Ayub Nuri, Being Kurdish in a Hostile World (Regina: University of Regina Press, 2017).
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My only expectation going into Ayub Nuri’s Being Kurdish in a Hostile World was that I was going to learn more about the Kurdish people and their long struggle for independence. Despite the Iraq War dominating the United States’ foreign policy throughout my teenage years, I must admit that I was ignorant of the effect that the war had on Iraq’s Kurdish population. Moreover, until I began studying international politics in university, I was quite unaware of the various ethnic groups that resided in Iraq and how each one had their own investment in the outcome of the war. I am happy to report, however, that after finishing Nuri’s work I feel far more knowledgeable about the plight of the Kurdish people. As the title suggests, the main objective of Being Kurdish in a Hostile World is to depict the struggles of being a Kurd in Iraq, and upon completion of the book, I can confirm that Nuri largely succeeds in this endeavour.
His approach to explaining the struggles of Kurds in Iraq is through an autobiographical account of his own life from childhood to adulthood. This method of writing proves to be very useful as the author grew up throughout many turbulent periods in Iraq’s history such as the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the Iraq Civil War. Furthermore, having lived through these experiences, Nuri provides a personal touch to his work that cannot be captured by traditional historical texts. When he writes about the struggles of the Kurdish people, we, the reader, identify with these struggles because we sympathize with Nuri as a human being. This emotional connection, this lack of detachment, helps keep the reader engaged even when the book discusses mundane topics such as his job as a shoe-shiner.
A concern that readers of any autobiography need to consider is how much of the work is fact and how much is potentially exaggerated to keep the work entertaining. This is particularly important to consider in a text that aims to persuade the reader of a certain viewpoint. In Being Kurdish in a Hostile World, Nuri could easily have embellished certain details of the book in order to use it to make a political statement regarding the need for Kurdish independence. Instead, his accounts of life growing up in Iraq are very easy to verify, such as when he states that he worked for the famous American journalist Elizabeth Rubin. It also helps that the author is never afraid to show when he is wrong, such as when he briefly flirts with the idea that Iraqi insurgents were correct in viewing the United States as an imperialist invader. Due to Nuri’s honesty, the reader is likely to believe his interpretation of events.
Being Kurdish in a Hostile World may focus on the Kurdish experience of life in Iraq from the 1980s to mid-2010s, but one of Nuri’s strengths is to never ignore the struggles of other ethnic groups within Iraq. For example, when discussing the atmosphere in Iraq shortly after Saddam Hussein’s fall, Nuri writes about a family that feared for its well-being due to its connection to the Baath party when anti-regime violence was at an all-time high. By respecting the legitimate concerns of other Iraqi ethnic groups, Nuri proves that he is not ignorant of the suffering of others beyond the Kurds. The author is also aware that their identity as Kurdish enabled them to avoid the conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims and allowed them to “spend time with Shia militants in Sadr City and Sunni insurgents in Fallujah” (p. 227). Being able to go beyond the scope of providing the Kurdish experience of life in Iraq adds additional nuance to Nuri’s autobiography and strengthens the book.
Despite my earlier praise of Nuri for not focusing his work only on the Kurds, a minor criticism of the work is that it does not explore the intricacies of the complex relationship between Shia and Sunni Muslims. After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Nuri’s work focuses on the increased tensions between Shias and Sunnis due to the lack of a strong government structure to keep peace between both parties. However, even though Nuri chronicles many instances of Shia-Sunni violence, he admits that “I didn’t care what Sunnis and Shias thought of each other, and I cared even less about the historical intricacies of their mutual hatred” (p. 227). This lack of interest in exploring the root cause of issues between Shia and Sunni Muslims prevents Being Kurdish in a Hostile World from providing an additional level of analysis concerning domestic insecurity in Iraq.
From an international security perspective, the book provides interesting insight into discussions concerning humanitarian intervention. Although the war in Iraq was mired in controversy, and its legacy continues to stain U.S. foreign policy, Nuri often speaks of the war favourably due to its role in empowering the Kurdish people. He admits the missteps taken throughout the war, such as his discussion of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal where U.S. soldiers abused prisoners. Nuri also highlights many of the war’s successes and the fact that “the Kurds turned out [to be] the main winners of the U.S. invasion” (p.257). Likewise, on speaking of the Iraq Civil War, Nuri mentions the critical role the United States and Canada played in liberating the Kurds from ISIS. In respect to Canada’s anti-ISIS efforts, Nuri writes that “the Kurds were grateful to the Canadian pilots and military advisors who stood by them in those critical moments. I, too, was a strong proponent of Canada’s participation” (p.263). These examples show the positive impact countries can have by intervening in foreign conflicts.
On the other side of the humanitarian intervention debate, Being Kurdish in a Hostile World provides plenty of examples illustrating how the United States’ actions intensified domestic insecurity in Iraq. In addition to the already discussed Abu Ghraib scandal, Nuri writes that U.S. attacks on the city of Fallujah “failed to oust the insurgents. On the contrary, they grew in numbers and local support for them increased” (p. 238). Probably one of the most topical consequences of the Iraq War, however, was the creation of ISIS through former Baath army and intelligence officers working alongside foreign fighters. If not for the fall of Saddam Hussein and the Baath regime, these army and intelligence officers may not have sided with jihadists to take back the power that they had lost because of the war. As a result, Nuri’s work adds to the complexity of determining when humanitarian intervention is appropriate and when it should be avoided. This dilemma is particularly relevant to Canadian defence policymakers when one considers Canada’s reputation as an international peacekeeper, as well as its close relationship with the United States. Before intervening in overseas conflicts, a careful calculus needs to be made between the benefits of aiding states in times of crisis versus the consequences of exacerbating an internal conflict.
Finishing Being Kurdish in a Hostile World felt like I had completed an epic journey. Nuri’s work chronicles his painful, exciting, and thought-provoking life as a persecuted minority under Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship and I felt engaged with the text throughout most of the read. This engagement was assisted by the autobiographical format as well as Nuri’s ability to consider the experiences of various others who were unfortunate victims of violence in Iraq. A deeper discussion of the causes of Sunni and Shia violence could have helped the latter part of the book, but this was not mandatory for Nuri to get his point across. While Being Kurdish in a Hostile Iraq may have been a more appropriate title considering the setting, Ayub Nuri easily accomplished his goal of detailing Kurdish persecution.
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Adam Finzi is a Master of Arts graduate from Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science program. His previous work experience includes research and policy analysis for the Permanent Mission of Canada to the Organization of American States and observing El Salvador’s 2014 presidential election at the request of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. His research interests include Canadian foreign policy, human rights, and ethics.