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Rebel With a Cause:
Iraq's Most Rebellious City Celebrates 231 Years of Defiance

Kawa Sheikh-Abdulla
The Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah is over two centuries old this week. Locals will be celebrating a long history of rebellion and defiance – and their trademark ability to find humour in every dark episode.
12.11.2015  |  Sulaymaniyah
The Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah is prosperous these days, but remains defiant. (photo: راميار توفيق )
The Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah is prosperous these days, but remains defiant. (photo: راميار توفيق )

This week, on November 14, the people of the northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, will be celebrating the founding of their hometown. They will also be celebrating a long history of rebellion and political defiance.


The modern city of Sulaymaniyah began as the capital of a historic Kurdish principality known as Baban in 1784. And the map of modern Iraq had not yet been drawn when, in 1918, Sheikh Mahmoud al-Hafid Barzanji began a revolution against the British who were supposed to control the country.


In his memoirs, Swedish diplomat Einar Thure af Wirsén, wrote that, “staying in Sulaymaniyah was very interesting because one can clearly see the new Kurdish mindset. We noticed there are many attempts at creating Kurdish culture in the city and we expect Sulaymaniyah will have a very prosperous future”.


Sulaymaniyah has been considered a centre of Kurdish nationalism ever since.


Despite that predicted prosperity, Sulaymaniyah has always refused to toe the line. After several revolutionary movements headed by Barzanji, the city was the first in the Kurdish region to rise up against British occupation in 1930. The politicians and intellectuals of the city had noted that, in an agreement that gave Iraq nominal independence from British rule - the 1930 Anglo-Iraq Treaty - there was no formal mention of the rights of the Kurdish ethnicity. Locals boycotted elections and when the Iraqi army was brought in to oversee them there were riots. The Iraqi military opened fire on protestors and over a dozen people were killed.


Sulaymaniyah, along with another Kurdish city, Ranya, was also one of the first urban settlements to rise up against former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein. These revolutions were the ones that led toward to the state of quasi-independence that the Iraqi Kurdish now enjoy. But the province has paid a high price for its rebelliousness, with locals being targeted by any and all who wished to keep them under control. In 1988, Saddam Hussein’s forces attacked the city of Halabja, until recently a part of Sulaymaniyah province, with chemical weapons, killing thousands. And this was just one of the acts of vengeance wreaked on the people of Sulaymaniyah.


This may explain why today the people of Sulaymaniyah are well known for their dark sense of humour and their ability to spin a good yarn. These characteristics are part of the city's identity now.


According to Ribawar Seweli, a professor of philosophy at the University of Salahaddin in Iraqi Kurdistan, jokes and anecdotal stories are a way that the people of Sulaymaniyah cope with some of the tragic events and tumultuous political history they have experienced.


“Jokes are second nature to the people of Sulaymaniyah,” Seweli told NIQASH. “They make them up whenever there is a disaster or a tragedy and use them as a form of defence. People who come up with the best jokes become well known around the city and the jokes are immortalised in the city's history.”


And even as Sulaymaniyah approaches its 231st birthday, it is clear that the city's defiant spirit lives on. Although in general the city is allied to one of Iraqi Kurdistan's leading political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, it is also the birthplace of the Iraqi Kurdish opposition party known as the Change movement, or Goran. The privately owned Hawlati newspaper was founded here; the BBC referred to its 2000 launch as “marking the emergence of an independent media” in Iraq.


Even today, Western visitors to Sulaymaniyah remark on the difference in the atmosphere on Sulaymaniyah's streets. Of course not all the news is good but on the whole the city seems more liberal and open than other cities in Iraq and even in Kurdistan. Happy birthday, Sulaymaniyah.

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