Photo credit: SHWAN MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images

Kurdish Dream, Interrupted

In 2 Years, Sulaimani has gone from Booming Destination to a Source of Refugees


The gallery on the Family Mall website projects a glitzy vision of the future, a Dubai mega-mall crossed with a spaceship, all glass domes and vast marbled boulevards. This is the direction the city of Sulaimani was headed only a few years ago, towards an ultra-consumerist identity, after decades if not centuries of being secluded from the rest of the world. The mall’s planned opening date is listed as “3rd quarter of 2015,” but the building remains unfinished, a rudimentary maze of cement where designer stores were meant to be, sand caking the wall of aspirational silver panels. This is a project stuck in time, like the rest of the city—a half-finished statement of intent.

Sulaimani, located at the northeastern tip of Iraq near the border with Iran, was founded in 1784 by the Kurdish principality of Baban, a tribe that the Ottomans granted certain autonomy in exchange for providing security in the region. The city subsequently became the capital of the short-lived Kingdom of Kurdistan, an unrecognized state that was formed following the collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1922 and dissolved in 1924 when the British Royal Air Force bombed it into submission (the British had been given a mandate by the League of Nations to rule Iraq and felt the need to quash any nationalist claims of independence quickly and brutally; Churchill famously suggested using chemical weapons on the Kurds to get them in line, being “strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes”).

A city far younger than Erbil—the other main Kurdish city in Iraq, whose citadel is the oldest continuously inhabited place on earth—Sulaimani gradually carved out its identity as a literary and intellectual centre for Kurds in the late 19th century, a place where Marxists plotted revolutions and the first Kurdish novels were written. This is a reputation to which the city still clings, calling itself the “cultural capital” of Kurdistan, revelling in its reputation as a “cosmopolitan city” (Lonely Planet), though this has long been something of a stretch.

In the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War, the CIA encouraged the Kurds in the north of Iraq and the Shiites in the south to rise up against Saddam Hussein. They were glad to oblige, believing that the impending US intervention would mean the end of his dictatorship, but the US government were—presciently, perhaps—afraid of a power vacuum in the Middle East and eventually decided to cut their losses and sacrifice the rebels that had done their bidding. In response, Saddam slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Shiites and Kurds, eventually prompting the UN to intervene by implementing no-fly zones. This, coupled with an “oil for food” program, effectively made the Iraqi Kurds (whose villages had been burned down and who could no longer provide for themselves agriculturally) wholly dependent on UN rations for survival.

The Kurds were stuck in a strange limbo outside of the regular rules of the nation state: they weren’t under the control of another government, but they could not legally deal with the outside world. They didn’t have valid passports. All imported goods had to be smuggled through the mountains. They didn’t even have access to a valid currency; the sanctions on Iraq led to the central bank no longer being able to print their bills in London, forcing them to get new bills from China — bills that didn’t make it to the Kurdish population. Telephone calls to the outside world required access to satellite phones that were the size of a suitcase and looked like a device that would be used to defuse a nuclear bomb in a Hollywood movie. Visiting Sulaimani in 1993, 1996, 1998, 2000 was to visit a city stuck in time, an entire decade where nothing ever changed. And then, in 2003, things started moving.

The US invasion that resulted in the toppling of Saddam allowed for an influx of foreign goods and services. Suddenly, rather than having to cross a no-man’s lands through Turkey, Iran or Syria, an international airport was opened with direct flights to Munich, Stockholm, and Istanbul. International brands opened flagship stores. The economy began growing at an average rate of 12%. A flurry of five-star hotels opened, grocery stores began importing overpriced espresso pods, and the wealthier denizens of Sulaimani began driving luxury SUVs imported straight from Dubai.

If, in the 80s and 90s, you had to collaborate with the regime to amass any capital, now there were opportunities for legitimate businessmen to make vast fortunes, and for many others to gain employment with private companies rather than work for the government (which, in true communist fashion, to this day has more employees than Walmart does in the whole United States). Those who could afford it moved out of the cement buildings with rudimentary plumbing that had housed several generations, into gated communities with 24h electricity (a rarity), internet and gym access. A middle class was born.

What had been a hub of leftism, with free schooling and healthcare, now aspired towards limitless profits. With a population of just over a million, Sulaimani was estimated in 2007 to have twenty (US dollar) billionaires and two thousand millionaires. Soon, a for-profit American university shot out of the ground, and a massive healthcare “city” where modern hospital equipment was available to the lucky few who could afford it. Sulaimani, run by a political party that pledged to uphold “the principles and views of social democratic society,” turned away from the identity it had long claimed and instead embraced the accelerationist tendencies of hypercapitalism.

