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Creative Resistance:
In Kurdish ‘Capital Of Culture’, The Art Must Go On

Hayman Hassan
Never mind the security crisis, extremists on the border or a severe lack of cash. Sulaymaniyah’s artists are organising more events and activities than ever, in the Iraqi Kurdish “capital of culture”.
19.05.2016  |  Sulaymaniyah
Sulaymaniyah's annual book fair draws writers, poets and publishers from around the country. (photo: دائرة الثقافة في السليمانية )
Sulaymaniyah's annual book fair draws writers, poets and publishers from around the country. (photo: دائرة الثقافة في السليمانية )

 Despite the financial crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan and the security crisis in the rest of Iraq, that affects the semi-autonomous northern region too, the city of Sulaymaniyah is hanging onto its title as the most arty and cultural place in the country.

In 2012, Sulaymaniyah was named the cultural capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own borders, government and legislation and operates semi-independently of the rest of Iraq. And although there’s been some criticism of the title, the city’s leaders and artists are proud to say that they’re continuing to run cultural events, festivals and exhibitions, despite obstacles. One of the most recent was the second European Union Film Festival, which started on May 15 and will run until tomorrow. The film festival features European films and a selection of local offerings too.

“there are still plenty of artistic and cultural activities happening in Sulaymaniyah and we believe the severe crisis in Iraq has not affected such events in the city,” says Nawzat Ahmad, who heads the Clauaz Cultural Forum in Sulaymaniyah, which is also responsible for organizing a writer’s festival every year. “Instead these kinds of events have increased. We’re seeing a real boom.”

NO central office records all of these kinds of events, let alone defines them, so it is hard to know if Ahmad is correct. But anecdotally many locals agree. Since the beginning of this year, an estimated 80different events defined as cultural have taken place in Sulaymaniyah – this has included concerts. Records at the local Directorate for Culture and Art show that there were 372 different cultural events organised in 2015.   

“The tradition of arts and culture is one that has been present here since Sulaymaniyah was founded,” explains Babakr Daraei, who heads the Directorate, told NIQASH. “And local artists are still playing their role, in a kind of a challenge to the political and economic crises.”

Daraei says that his department’s budget has been reduced drastically and that this has had an impact on the larger vents they supported. However it has not had much impact on small and medium sized events, he notes.

Artists, writers and intellectuals here are doing their duty here, argues Niaz Nouri, the head of the Kurdish artist’s union, putting on shows and events and contributing their work and time on a voluntary basis. In fact, Nouri believes there’s more going on now than there ever was, despite budget cuts.

The government of Iraqi Kurdistan is seen as not contributing very much to the region’s cultural life – it is more the local artists and businessmen who keep this kind of thing going.

“Despite all the difficulties there is still a lot going on,” says Marv Kole, a lecturer at the University of Sulaymaniyah. “The fact that people want to take part and want to create is a sign that they want to live.”

Cole pointed out that even Saddam Hussein’s campaign against the Kurdish people had never been able to stop cultural action in Sulaymaniyah. Since the city was founded, it has produced many poets, writers and important artists.

“Nothing can make this city lose its enthusiasm for art,” Cole says. “I’m just disappointed in the local government. They have really marginalised arts and culture here.”

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