The linguistic situation in Iraqi Kurdistan is unusual in many ways. Being a true bastion of Kurdish culture, the region boasts no less than three Kurdish dialects, some of which are difficult to understand. The Kurdish language, sometimes threatened with eradication in other Kurdish regions beyond Iraq’s borders, is so firmly established here that no other language seems able to seriously compete with it. And yet, beyond this apparent immutability, contradictory socio-linguistic trends have emerged in recent years, driven by social and political events and by the region’s economic development.

A brief history

From the outset, the recognition of the Kurdish language was made a central demand by the Iraqi Kurdish national autonomy movement. After being gradually introduced into Iraqi schools in Kurdish regions from the late 1950s onwards, the language was later imposed in schools during the war that broke out in 1961. Finally, the Baathist regime allowed the introduction of Kurdish into schools in March 1970 although Arabic had been compulsory since then. Numerous Kurdish schools were opened following this agreement, and Kurdish was even introduced as a subject of study at two Iraqi universities. The resumption of war, however, in 1974, led the Iraqi authorities to gradually erode all the improvements made by Kurdish speakers.

The situation of the Kurdish language in schools evolved according to the setbacks between Kurdish parties and the administration, agreements, cease-fires and, of course, the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988). But, fundamentally, the Iraqi State never went back on the very principle of teaching Kurdish in Iraqi schools. 

It was only after 1991, when de facto autonomy was won by the Kurdish regions of Iraq, that teaching in Kurdish was able to thrive, and Arabic was gradually squeezed out. At that time, the Kurdish authorities already had an important contingent of Kurdish-speaking teachers. Kurdish gradually invaded the public sphere; politics and culture were “Kurdicized”, along with all areas that had previously been Arabized. Finally, the American invasion of 2003 led to the constitutional recognition of Kurdistan’s autonomy in 2005. 

The emergence of an exclusively Kurdish-speaking generation was facilitated by the existence of a powerful Kurdish education network for several decades, the lack of appeal of war-torn “Arab” Iraq and the sense of relative stability of Kurdish autonomous administration. Today, many young Kurds can only express themselves in Kurdish, or have only a limited knowledge of Arabic, (either Iraqi dialectal or classical Arabic). And yet, while the existence of this Kurdish-speaking generation is a source of pride for many of the veterans of the war, certain trends in the opposite direction have been noticed for several years now . 

Arabization from below

In the city of Sulaymaniyah, buses from the Arab regions are plentiful. Every weekend, refurbished European coaches come and go. All are registered in Federal iraq. Most are from Baghdad, and a few from other regions. Dozens of tourists come here to spend a few days before leaving again. The appeal of Sulaymaniyah and Erbil to Iraqi tourists has been a reality for several years. 

Based on the testimonies of a dozen young people from Baghdad who regularly travel to Iraqi Kurdistan, it is possible to get an idea of why the region attracts them so much. Unsurprisingly, the huge air-conditioned malls come out on top as their number one destination. These are in stark contrast to the few shopping malls in Baghdad (Baghdad Mall or Babylon Mall). And while this influx of occasional Iraqi tourists is good business for hoteliers and shopping malls, it has also aroused the fears of some in Kurdistan. 

Since the American invasion of 2003, there have been three types of Arab migrants to the Iraqi Kurdistan region. First, war refugees following the American invasion and the civil war. Secondly, refugees who arrived at the start of the war against the Islamic State. Kurdish statistics show that the bulk of Iraqi refugees arrived in the autonomous region in 2014. Finally, economic immigration continues to this day.

Social dumping has long been practiced in Iraqi Kurdistan. Syrian refugees, most of them Kurds, have long acted as cheap laborers for restaurants and cafés in the region’s towns. Now it is often Arabs from the rest of Iraq who are employed for lower wages in well-defined sectors. Regardless of the issue of “Arabization” from below that some have denounced, it is clear that jobs held by Iraqi Arabs are highly visible. In many cafés in the regional capital, it has even become difficult to make oneself understood in Kurdish. 

In an experiment carried out in early July 2023, out of ten cafés and restaurants visited in Erbil, it was impossible to make oneself understood in Kurdish at first glance. It was often necessary to insist that a Kurdish-speaking or English-speaking waiter come along. Interestingly, it is more often difficult to make oneself understood in Kurdish language in restaurants and cafés of a certain standing or in big company stores, than in the traditional and popular shisha cafés, where Kurdish remains the dominant language. 

This “visibility” of the Arabic language has obvious roots: the tourist contingents arriving in Erbil come from Iraq, so it’s important that the waiters and sales assistants in the supermarkets speak their customers’ language. However, the fact that it is no longer possible to find a Kurdish speaker in a number of public places is not without creating tensions.

