A love letter to the Kurdistan Region, from an American immigrant

Nawroz celebrated by the Peshmerga.

Six years ago, I moved to Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, known as Hawler in the local Sorani Kurdish language.

Moving to the Kurdistan Region was the best decision of my life. It was the fulfillment of a dream for me, and over the last six years I was able to build the life that I wanted.

Indeed, my first love was not a person, but a place: the Kurdistan Region.

Citadel of Erbil.

Over time, my love has matured into a lifelong commitment.

I view the tiny, land-locked country-within-a-country as a powerful beacon of hope and perseverance in a neighborhood of far more powerful ethnarchs.

The waterfall at Gali Ali Beg.

Is the Kurdistan Region perfect? No. Has it faced a hundred times more obstacles than other governments, yet is somehow a hundred times better? Emphatically, yes.

And is the Kurdistan Region perfect for me? Also, yes.

Shrine of Shekh Abdulaziz in Akre.

“So what are you doing in Erbil?”

That is the inescapable question of my entire life. What am I doing in Erbil? Why did I move here? Am I just here working?

Nationals are generally shocked that someone would want to immigrate to the Kurdistan Region. To be fair, there are a lot of factors pushing people out, usually. There are headlines about Kurdish emigres to America, but this article might be the first headline about an American emigre relocating to live among the Kurds.

The city center of Erbil.

To be honest, my decision was not about “what” brought me here — I simply knew.

I wish that I would be asked instead, “Do you have a favorite thing about living in Kurdistan?”

There are some personal things experienced only by me, like the way I wake up and have tea and look out the window, feeling glad that no matter what else might be wrong in life, that at least I made this dream come true. Also, there are the national treasures — ancient ruins, and natural wonders — which attract visitors from all over the world.

It would be great if someone asked me, “What do you look forward to in Kurdistan?”

In the springtime, I love enjoying fresh vegetables that I never saw anywhere else, and in the wintertime there are the hot, tangy specialties served from carts along the road. I love cozy cafes that are long-time favorites, and the thrill of going new places with friends. I love seeing thousands of apartments skyrocket from dusty ground, as new housing developments are inaugurated every month, and two-lane roads are replaced by massive highways. I love when the mosques are packed with crowds during Ramadhan, and the Assyrian neighborhoods send off fireworks for Cross Day. I feel overcome by emotion by every joyful holiday.

These would be questions I could answer for hours.

But to answer “what are you doing?” is harder, because my answer is simply that I am living my life in full saturation.

A derwish in Akre.

My first awakening

There have been a few moments where I had a sort of “knowing” or intuition.

When I was a teenager, I had to take a history course to fulfill some lower-division requirements for my degree in Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics. I had started university at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) when I was thirteen years old, but after stopping and restarting a few times, I wound up ahead on my advanced coursework but behind on my general coursework.

On a whim, I chose a course on the history of writing in Mesopotamia, in order to fulfill the general requirements.

Sassano-Parthian relief outside Erbil.

The first few weeks of learning about Mesopotamia were frankly not that great. I had never even heard of Mesopotamia and could not place it on a map.

But suddenly, something changed.

I do not know what it was, and I have never sought to interrogate the issue more deeply, but one day I went to class and suddenly it dawned on me: “This is my life.”

The quaint plain of Harir.

I developed a level of passion and interest that even outweighed my major in Microbiology. Since I was so far along in my degree, I could not add a second major, but I was able to add a minor in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (NELC) where I consumed courses on Babylonians, Assyrians, and more. It was a struggle to keep a passing average in Microbiology, but when it came to Mesopotamia, I was able to achieve perfect scores for the first time in my life.

To be clear, my passion for Mesopotamia was not something that I chose. There was no rational basis. I do not even feel like I had any choice in the matter.

Instead, the choice seemed like I had been made for me. It had just been a matter of when fate would intervene to make me realize it.

Details of the minaret at Amedi.

My second awakening

From the very beginning, I felt an extreme need to go beyond the textbooks.

With my meager savings, my first trip as an eighteen year old was a spring break voyage to New York City to see the ancient Mesopotamian artwork at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Old postcard showing Erbil.

It was amazing seeing the artworks, but it felt insufficient. A few months later, I took time off from school and booked a discount flight to the United Kingdom to see the even greater collections at the British Museum. I spent months in London, going almost daily to the Assyrian galleries and more. I felt compelled to see every item closely, and over time they seemed to leave an impression on my sense of self.

