Kirkuk: A major centre of Iraqi Turkmen culture

Sunday 23/10/2016
Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim (C-R) visits Kurdish and Turkmen Shia forces on the front line some 35km south of Kirkuk after they recaptured the northern Iraqi town of Bashir from the Islamic State group, last May. (AFP)

London - Like other ancient cities, Kirkuk’s past is multilay­ered, moulded by war and modernity but kept alive through the traditions of its mosaic community and archi­tectural riches.
Once a caravan town on the Silk Road, Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, to­day is fashionably rich owing to its abundant oil wells. What is less considered is the history of the city’s multiple identity groups.
Their voices and claims to the city have faded, as competition between the Kurdish regional and central Iraqi governments vying for control of Kirkuk’s oil wealth occu­pies centre stage.
Enduring disputes over Kirkuk’s historical identity, unleashed fol­lowing the great carve-up of the Middle East, were exacerbated by the US-led invasion in 2003 and more recently by the Islamic State (ISIS).
Under Saddam Hussein’s Arabi­sation policy, Kirkuk became one of Iraq’s most coveted cities. In an effort to homogenise the city, Saddam moved Arabs from the south, displacing its Kurdish and Turkmen inhabitants. A partial re­versal of that policy took place in 2003-07, with the return of Kurds to the area.
Many Turkmen, as the head of the Iraqi Turkmen Platform Sun­dus Abbas said, did not return “as the situation for them did not im­prove”. They, alongside Arab citi­zens, accuse Kurdish authorities of demographic manipulation by allowing unrestricted numbers of Kurds to repopulate the city, while barring others from returning.
Fatih Salah, a Manchester-based Turkmen activist, described the threat of Kurdish dominance “as more present than ever before”, citing the description of the city by Kurdish leader and former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani as “the Je­rusalem of Kurdistan”.
“Kirkuk is not a material prize to be won,” he ruefully reflected. “It is the historic and cultural capital of our people that remain firmly in the dark, unseen and unheard by the outside world.”
Describing Kirkuk’s importance to Iraqi Turkmen, historian Arbella Bet-Shlimon noted how “to a great extent [Kirkuk] still is the major ur­ban centre of Turkmen oral, written and material culture”, informing an identity that Salah said was at risk of being diluted.
As far back as the rule of Ab­basids, Seljuks and Atabegs, Ab­bas said, Turkmen contributed to and largely dominated political life from the seventh century through the 13th century — a dynamic that no longer reflects the status of the community.
Architectural designs across the city exist as surviving vestiges of Turkmen history. “Qal’aat Kirkuk” — the citadel — “is the oldest settle­ment in the northern province and a national symbol for Turkmen,” said Arshad Salihi, leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front.
Archaeologists trace the citadel to the third millennium BC. During the 16th century, it was seized by the Ottoman administration, en­couraging the expansion of Turk­men residential architecture that exists today.
The cemetery of Musalla oc­cupies an important place in the Turkmen consciousness. The cem­etery, where prominent cultural and literary figures are buried, is “literally an archive that docu­ments the city’s Turkmen charac­ter” professor of architecture Suphi Saatci wrote in his study of Kirkuk’s unique historic fabric.
The citadel, cemetery, along­side truncated Turkish minarets wrapped in colourful ceramic tiles, traditional baths and Turkish-named neighbourhoods serve as containers of their memory.
Salihi emphasised the resilience of Turkmen self-determination, a community that has fought tire­lessly to secure and protect its cultural rights and common herit­age. Even under Saddam, Turkmen viewed themselves as an integral part of the Iraqi national polity, de­spite sharing cultural commonal­ties and lineages to Turkic popula­tions worldwide.
“The struggle was never over securing political primacy,” Salah said, “it’s always been about repre­sentation and preservation of our people and rights.”
The overthrow of Saddam in 2003 brought new, yet unfulfilled, prom­ises for the Turkmen, Abbas said. The euphoria after Saddam’s fall “was short-lived as tragedies of the past were reactivated”, Salah said.
In the decade that followed, Bet- Shlimon said: “Turkmen have had to navigate a complicated politi­cal landscape”, stoking feelings of marginalisation and under-repre­sentation.
“At times, politically active Turk­men have found themselves on the same side as Arab nationalists in a particular dispute,” she added, “but it has never been a comfortable fit.”
Salihi is one of eight Turkmen members of the Iraqi parliament. However, none occupy high-rank­ing posts, which, Abbas said, is where one is able to exercise deci­sion-making ability.
Kirkuk fell to Kurdish forces fol­lowing the Iraqi Army’s failure to defend Mosul in the face of the Islamic State (ISIS) in June 2014. Though peshmerga forces imme­diately adopted a protectorate role in north Iraq, successfully pushing back against ISIS, the indisputably mixed city remains fraught with discord.
Notwithstanding the heavy pres­ence of military forces from both the central Iraqi and regional Kurd­ish governments, Abbas said Turk­men pay the heaviest price in the loss of life, material wealth and land. She described a turbulent situation in which Turkmen-inhab­ited areas face daily attacks.
While the question of to whom does Kirkuk belong is moot, the ex­istence of Turkmen, as well as Arab and Christian minorities, is impos­sible to refute. Recognising the rich tapestry of multiple cultures, languages and traditions that make Kirkuk what it is can help to tame many enduring disputes between the various identity groups that claim Kirkuk as their Jerusalem.
As Bet-Shlimon warned: “We are easily seduced by the idea of eternal sectarian hatred or greed [and] if Iraq is characterised by a Sunni-Shia-Kurdish conflict. Vari­ous forms of minority identity, in­cluding Turkmen, become an after­thought.”
This is a major problem and she advised: “It is vital that we under­stand Iraqis to be as multidimen­sional and wholly human as every other group of people.”