“I speak English, but I refuse to speak it in my own country”, says Brwa, a young university student from Sulaymaniyah who is close to the Gorran movement. What shocks him is not speaking English per se, but speaking it with “fellow citizens” established in the region. In addition to traditional Kurdish resentment towards Iraqi Arabs, there are now accusations of unfair competition between them. Brwa agrees: “Finding a job as a waiter is very complicated. In Sulaymaniyah, it’s still okay, but in Erbil, it’s difficult because of the competition from Arabs. And wages are lower there for the same reason. 

And as always, in Iraqi Kurdistan, the issue is a matter of political parties. The two major parties that have been fighting over the region for decades, the KDP and the PUK, accuse each other of leading the Arabization of the country. The KDP criticizes the PUK for its “conciliatory” policy towards Baghdad, choosing the Iraqi option over Kurdish unity. In Sulaymaniyah, on the other hand, the omnipresence of the Arabic language in certain sectors is mocked. “When an Arab moves to Sulaymaniyah, he learns Kurdish. When an Arab moves to Erbil, it’s the Kurd who starts speaking Arabic,” Brwa tells us facetiously. And it has to be said that, in fact, Arabic seems to have taken root better in Erbil than in Sulaymaniyah. This seems to be due less to a policy pursued by the Sulaymaniyah authorities than to the city’s lesser attractiveness compared to the capital, Erbil.  

Americanization from above

Dozens of private schools have flourished in Iraqi Kurdistan over the past two decades. Most of them are located in the three provincial capitals of Iraqi Kurdistan (Sulaymaniyah, Erbil and Duhok). All are expensive and reserved for a restricted elite. In line with the wishes of wealthy parents, the main language of instruction is English.

“The Kurdish education system is failing. Classes are overcrowded, teachers poorly trained. It’s only the private schools that offer a quality English-speaking curriculum, which will enable them to study abroad and find a good job afterwards.” Muhammad chose to enroll his two daughters in a private school in Erbil. He doesn’t belong to the upper echelons as such, but, holding several positions in higher education establishments, his income is comfortable and well above average.

“Kurdish is our language, so it’s only natural to learn and cultivate it. But as far as higher education is concerned, we mustn’t delude ourselves: most scientific publications today are in English, and it’s better to master this language as early as possible so as not to be crippled in your higher studies.” Being a teacher himself, Muhammad knows what he’s talking about. Erbil’s university bookshops, a vast majority of which are in English language, would hardly prove him wrong. While it is true that a significant number of social science books have been translated into Kurdish, English still remains omnipresent, if not exclusive when it comes to the hard sciences. Yet, there might be a contradiction with the apprenticeship of this international language: while Kurds aspiring to long studies (sometimes abroad) require this knowledge, schooling in English-speaking establishments from an early age might entail some risks. This might especially be true for very young English students when they only have a very imperfect oral knowledge of their mother tongue.

“Many of my pupils have a better command of English than Kurdish,” confides Mîr, a teacher at a private school in Sulaymaniyah, with a touch of concern. For while mastery of a foreign language, English in this case, is universally perceived as a plus, some worry that English will end up taking over in certain affluent circles. Private schools are not the only vector for the English language in Kurdistan. American series, cartoons and children’s videos, which abound on “Youtube”, are by far the most watched by local children. But are some people’s fears that English will one day supplant Kurdish among the wealthier sections of the population well-founded? 

“I don’t think there’s a risk of total Americanization, or that the Kurdish language will end up going backwards. This is very exaggerated, and those who say so are nationalists, that’s all,” says Muhammad. And yet, it has to be said that English has replaced Kurdish in some families, even within the home. In the playgrounds of Sulaymaniyah’s private schools, it’s quite common to hear Kurdish children speaking English among themselves, without anyone pushing them to do so, even in nursery schools. Some Anglicizing parents even force themselves to speak English with their children at home.

Kurdish, in its various dialectal variations, seems to have become too firmly established in Iraqi Kurdistan to be seriously threatened. Yet it is clear that the language has lost much of its symbolic prestige in recent years. As in the 1980s, this is no longer a time for national liberation, for asserting identity against the steamroller of Arabization, but for seeking economic prospects. The old generation fought for the recognition and strengthening of Kurdish positions; the new, born into the reality of an apparently indestructible Kurdish political entity, has set itself other goals. Paradoxically, it was the strength of the Kurdish language that created the conditions for its ousting from several sectors. For although the establishment of Arabic in the service and catering industries is the result of economic pragmatism, the same applies to education, where Kurdish is seen as intrinsically restrictive. Will the occasional criticism of these two trends stem the tide? Nothing is less certain, judging by the speeches of the main players involved.

VIAEnguerran Carrier