Thanks to the draw of cities like Erbil and Sulaimani, Iraq for several years was one of the top 5 countries to which Swedes emigrated, as first-generation Kurds moved back to the place they had always considered home, while younger Kurds who had never lived there but found Europe to be mired in both institutional racism and economic decline — especially following the 2008 crash— now sought out the Kurdish region to make money. Kurdish politicians began downplaying the cultural history of Sulaimani and tried instead to conjure the ahistorical city of Dubai. PR campaigns aimed at international companies rebranded the Kurdish region as “the Other Iraq,” and Sulaimani’s Grand Millennium hotel was designed with an eye to the sort of iconic architecture that defined the Burj Al Arab. Government officials began discussing the need for a master plan to make sure that the city could grow according to their exponential expectations. Having developed for centuries without much central planning—which an aerial view of the city makes quite clear—“demolition artist”-style solutions were envisaged to straighten the narrow crooked streets of Sulaimani into the 21st century, to Haussmanise the Kurdish region.

Then, almost overnight, it all came to a grinding halt. The Islamic State captured Mosul and came within a stone’s throw of Erbil, rapidly reducing the prosperity of this Other Iraq to a mirage. Companies evacuated their non-essential personnel, and then evacuated the essential personnel, and then closed up shop altogether. Austrian Airlines suspended their flights, then Lufthansa did, then the airports were closed entirely while Russia shot missiles into Syria over Iraqi airspace. Those who had money stopped spending it, now reticent in the face of political and economic uncertainty. The nightlife, long a point of pride for a city where alcohol flowed far more liberally than in most corners of the Middle East, was decimated. People turned to the news, the oracles behind the LCD screens, to try to find out what was going to happen next.

The emergence of a medieval death cult right next door doesn’t account by itself for the end of Sulaimani’s boom. It did, however, lead to plummeting oil prices, which cut the Kurdistan Regional Government’s primary revenue source by half, just as it began dealing with new expenditures such as financing a war with the aforementioned medieval death cult and housing the three million refugees that the crisis unsettled. An ill-advised tiff with Iraq’s central government ensued, which cut the Kurdish state off its annual budget, followed by an even more ill-advised alliance with Turkey to sell crude oil, which resulted in virtually no money but for the already rich. This meant that the one-third of the adult Iraqi Kurdish population employed by the government no longer received their salaries on time, if at all.

Back in the 90s, the solution that was devised for the aforementioned lack of currency was to simply use the old expired bills and pretend they were still valid. In a perfectly closed system, this worked so well that when the Americans came in 2003, they found that the purchasing power of the expired bills in use by the Kurds was far higher than the government-backed currency that the rest of Iraq was using. Today, no such solution exists: Sulaimani opened up, ever so briefly, to the outside world and cannot pay foreign creditors with expired currency. If money requires trust in order to function as money, then it is fair to ask: who trusts the Kurds?

And so, time slowed down yet again, before it stopped entirely. New travel warnings were issued from the world’s governments, dissuading investors from traveling to the region. Vast construction projects in and around Sulaimani, heavily subsidized by the local government’s now-dwindling oil revenues, halted construction temporarily and then, seemingly, for good. Half-finished buildings hung in the air. Several of the city’s hotels closed down, after their average occupancy fell below 20%. Spaces that were intended to sell exclusive designer goods now function as ad-hoc refugee camps.

Once again, Sulaimani has discovered that it doesn’t have the same place in the world as other cities, those that belong to recognized nation states. The Kurdistan Regional Government—which rules the Kurdish region of Iraq—cannot issue sovereign guarantees to foreign states or banks given that, you know, it’s not sovereign. After several months of not receiving their salaries, the people of Sulaimani tend to strike, and for days the streets are clogged with crowds holding banners and chanting. With time, this dies down and people go back to their jobs, having nothing better to do.

The cumulative psychological effect of living in a city that is stuck in time, with no future to look forward to, has led thousands to attempt an escape to Europe by any means necessary, some adding to the unrecorded toll of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean sea. Those who stay behind judge the dead as harshly as the right-wing parties that are taking root in the destination countries — this is a safe city, after all, they were not in mortal danger here. But then, imagine not receiving a salary for months, with nothing to look forward to but spending your meager savings in order to survive until the time when you no longer have any savings and can no longer survive.

In only two years, Sulaimani has gone from an attractive destination to a source of refugees. A young Kurd that I met in Gothenburg had arrived in Sweden only a few months previously, after being imprisoned in Bulgaria on the way. He said he had no hope of being granted asylum, the Swedish government considered Sulaimani safe, and would no doubt deport him back there. And yet, he was willing to quite literally risk his life in order to spend what he estimated would be a maximum of two years in Sweden just so that he could see something other than his hometown. That may seem reckless, but then people stuck in time have very little to lose.

The eerie skeletal towers that once housed dreams of a different reality are now scattered around the aborted malls, the vast construction projects that only exist as AutoCAD renders. Time may well start again: if ISIS lose their control over Iraq and oil prices start rising again, the city may resume its attempts at joining the rest of the world. Until then, the conflicting identities co-exist: the culture capital that no longer is and the hypercapitalist city that never was. All there is left to do is wait.