethnic Kurds who speak Arabic as a first language.

There are currently some 44 schools offering Arabic-medium education out of a total of 21,635 schools in Kurdistan, according to figures kept by the region’s government.

However, most Kurds seeking to master a second language increasingly look westwards. Private language academies have mushroomed in the region and anecdotal evidence suggests English courses are the most popular.

At the OSA institute, a language school established in Erbil in 1992, 240 students are currently enrolled on a three-month English course. The Arabic course has 40 students.

The popularity of English appears to be driven by a desire for profitable employment – particularly in new fields such as computing or telecoms.

“Advanced European technology is spreading its lexicon,” said Hakim Kaka Wais, a linguist and writer in his sixties. He is untroubled by the decline in Arabic.

“It is normal that young Kurds do not speak Arabic – they have a different land. It is not compulsory to learn another language if you do not like it.”

A bookseller in downtown Erbil offered confirmation. Trade in Arabic books has declined, he said, and “only people over 40 still buy them.

“I sell more English dictionaries now than Arabic ones.”

Najeeba Mohammed is an IWPR-trained journalist in Erbil.

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