However, it was still somehow insufficient. At this point, it was clear that I had to visit Mesopotamia in person. One day, I was sitting at the British Library laying out a travel plan and managed to click through Wikipedia to Erbil and the Kurdistan Region.

The fluted tower of an Ezidi shrine.

In that instant, I felt my second awakening. It was powerful, and immediate, just as my awakening about Mesopotamian history had been. This second awakening was that I had to go to the Kurdistan Region.

To be honest, from that very moment, I already knew that I would move here. When people wonder what brought me over, the truth is that I came home to the Kurdistan Region.

Municipal art in Erbil.

Within a few weeks, I went to Turkey to see the Hittite capital Hattusa but was struggling financially. The flights to Erbil were expensive, and I did not really feel prepared to cross by land in case I did not have enough money to get back.

On that note, I returned to Los Angeles for a few months.

Details of a mosque in Erbil.

Discovering anti-Kurdish bias

I was shocked that everyone I knew seemed extraordinarily opposed to me going to the Kurdistan Region, even for a visit.

The Kurdistan Region seemed adventurous, but it was safe by every measure. There had never been a kidnapping in the entire post-invasion period. There was almost no violence. There was almost no street crime.

Although there was a travel advisory, there were also statements from American politicians about the extraordinary peace and stability of the Kurdistan Region.

Lalish, the spiritual center of the Ezidis.
I gained an insight that I have carried with me ever since: If someone is ignorant, that is not necessarily their fault, but if they reject new information, then it means they may be biased.

In other words, “Kurdistan” sounds scary to many foreigners who have never been here and who assume this is a land of beheadings and explosions. On the one hand, if someone has grown up with limited access to quality information, then it is understandable, although still problematic, if they carry some negative assumptions.

However, if that same person resists new information and holds onto their assumptions like a grudge, then that is a different issue altogether, and it unfortunately means they are biased. This reflects the difference between systemic bias and personal bias.
As a foreigner myself, I found that I had unique leverage to counter the main biases among fellow foreigners, specifically racism and islamophobia.

There are reasonable criticisms about the Kurdistan Region, but unreasonable criticisms are harmful. I developed a passionate urge to share with the world as much information as I could about the Kurdistan Region. This passion became a defining factor in my future.

Akre.

My first visit

My first trip to the Kurdistan Region was in 2010.

Everything seemed almost destined. On my way to Sulaymaniyah, I was waiting at the airport in Istanbul. I remember seeing a woman in line, and an intuition told me, “Go and ask her if she is from Texas.”

I went to her and asked her. She replied, “Well yes, how did you know?”

Traffic in Erbil.

That was how I met Sissy Farenthold, in line for the check-in counter. She was already in her eighties, and was traveling all alone on the long journey from the United States to Sulaymaniyah, the second-largest city in the Kurdistan Region.

She had collaborated on a documentary called “Quest for Honor” on the issue of femicide, and was on her way to a summit where it would be screened and discussed. She helped take care of me while I visited, and began a pattern ever since of incredible generosity from nationals as well as sojourners.

When we arrived to Sulaymaniyah in the middle of the night, she was welcomed by her associate Van, who invited me to stay with her family for my first evening. We became fast friends, and her presence as an archetypal and strong Kurdish woman made a lasting impression on me.

The Monastery of Raban Hormizd at Alqosh.

An immediate acceptance

When I walked around Sulaymaniyah and Erbil, it felt like an introduction to my future life.

I loved everything.

During the years between visiting and finally moving to the Kurdistan Region, much of my identity had focused around wanting to relocate. Although I went back to Los Angeles to finish school, my center of gravity was in Erbil.

However, I had no idea how to find work or anything and could not afford the flight and other expenses on my own.

Busy streets in Erbil.

One day, the opportunity arose to move. Van visited New York and I happened to be in Maine. I remember when she told me that I could take a job that would cover flights, residency, and accommodations. A few days later, I was back in Maine and sitting outside the library to use the WiFi for a job interview to move to Erbil.

Shortly after, the notice came back: I was approved to come to Erbil that week. Just a few days to totally move to a new country seemed sudden, but I remember thinking to myself that it was not sudden. It was four years in the making.

I just had to take the step.

A solitary Ezidi shrine.

Returning to the Kurdistan Region

Four years after my first visit, my dream became a reality.

