Kurdish Lessons Leave Arabs Cold

Arab students’ neglect of Iraq’s second language adds cultural dimension to political dispute.

Kurdish Lessons Leave Arabs Cold

Arab students’ neglect of Iraq’s second language adds cultural dimension to political dispute.

Baghdad teenager Amir Muayyad returned from a holiday in northern Iraq with a couple of words of Kurdish to share with his friends. “I was passing through an area and heard its name by chance – Swara Tukah,” said the 17-year-old.

Over a game of pool in central Baghdad, Amir’s friends repeat the exotic Kurdish words. “Come on, don’t play the Kurd on us Baghdadis,” they teased, to which he responded, defensively, that his knowledge of Kurdish is barely better than theirs.

Neither Amir nor his friends are aware of the historic significance of Swara Tukah, an area between the Kurdish towns of Amedi and Dohuk that was the centre of a major uprising against British colonial rule. The revolt is the Kurdish equivalent of the so-called Revolution of 1920 - a date taught in schools across Iraq as a landmark in the struggle against British rule.

Though they share the same country, Arabs and Kurds know little of each other’s history and even less today of each other’s languages.

Their shared legacy of revolts against colonial Britain lies long forgotten amid a simmering internal conflict over land and resources.


Since 1991, the Kurds have governed a semi-autonomous region in the north. Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki wants to check Kurdish ambitions to cement their autonomy and expand their territory. With United States troops preparing to withdraw, many fear the dispute could turn bloody.

Language and ethnicity mark Arabs and Kurds apart. Iraq’s constitution accords both groups equal rights as citizens and says both their languages must be taught in all Iraqi schools.

In reality, however, few young Kurds speak Arabic and even fewer young Arabs learn Kurdish.

According to Dhia al-Shakarchi, an independent politician, the language gap reflects the political rift between Kurds and Arabs, and both sides are to blame.

“It is a pity there is hardly any desire among Iraqi Arabs to learn Kurdish,” he said. “This is a result of the erroneous policies of both the federal government and the local Kurdish authorities.”

Members of the larger ethnic group, the Arabs, ought to have “taken the initiative in reassuring Kurds of their status as true and equal partners in the new Iraq”, Shakarchi said.

On the other hand, he says, Kurds in the semi-autonomous region have also been reluctant to learn Arabic. They now take more pride in their own language to counter “their erstwhile status as second-class citizens”, he said.

Iraq’s majority Arabs have traditionally dominated its politics. The Kurds, who form between a fifth and a quarter of the population, rebelled against Baghdad several times in the latter half of the last century, provoking a repressive, sometimes genocidal, response.

The last such rebellion – in 1991 – led to the creation of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. The Kurdish language replaced Arabic as the new medium in schools there.


While Kurdish students no longer pay the same attention to Arabic, young Arabs in Baghdad continue their neglect of Kurdish. Amir, the teenager, says plenty of his peers take extra lessons in English or Arabic – but he knows of no-one studying Kurdish.

Salam Abd al-Wahid, a teacher of Arabic in Baghdad’s Shaab district, says Kurdish language classes are not viewed as important because ministry examinations in them are not compulsory.

“We barely have any rapport with our colleagues who teach Kurdish because they have far fewer classes and are rarely around,” he said.

However, the government insists it takes seriously the task of teaching Arab students Kurdish.

Hussein Jaff, the director general of the Iraqi education ministry’s department of Kurdish and other minority languages, said Kurdish is currently taught to 16- and 17-year-olds.

“It remains as binding a subject as chemistry or physics,” he said. He added that Kurdish teaching would be extended to 18-year-olds from the academic year starting in 2010.

Jaff said the government in Baghdad had no reservations about teaching the language, “More and more Kurdish language teachers are being appointed in high schools in Baghdad and the provinces.”

Historically, say analysts, Arabs have only learnt Kurdish when living in proximity with Kurds.

According to Abd al-Munim al-Asam, a political analyst, many Arabs speak the language of their Kurdish and Turkoman neighbours in and around the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk. “These languages are essential for doing business,” he said.

Arabs with a smattering of Kurdish can also be found in districts of Baghdad such as Sadriyah where many Kurds settled.

Najah Salman, a resident of Sadriyah, says some Arabs learnt a few words of Kurdish “to show their friendliness towards their neighbours and to make them feel welcome in Baghdad”.

However, most Kurds living in Baghdad speak good Arabic and younger Arabs tend to communicate with their Kurdish peers in Arabic alone.

Nazdar Muhammad, a Kurdish woman from Kirkuk who moved to Baghdad with her Arab husband 25 years ago, says she only uses Kurdish when speaking to her mother. Neither of her two children has learnt the language.

“I see no justification for teaching my children a language that none of their peers will use at school or anywhere else,” she said.


Most Iraqis are only troubled by their lack of Kurdish when they come to Kurdistan as tourists. Thousands of Arabs annually visit the region’s mountain resorts for relief from searing summer heat and, in some cases, for a respite from sectarian strife.

Many complain of their difficulty in communicating with a new generation of Kurds that does not speak Arabic. “Kak, Arabi nazanim,” is a common response from the locals they meet, roughly translated as, “Sorry mate, I don’t speak Arabic.”

The difficulties Arabs face in Kurdistan are akin to those that may confront a Kurd visiting Baghdad. The signs on roads and official buildings in each region tend to be either in Arabic or in Kurdish, rarely both. If a second language is used, it is usually English.

Narmin Othman, Iraq’s environment minister and one of several high-ranking Kurds in the Baghdad government, said she was sad to see Kurdish-language signs limited to Kurdistan.

“If I found such a sign [in Baghdad], I would really feel that I am not a second-class citizen,” she said.

Othman says cabinet colleagues occasionally correct her use of Arabic grammar. Her response, she says, usually elicits hearty laughter, “How would I prove my Kurdish identity if I did not make such mistakes in Arabic?”

Iraqi Arab leaders can currently communicate with Kurdish counterparts who were schooled in an era when Arabic was the only dominant language in Iraq. It may not be so easy dealing with another generation of Kurds less fluent in Arabic.


Ali Abd al-Sada, a journalist from Baghdad, said Arab neglect of the Kurds’ language is compounded by an ignorance of Kurdish culture. Sada learnt Kurdish during a two-year stay in Kurdistan and encourages others to do the same.

“To learn Kurdish is to make Iraq’s cultural diversity more than a mere slogan, to make it a living experience,” he said.

With Kurds and Baghdad threatening to use force to further their political aims, some are alarmed by the prospect of having no common language in which to communicate.

“Mutual linguistic ignorance can seriously undercut any effort to build sound relations between the two ethnic groups,” said Mufid al-Jezairy, an Iraqi Arab member of parliament and chairman of a parliamentary committee on culture and tourism.

“But by learning to speak each other’s language, Arabs and Kurds can improve their relations,” he said.

Political analyst Saad Sallum is not optimistic. He says even scholarly Arabs are unlikely to favour learning Kurdish, given that the works of the best-known Kurdish thinkers have already been translated into Arabic.

He warns that the Arab-Kurdish divide can only be healed when both sides learn each others’ languages. Political solutions that stop short of tackling the language gap are mere “cultural decoration”, he says, and are doomed to fail.

A shop-owner in Baghdad’s famed Muttanabi book market says there is little appetite for books about Kurdish culture.

“Educated Arabs are not allergic to learning about Kurdish culture,” he said, “but they would want to read about it in Arabic.”

Husam al-Saray is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad.
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
Support our journalists