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March 09, 2003

An introduction

Welcome to my blog, all. First, to introduce myself and The Other Side. I am a freelance journalist based in Erbil, in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. I am new to the world of blogging, and I heartily thank Chris Boese, a friend of a friend whom I’ve never even met, for suggesting this to me and for setting up all the technical stuff.

I chose to call the blog The Other Side for a couple of reasons. One, I want to show the other side of the news. I don’t intend for this site to be a substitute for the ordinary media, but as a complement to it. You can get good information from the New York Times, BBC and Associated Press. But you won’t hear unvarnished opinion from a guy on the ground, or what ordinary days are like for the people here: about pornographic movie theaters, tragic love stories or the sunset over Erbil.

Secondly, “the other side” refers to the land outside America’s borders, a big place that most Americans, even well educated ones, are not very familiar with. Reading the news about the Middle East or Indonesia or Venezuela is as about as meaningful as watching a game of Risk if you don’t know what the streets smell like there or what people eat. I hope this blog can be a small substitute for that sort of experience.

By way of introduction, I’ll start with the basics: What is Kurdistan? The great majority of the people living in the three northernmost provinces of Iraq are Kurds who are Muslims like the majority Arab population in Iraq but who have a distinct language (related to Farsi/Persian, but not Arabic or Turkish) and culture. Throughout history they’ve gotten shafted out of their own country (aside from a Soviet-backed enclave in Iran that lasted from 1945-1946). But after the 1991 Gulf War, the first George Bush encouraged the Iraqis to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The Shias in the south and Kurds in the north obliged, but then Bush realized it was spinning out of the US’s control, stood back and let the Iraqi forces put down the rebellion. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Kurds. After some clashes, Iraqi forces pulled back and since then have let the Kurds take care of themselves. At first, it didn’t go well – the two main Kurdish factions fought a civil war for several years. But since 1998, they have stopped fighting and have built one of the freest, most peaceful places in the Middle East.

A friend of mine told me about a debate that took place recently in Berkeley between Christopher Hitchens and Mark Danner in which Hitchens argued for the war, using Kurdistan as a model for a future democratic Iraq. If you ask most people here they’ll say they agree, or rather dodge the question by saying that anything is better than Saddam Hussein. I asked got a more nuanced answer when I asked one local journalist for the only independent newspaper in Kurdistan, Hawlati (Citizen). “I would like that all of Iraq be like Kurdistan,” he said, adding that “we still have a lot of work to do,” pointing out several basic freedoms that people lacked. (It should be noted that he was a former member of a far left-wing party, now banned, whose leader was assassinated by Islamists for suggesting that if men could have four wives, that women should be able to have four husbands, as well. This is not a mainstream view in Kurdistan.)

One of the common misconceptions about Kurdistan is that it’s democratic. The last Kurdistan-wide election was in 1992, and the power-sharing agreement that resulted ended up in the aforementioned civil war. They haven’t tried again. The two main parties each have militias of tens of thousands of fighters, which the governments are only now starting to consider integrating into a Kurdistan-wide force (just in time…) This is not most people’s definition of democracy.

This journalist enumerated several other problems. The government hasn’t known what to do with the rise of Islamism here, and in general it’s done very badly. At times it looks the other way when Islamist groups attack “inappropriately” dressed women in the streets but other times completely cuts the groups out of the political process, or cracks down in such a brutal way as to create sympathy for the Islamists.

Press freedom is also limited. All media except Hawlati are organs of one party or another, and Hawlati journalists have been arrested several times and have on occasion been imprisoned for what they write. “We publish things because we are brave, not because we are free,” the journalist told me.

But – and this is an important point – people don’t care about all this. They have TV and newspapers and schools in Kurdish, and the Turkoman and Assyrian minorities have their media and schools as well. They can speak freely in the streets, and have personal freedoms that are rare in this neighborhood.

Take Internet access. In Iraq proper, it is heavily restricted and basically unavailable to the ordinary person. In Iran it’s expensive and there are few public internet places. Likewise in Syria, and in addition there yahoo, hotmail and any sites from Israel or Lebanon are blocked. Here, though, Internet access is relatively cheap (a little more than $1 an hour in internet cafes) and the cafes are everywhere.

