In 2011, Maher Sinjary founded Erbil Lifestyle, a website about Erbil culture and tourism. Erbil Lifestyle targets expats and foreigners visiting Erbil. More recently, Maher has founded ASAWAR, a new digital cultural center for marginalized ethnic groups, such as the Kurds, who lack cultural representation.
Maher is originally from Iraqi Kurdistan, but currently lives in San Francisco, where he is studying for a Masters in Graphic Design at the Academy of Art University. The Kurdish Project had the opportunity to meet and interview Maher about his background, his inspiration for Erbil Lifestyle and his future plans for ASAWAR.
The Kurdish Project: Pleasure to speak with you, Maher. Can you briefly tell our community about your background?
Maher Sinjary: Thank you for the opportunity to share my story. I was born and raised in Duhok, Kurdistan, in northern Iraq. I hold a BFA in Fine arts from Saladdin University of Hawler (Erbil) or SUH. For the past few years, I have been teaching art in Iraqi Kurdistan, and came to San Francisco in Fall 2012 to study Graphic Design, a field that I have always been interested in.
TKP: What does it mean to be Kurdish? How do you define your identity?
MS: It’s complicated to be a Kurd. I identify partially as Iraqi, because Kurdistan is not yet an independent country. This means that whenever I introduce myself, I have to say, “I am from Kurdistan, Northern Iraq” — I can’t simply say Kurdistan. Sometimes if I just say, “I am from Kurdistan” they think I am talking about Kazakhstan in Southern Russia!
When I tell Americans that I am from “Northern Iraq,” they immediately envision a war torn region, and I have to try and explain the Kurdish situation, and impart a little bit of the Kurdish history to explain why things are the way they are.
My national identity, with all its confusion as well as the strength and courage of my people, has been a story of an ethnic group struggling for their cultural independence. This is what has led a lot of my recent work.
TKP: What was the inspiration for Erbil Lifestyle, and how has it evolved?
MS: Back in 2008, I was always searching the internet for different keywords about Erbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan), trying to see what it would be like to be a visitor looking for information about life in Erbil, and in Kurdistan.
All I could find were results for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) website — which is a great source — but it’s more focused on politics and news. So I thought to myself, “I’ll create a printed magazine that talks about the lifestyle in Erbil,” and partnered with a Brit, Karl Allen, who became Erbil Lifestyle’s editor, and this was in 2010 after two years of thinking.
For the printed magazine, our first question was: How are we going to reach our audience? (mainly foreigners.) Then it dawned on me: we should turn our project into a website called “Erbil Lifestyle.”
This was in early 2011. We worked on the idea and talked to big companies that were willing to invest and add their names on our website, even before launching the website. Then, on July 18, 2011, we launched the Erbil Lifestyle Facebook page and social media profiles.
On August 15, 2011, we launched the website, and have been serving Erbil by showing what it has to offer to expats, and people who visit the city. You can find the website at www.erbillifestyle.com
TKP: How did you find yourself in the United States studying design at the Academy of Art in San Francisco?
MS: In late 2011, I got a scholarship opportunity from the KRG’s Higher Education Ministry to study whatever and wherever I wanted in the world. I had always wanted to study graphic design, because there was no graphic design school in Kurdistan or in Iraq. It took me over a year to make the decision whether I wanted to go back to school or not, because my business was very good back home. Eventually, I decided to take the opportunity and come to San Francisco, to study MFA graphic design at the Academy of Art University.
TKP: Tell us about your thesis project, ASAWAR.
MS: When I started work on my thesis, I was asked to present 5 ideas to my instructor. One of the ideas was about Cultural Identities vs. Political Boundaries, which was my favorite, because I’ve always been passionate about Kurdistan. So I worked on this idea, and presented it to my instructors.
The problem was that my instructors didn’t care about Kurdistan, and encouraged me to do something about America. They didn’t approve my thesis, and I had to come up with new ideas.
The next time I presented to my instructors, one asked what happened to the idea about Kurdistan. I said, “You didn’t approve it, so I started over from scratch!” The instructor told me that he had changed his mind, and that it was a valuable idea. So I started work again on a project, changing many things in order to make it understandable to Americans, who are the target audience for ASAWAR.
TKP: What is your five year vision for ASAWAR?
MS: I hope that I can get the support from Kurdistan Regional Government’s office in the United States to help me continue working on the ASAWAR Center, by hosting cultural events that bring people together and lets Americans learn more about these ethnic groups who don’t have a country. Even if I leave the United States in the next five years, I will continue to work on ASAWAR.
Learn more about Maher’s project, ASAWAR, by visiting its website at http://asawar.org/thesis/.