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Law & Suspicion in Uncertain Times in Iraqi Kurdistan

Kerem Can Ussakli
Ph.D Student, Department of Anthropology
Iraqi Kurdistan
Grant Year: 
Kereme Can Ussakli

In the summer of 2015, I spent give weeks in the city of Sulaymaniyah in Northern Iraq, the Kurdistan region, to research conceptions of authority and power in the post-Ba’athist era. After 2003, the new Iraq was imagined as a federal republic that allowed the Kurdish north a substantial autonomy in governance. With a regional parliament based in the Kurdish capital, Erbil, and regularly held elections, the goal has been to establish rule of law with shared representation under a democratic polity. My initial argument was that the efforts to establish legitimate citizenship were inseparable from restoring justice and dignity after years of systematic oppression under the Ba’athist regime. I was interested in ethnographically observing the symbolic regimes, ideological interpellations and public representations that structure how claims to justice and dignity were made. I was also in Iraqi Kurdistan at a time when the Kurdistan Regional Government is drafting its own constitution, which I hoped generated much debate about how to reframe the past, and establish a political community for the future. I was looking for public gatherings, deliberations that I could observe to uncover these symbolic modalities of politics.

Upon arrival, I realized that such public debates were rarely visible. The writing of the Constitution was seen as an elite affair allotted to politicians, NGOs and constitutional lawyers. Chronic unemployment, unpaid salaries and security concerns had created much more immediate stakes. The high revenue from oil the KRG accumulated was slated to engender rapid neoliberal development, cultivating consumer desires, aspirations towards economic and social freedom and ideologies of well-being that would veil the lack of an established state. As capital abandoned the KRG, the silhouettes of half-built skyscrapers instead reflected an atmosphere of suspense. This development without capital was combined with a militarized, masculine sacrificial culture that replaced democratic politics with party affiliations.

To understand this complex nexus, I interviewed politicians from different parties, public officials, Islamist, secularist and women’s rights activists, human rights lawyers. Although my focus was on the Kurdish minority, I also interviewed people from different ethnic and religious affiliations: Kurds, Arabs that migrated form the South, Yazidis, Kakais and Christians. In these interviews, I was interested in how people engaged with authorities and the legal apparatus – courts, police, asayish – and how conflicts were settled in & outside the court. I also conducted a survey, which I handed out to the people on the streets of Sulaymaniyah. Through these different methods, I was able to identify contours of trust, suspicion and public speech that frequently involved layered meanings, metonymies and jokes. These layers not only replaced an otherwise fragile public sphere, but also involved stories of mundane transgression, and overturning of relationships of domination in an environment where political belonging and legitimate citizenship is suspended and unclear. Moreover, they uncovered complex power relationships that were derived from multiple episodes of violence and suffering that dated back to the late Ottoman period, Iraq under British colonialism, systematic state oppression of the Ba’athist regime, the Gulf Wars and the Iraqi Kurdish Civil War of 1994-1997.

I spent the rest of my time in the field receiving private tutorship for Sorani – the Kurdish dialect most commonly spoken in Iraq. Unlike Syria and Turkey, where the Kurmanji-speaking Kurdish populations were banned from speaking it in public life, and did not receive education in their native tongue, restrictions on Kurdish in Iraq have historically been much more lax in Iraq, allowing for a vibrant literary and cultural life centered around the Sulaymaniyah region.

Through the generous support of the Abbasi Program, I was able to develop upon themes for my project, identify key topics and problems and acquire important skill sets. I have not been able to identify the key sites and activities over which I will build my dissertation fieldwork, yet was able to establish important contacts that will take me there. With this project, I am hoping to shed light on power relations, interlocked sovereignties, changing socioeconomic structures, the much-contested role of religions and moralities in public life and state governance in Iraq. In the past decade, scholars of politics and of the Middle East have written frequently on Iraq amidst global political regimes, war economies, the importance and possibilities of ‘difference’ in the organization of social lives. Much debate in & outside Western media on the meaning of violence and hopes for multiculturalism when talking about Iraq perpetuates these questions. I hope that this project will provide a much-needed ethnographic exploration of some of these themes, and contribute to the fields of political anthropology and scholarship of the Middle East.