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

Northern Iraq's Babel of Tongues

Arab students in northern Iraq find themselves at a disadvantage in an overwhelmingly Kurdish area.
By Sarhang Hama

In a hospital ward full of medical students taking their practical examination, Khalid Abdulsattar tells his examiner he can’t take down the medical history of his patients.


Abdulsattar, 22, is an Iraqi Arab studying medicine in the northern Kurdish region. Although English is the language of instruction at his medical college, communication with patients has to be in Kurdish – a language he does not speak.


The examiner angrily tells Abdulsattar he must do the exam anyway. He does, and fails.


"Studying is very difficult for Arab students in Kurdistan," he says. Abdulsattar is from Mosul and studies at the College of Medicine at Sulaimaniyah University.


This academic year, Iraqi universities reserved five per cent of all enrolment places for "non-local" students. That allows Arab students from other parts of Iraq to study in Kurdish areas, and Kurdish students to study in Arab cities.


Many Kurds and Arabs have taken advantage of the new policy, but with varying levels of success.


Kurdish students begin studying Arabic in fourth grade, and they also study Islam through the medium of Arabic all the way through primary and secondary school.


But outside the Kurdish areas, Arab students never study the Kurdish language.


As a result, many Arab students find it difficult to overcome the language barrier when they study at the Kurdish universities in Sulaimaniyah, Erbil and Dohuk.


Kurdish and Arabic are both official languages in Iraq, under the new Temporary Administrative Law signed on March 8.


In the north, since there are so few textbooks and research resources in Kurdish, universities use Arabic or English as the teaching medium, depending on the subject.


Still, many professors teach in Kurdish because most of their students have little or no practical experience of speaking Arabic, despite years of classroom instruction.


As well as being at a loss in the classroom, Arab students cannot communicate well with their non-Arabic speaking peers.


"Although I feel at home here," said Anwar Sabah, 20, a mathematics student, "my biggest problem is language."


Arab students say they are drawn to Iraqi Kurdistan to study for a variety of reasons including its relative safety and the openness of the society.


"I feel Kurdistan is not occupied like central and southern Iraq," said Sabah. His home is in Diwaniyah south of Baghdad – an eight-hour drive from Sulaimaniyah.


He is a Shia Muslim unlike most Kurds, who are Sunni. But Sulaimaniyah boasts a Shia mosque that Sabah visits.


Other students say Kurdistan is "different" and more open socially.


"It's the first time I have seen such a warm relationship between students," said Rayan Yakub from Mosul, pointing to nearby a group of male and female students laughing and taking pictures of each other.


But as a Christian, Yakub admits that he does not always share the same "warm relationship" with Muslim Kurds. Yakub also cites the language barrier as a problem for him.


The language issue is not restricted to ethnic Arabs, since Kurds who have grown up in the nearby cosmopolitan city of Kirkuk often speak only Arabic. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were forcibly displaced from Kirkuk in the past few decades, and those who remained had to assimilate into Arab culture.


"I don't feel any ethnic discrimination here," said Naz Taha, a Kurd from Kirkuk, speaking in Arabic.


She was walking across the Sulaimaniyah University campus with a Turkoman and an Arab student. All three are from Kirkuk, with Arabic as their common language.


Some students also have problems with “Kurdology” – a required class for all first year university students on Kurdish history and language.


The course was added to standard Iraqi curriculum after 1991, when a Kurdish regional government was established outside of Baghdad's control.


Non-Kurdish speakers find the Kurdology course nearly impossible to pass. Asli Haydar, 19, a Turkoman, says he will fail if he does not get special assistance soon.


Nizar Amin, Deputy President of the University of Sulaimaniyah, confesses that the administration simply didn't think about the language problem when they started accepting non-Kurdish students this academic year.


Dr Amin says most non-local students are studying sciences such as biology, maths or medicine which are all taught in English. And there are some Arabic-speaking professors at the university.


But students like Abdulsattar still have to be able to understand informal spoken Kurdish in order to communicate with patients, as well as with teachers who may shift into Kurdish to make remarks, especially in practical lessons.


"The language problem should be solved so that the Arab students can study in Kurdistan," said Abdulsattar, as his final examination loomed.


Sarhang Hama Ali is an editor with Liberal Education, a youth-oriented newspaper in Sulaimaniyah.