My initial visit was burned so deeply into my memories that when I actually moved to the Kurdistan Region in 2014, it was constant déjà vu — an intersection, a building, or any other small detail would be enough to transport me back to my first visit in 2010.

Statue of Gad Gross, a foreign martyr for Kurdish causes, in Erbil.

The déjà vu was so powerful that I felt disoriented sometimes, getting lost in a different timeline where I was still nineteen years old and absorbing everything like a sponge.

Despite these many memories, I try not to dwell on the past too much, and instead always look forward to the future. There is always more to see and do.

Snowy hillsides of Shaqlawa.

I have never regretted my decision. After a year living in Erbil, I put a down payment on my own apartment. A few years later, I finished paying it off. In addition to the obvious benefits, being a homeowner in the Kurdistan Region meant a lot to me symbolically.

For several years, I worked as a software developer. For another few years, I also worked in media. Ultimately, I decided to quit working in 2019 and focus instead on a master’s degree. With the reasonable cost of living, and no rent to worry about, it is comfortable to live on a budget off of the money I saved while working.

Assyrian woman at Akitu.

An immigrant in a country where there are neither immigrants nor a country

There is indeed a large expatriate community in Erbil. However, because the expatriates here are generally so short-term, the term never quite fit for me. From the beginning, my plan was to start a new life, permanently.

Shush village.

The traditions of hospitality in the Islamic world define me as completely welcome but also completely temporary.

These traditions are reflected in the available options for residency. There is no path to citizenship. There is not even long-term residency.

In a tribal society, there is no system for immigrants by choice.

Along the valley near Rawanduz.

Even after buying my home, my ability to stay in-country only lasts for weeks or months at a time. It is a constant struggle of renewal, re-renewal, and re-re-renewal. Border crossings and short flights are my new routine.

I had to learn life hacks, like ordering a passport with extra pages because a normal passport would fill up too quickly.

The gorge at Rawanduz.

Without a mechanism for someone truly foreign to simply stay in the Kurdistan Region, there is no certainty nor reassurance for an immigrant identity.

However, every time I enter at the border or land by plane, my heart still skips a beat. I feel the same exact excitement that I felt ten years ago.

It is the joy of being home.

Sunset over Akre.

The land has deep roots

There are many reasons I love living here. But the main reason, truly, is the people.

When I am far away from the Kurdish society, it feels like something is missing. The main reason why I stay grounded and optimistic about life in the Kurdistan Region, and why I yearn to get back every time I am away, is fundamentally the people.

Statue of a Kurdish hero, in Erbil.

Kurdish people are the majority, and the political system represents Kurdish people in the international sphere. This is an essential accomplishment by the local government. There are almost 200 countries in the world, each with representatives. None of them are Kurdish. For tens of millions of Kurdish people split across countries, the lack of representation endangers their rights.

The existence of the Kurdistan Region helps to correct the world’s anti-Kurdish bias.

Baba Gevan, one of the leaders of the Ezidis, near his home in Babera village.

However, domestically speaking, the population of areas administered by the Kurdistan Region is heterogenous. Assyrians, Turkomans, Ezidis, and some other communities are not only present, but are also part of the very identity of the land.

Assyrians celebrating Akitu.

The status of each community should be thought of as senatorial, rather than majoritarian: whether Kurdish, Assyrian, Turkomani, or Ezidi, each must be treated as equally important in all domestic matters. Also, there are Armenians and Yarsanis, in addition to Arab immigrants.

Each community looks at the land, and sees themselves reflected back.

Turkomani gentleman along the route to Kirkuk.

A love letter

As I said earlier, my first great love was the Kurdistan Region.

In that respect, this has been a love letter.

Despite every criticism people make against the Kurdistan Region, despite every heartbreak that happens that would dispirit me, despite every frustration with inconveniences small or large, my belief is that the Kurdistan Region presents a unique opportunity for progress in the Middle East.

It is an honor to be civically engaged in a place that means so much to me.

To Kurdistan, with love forever,

Levi Meir Clancy

Sunset over Akre.
About the Author
Levi Clancy lives in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Region in Iraq, and is the founder of Foundation of Ours, which supports Jewish expression in the Kurdistan Region, and provides platforms for reconciliation and coexistence between all communities. He was born in Venice, California and moved to the KRI in 2014, after which he became involved in cultural, social, and religious affairs in addition to his work as a software developer, photographer, and videographer.
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