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Bringing Kurdish History & Culture to Light: An Interview with Mohammed A. Salih

The Kurdish Project had the opportunity to interview Mohammed A. Salih, doctoral student at UPenn’s Annenberg School for Communication and former freelance journalist covering the Islamic State as well as Kurdish and Iraqi affairs. Learn more about Mohammed’s inspiring journey as well as his deep insights into raising awareness about the Kurds and the importance of integrating Kurdish studies into mainstream curricula. 

The Kurdish Project: What was it like becoming a journalist in Kurdistan?

Mohammed Salih: While I was in college getting my bachelor’s degree in English language at Saladin University in Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan) in the early 2000s, a few friends and I were publishing a bilingual English-Kurdish newspaper. Although we only published three issues due to lack of funding, it was notable because it was, as far as we knew, the first bilingual English-Kurdish campus newspaper published in Kurdistan. 

Right after I graduated, I was initially planning to go back and work at my university. Then, a few weeks after my graduation, I heard that “Khabat”—a local newspaper—was looking for translators. I applied and was invited to an interview. Two weeks after graduating, I got a call from the newspaper and was hired. I spent around a year and a half working as a translator, translating articles from western newspapers into Kurdish.

But I wanted more out of my work. While I was there, I met international journalists who were visiting Kurdistan. Through these connections, I was put in touch with an agency called IPS (Inter Press Service), and they were interested in having me freelance for them. I started freelancing for IPS while translating at Khabat and, after a few months, I realized I really wanted to be a reporter. I was not satisfied with working as a translator or working at a partisan newspaper with editorial redlines and constraints. So, I started freelancing for IPS and a number of other local newspapers in Kurdistan until late 2007, when I left for the U.S. on a Fulbright Scholarship. 

After completing my Masters in Journalism at the University of Missouri in 2010 on a Fulbright Scholarship, I returned to Erbil and worked as the editor of the English service of the Kurdistan News Agency. It was not an easy task again given editorial constraints and the difficult institutional culture there. Following this role, I moved on to the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, where I worked as a staff member at the Communications Department, and finally on to working at a local media network called Rudaw, which is now one of the most influential, if not the most influential, Kurdish media network. Gradually, things got to a point where I realized that I wanted to work for myself and not be part of one institution or another. I had more freedom that way and could do what I wanted. So, I started doing some private, commercial, work. 

When ISIS emerged in Iraq and the conflict started, around 2014, I became a full-time journalist again. At this time, I started reporting for different international media outlets (AlJazeera, Al-Monitor, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Daily Beast, France 24) from Kurdistan, mainly focusing on the ISIS conflict and its impact on people. The ISIS emergence and the sheer magnitude of the conflict and human catastrophe generated a lot of interest in the international media. As a freelancer on the ground, I had good knowledge of what was happening, and possessed the language, technical skills, and background to report on the situation. 

 

TKP: What has your teaching experience in the U.S. been like?

MS: I came to UPenn’s Annenberg PhD program in Fall 2016, and have been here for the past three years. It has not been a smooth process by any means, many ups and downs, disappointments and rekindled hopes and enthusiasm, and has taken quite a while to finally settle in, mentally and psychologically. 

This past semester I started teaching a Kurdish course at UPenn which is the first course of its kind at the university. I definitely think that it is important to raise awareness of the Kurdish experience to the outside world, among other places at the academic level. Learning the Kurdish language is a very important part of this, as there have been, historically, highly suppressive attitudes towards Kurdish culture and language in their respective countries. This has put the Kurdish language—and even the study of Kurdish politics and culture—in a serious disadvantage in comparison to Arabic, Persian, and even Turkish studies.

More needs to be done to raise awareness about the Kurds and Kurdish culture. In many Middle East Studies courses, the Kurds are either totally overlooked or have a very marginal place in the curriculum. The net effect of all of this is a reality in which the narrative and the grievances of the Arabs, the Persians, and the Turks are echoed loudly and dominate these courses and programs, and very little attention is dedicated to Kurdish history and culture. In a way, such academic practices or negligence, deliberate or otherwise, enhance the marginalization of groups like the Kurds and somehow reproduce the same repressive frameworks that groups like the Kurds have to grapple with, to a much lesser degree of course compared to the actual injustice that Kurds are subjected to in their own homes in the countries where they live in the Middle East (Iraq, post 2003 particularly, is an exception to some extent compared to the other countries in the region). 

And it is not only the Kurds, but all other groups, that for lack of a better term are branded as minorities, that are also at a political disadvantage in the studies on the Middle East region, whether it is the Berbers, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Yazidis, the Druze and others. These groups are either rendered invisible or very marginally brought up in ways that they end up not having a place in the knowledge production that occurs at the university level, especially within and through curricula. 

My favorite way of explaining this is to say that if someone came from Mars and attended one of these typical university-level programs, they would very likely walk away with the impression that what exists in the region is only the Arabs, the Persians, and the Turks, and that the other groups either don’t exist or are highly insignificant – in short, their lives and histories don’t matter.

The more visibility you get in these academic circles, the more you are being acknowledged, the more your story is being listened to, and the more humanized you are going to be. The outcome of all of that would, hopefully, help improve the conditions of the Kurds or the other groups I mentioned.

 

TKP: Do you feel a responsibility to Kurdistan as an educator?

MS: Most Kurds probably feel a responsibility to Kurdistan due to their history of injustice and being marginalized. Something that might otherwise seem insignificant – like teaching a language – becomes an important opportunity for the Kurds to spread awareness about their culture. 

The opportunity to bring Kurdish language and culture to an academic level in the West is important not only in terms of raising awareness about the Kurdish experience, but hopefully in making a contribution, however modest, to improving the conditions of the Kurds in the region. 

When compared to other languages in the region, learning Kurdish might not be a very attractive choice in terms of building a career. Learning Arabic, for example, can open more professional opportunities than learning the Kurdish language. But this has made me appreciate my students’ desire and willingness to learn Kurdish—and it has still helped them professionally. One of my students did volunteer work in Iraq during the ISIS conflict, and wants to continue to be involved in humanitarian work in Kurdistan. Another student is an international relations major and now wants to focus on Kurdish affairs and Kurdish issues. Learning Kurdish equips him with the ability to go there and speak to native Kurdish speakers—and I know this will open many doors. It is very motivating and inspiring for me to see how passionate and dedicated my students to the Kurdish language were. 

 

TKP: As someone who has taught Kurdish, what are your thoughts on the political implications of the dialect variations in the different regions of Kurdistan?

MS: The Kurds have been divided between different countries that have been highly aggressive and violent towards the Kurdish people, their culture, and their language, and have denied them cultural rights for so long. The physical division amongst four states [Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey] has meant that the Kurds have not had an opportunity for nation-building, which is an important part of establishing a lingua franca that all of the Kurds would be able to speak and write. The development of standard languages is something that is closely tied to the states and state-building and nation-building processes. The political divisions have also reflected quite negatively in the gaps between the different dialects, but I think that in recent years, with the advancements in technology, satellite television, and social media, the gaps are shrinking in certain ways. Despite the challenges, the Kurds have been able to preserve their language and their culture as much as possible. They have persevered against all odds and one should remain hopeful that things will get better.

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