That’ll be it for today … soon to come will be more reports, focusing on particular issues, relating particular incidents, etc. Stay tuned.

March 9, 2003 in Kurds, Politics | Permalink

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Comments

Testing comments, making sure not been hacked.

Chris

Posted by: Chris | Mar 9, 2003 11:05:21 PM

It's wonderful to have your words available to us. I look forward to reading more.

Posted by: Carolyn | Mar 10, 2003 6:52:47 AM

Excellent blog. I have bookmarked it and sent it on to friends. These kind of websites are the only way to get info to counteract the propaganda of the US media.

Stay well.

Elaine

Posted by: Elaine Sutherland | Mar 10, 2003 11:32:33 PM

Josh! Hi! Glad Michael finally sent me this link. I have been asking about you. Very interesting and will take longer to read more. Just checking in with you. Take care. Pam

Posted by: Pam | Mar 16, 2003 3:30:02 AM

It will be of great interest to finally read what never, ever makes it across the newswire.

Posted by: Benjamin | Mar 16, 2003 10:15:20 PM

Josh, I'm very glad you're doing this, and even happier (though not surprised) that it's so good. Keep it up!

Posted by: Marc E. Johnson | Mar 17, 2003 4:49:55 AM

Josh, I'm very glad that you're doing this, and even happier (though not surprised) that it's so good. Keep it up!

Posted by: Marc E. Johnson | Mar 17, 2003 4:49:59 AM

3-20-03
Dear Sir, Your "notes from underground" are greatly appreciated. I hope you will be able to continue your excellent journal. A friend forwarded this copy to me. Henceforth, I will look for it and will forward it to others.

Peace & Safety.

Posted by: Alvia Golden | Mar 21, 2003 12:56:01 AM

Hey Josh,
I read all of your writings and found them to be extremely informative and also very enjoyable. I stumble across this website looking for exactly this, the other side I am sick tired of all the prpagandsa on the tv right now and trying to make sense to my wife which she grew up in a tiny town in up state New York. I grew up in Detriot and had many friends with diferent cultures if you will say for a background. Just because someone is different it doesn't mean they are dangerous like the propganda is portraying on the tv. I really like seeing the pictures in your writings and I have been following reuters.com and have enjoyed their clips of lanscape of the land In Iraq. I know that is a strange thing when there is so much wrong going on over their but I try to see the positive in every situation. I look forward to reading more of your inserts or blogs as you guys call them I really do not know what blogs means yet cause this is the first night I found the website.
Joe & Billie Joe - MI.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 24, 2003 11:35:17 AM

What a god damn liar you are.

Posted by: SSgt P. Bowers | Mar 24, 2003 7:55:30 PM

Hi Jonshua;
I got this "web blog" (whatever that means)from my mom, in Argentina. I live in the USA and I am really tired of all the crap that we get on TVs, on the newspapers and the streets. I think that what you 're doing is great. Just be prepared (I am sure you are of course!) for the comments of some idiots that may read your posts. (You already got an example, at the end) I think that you are very brave and patriotic for what you're doing -wherever you come from, I don't care- and you are the kind of person that makes me feel reconciliated with life... and the media.
Take care and please DON'T STOP POSTING YOUR NEWS!.
Good luck for you and say hello to your friends in Kurdistan from me. :)
Keyl

Posted by: Keyl | Mar 27, 2003 11:03:16 AM

Good work and keep us informed please...

Posted by: Vlad | Mar 29, 2003 1:36:59 AM

Hi Josh,
thanks for the journal. Ania

Posted by: ania wasniewska | Apr 1, 2003 2:12:39 PM

I was surfing along and came across your website. I really enjoyed it. Thanks!
This site is very informative. I hope to see more in the near future
Wishing you all the best

Posted by: oliver | Feb 5, 2004 8:25:43 PM

I was surfing along and came across your website. I really enjoyed it. Thanks!
This site is very informative. I hope to see more in the near future
Wishing you all the best

Posted by: oliver | Feb 5, 2004 8:25:43 PM

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