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Iraq: On the ground, through a lens

Explosions were heard during the day, children looked at warplanes in the sky and everyone – aid workers included – “only wanted to get away.”

London-based photographer Ty Faruki is perhaps as curious about himself as he is about his subjects. Of mixed Ukrainian and Pakistani heritage, he travelled to Ukraine to cover the Crimean crisis in 2014 and, more recently, undertook a journey to the heart of Iraq in an attempt to not only discover the truth behind the Western headlines he’d long been exposed to, but also learn more about his Muslim heritage. It was, after all, the Iraq War of 2003 that had prompted his return to his roots, ultimately culminating in a conversion to Islam.

Undaunted by reports of Daesh’s activities in the country and the general state of disarray there, Ty – camera in tow – set out last December from London to Istanbul, from which he boarded a plane bound for Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq. From Erbil, he later travelled to a host of other Iraqi cities including Mosul, Aqrah and Qayyarah, where Kurdish authorities were striving to extinguish fires that had been set to oil fields by Daesh fighters for strategic reasons.

Initially, not being associated with any particular publication or organisation proved a hindrance in obtaining a visa. However, Ty’s lack of affiliation (he only had a National Union of Journalists press card) soon turned out to work to his advantage. As the photographer was quick to realise, reporters working with media outlets either weren’t given access to particular places, or, at best, were highly controlled to ensure what was reported conformed to the expectations of the authorities in the locales in question. Routinely stopped at checkpoints and often accused of being an Israeli spy, Ty’s Iraqi adventures perhaps proved to be his most trying to date.

Despite not knowing any Arabic or one of many distinct Kurdish languages, the photographer was nonetheless able to “suss out the nature of what was really happening”. In Erbil, he befriended Mohammed Salim, a driver from Mosul who’d managed to escape Daesh with his family by paying one of its fighters $9,000. At first, Daesh hadn’t proved too much of a problem, but after Mohammed had heard rumours that they – an odd mixture of “disenfranchised” white, Japanese, Chinese and Arab radicals “looking for belonging” – would begin practicing female genital mutilation, he knew it was time to leave.

Elsewhere in Erbil, Ty was surprised to see that ordinary people cared little about the religions of others, with Zoroastrians and Yazidis being more than welcome, and Christians abounding. “People just wanted to get along,” remembered Ty, who also noted that no one had any recollection of Christian crucifixions and hangings carried out by Daesh. Although homosexuals were persecuted by the group, the Christians were, according Salim, “either told to pay a tax to stay, or leave.”

In Mosul – which he was only able to enter with the assistance of an NGO partnering with the UN – the situation was grimmer. Ty was unable to tell whether or not the scores of street children living in squalor were orphans. Replete with crumbling walls, filthy water, and the pungent smell of animal excrement, Ty felt that Mosul resembled a village more than a major city, and was “nothing like Ukraine.” Explosions were heard during the day, children looked at warplanes in the sky and everyone – aid workers included – “only wanted to get away.”

While many Arabs bemoaned the Iraqi invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein, echoing Joni Mitchell’s words, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”, things seemed to be working in the favour of the country’s many Kurds. Since Hussein’s demise, the Kurds have been enjoying more power and autonomy, having established a sort of autonomous enclave for themselves.

Contrary to what many may think, Ty noted that the Kurds he met loved Tony Blair and George W. Bush, and felt they owed a “huge debt” to the West. Not surprisingly, Ty also mentioned how Kurdish Peshmerga fighters were combating Daesh alongside American forces. At the same time, though, he stressed how the photos of young, blonde-haired female Kurdish soldiers reportedly fighting against Daesh were the product of pro-Kurdish propaganda and little more than a photo-op, as many locals and Iraqi journalists attested to. “Nobody had seen these women”, Ty recalled.

Indeed, the Arabs and Kurds Ty encountered seemed to view things very differently, as tensions between the two peoples were running high. While the Kurds Ty met supported Iran, the Arabs were divided, given Iran’s differing roles in Iraq and Syria. Given the politics and militant activities of the Kurds with respect to their relentless push for separation – which many Arabs have long taken issue with – as well as the ever-fresh memory of Saddam Hussein’s ethnic cleansing of the Kurds in the 1980s, the distrust between the two that Ty witnessed should come as no surprise.

As well, Ty noticed a lack of understanding about Kurds from an Arab perspective. For one, the Kurdish language is Iranic, and thus unintelligible to Iraqi Arabs. Additionally, religions practiced by the Kurds, such as Zoroastrianism (to which many have been converting back) and Yazidism are misunderstood. “Arabs are confused about the beliefs of Zoroastrians and Yazidis,” Ty remarked. “They don’t know what they stand for.” That Zoroastrians are routinely referred to as “fire-worshippers” in both the region and abroad is perhaps a prime example of the misunderstanding surrounding the world’s oldest monotheistic religion.

At the end of the day, however, the problem of Daesh seems to be the subject pressing on the minds of most. According to the photographer, the group has risen as a result of the power vacuum created by the Iraqi invasion and a general lack of organisation and faith in the Iraqi government. The security-related inconsistencies Ty experienced at checkpoints controlled by Kurds and Arabs, as well as the many opportunities available to circumvent them – which are much to blame for Daesh’s ongoing activities – were perhaps some of the most visible symptoms of the disorder in the country.

“Daesh was greeted at first, as it was seen an alternative to the ineffective Iraqi government in Baghdad,” Ty noted, while additionally acknowledging that Daesh’s intentions were not so clear at the outset. Also accountable for the country’s chronic confusion and rise of terrorist groups, said Ty, is Kurdish-Arab tension. “We can see this in the West, too: division gives rise to far-right groups and violence.” While some may be happy about, and even encouraging, Western meddling in Iraq, the photographer stressed his opinion that intervention “never sees any positive fruits,” and turns out to be a disaster in the overwhelming majority of cases. “Iraq is another Bosnia,” he opined. “Everything is being carved up and divided.”

While the situation in cities such as Erbil is less dire than the Western media may be leading people to believe, such divide-and-conquer politics have made Iraq seem to its people, to quote Ty, “like a giant chessboard for world powers.” With local and foreign interests pitted against and in tandem with each other at once, one is compelled to wonder not if the region known as Iraq will emerge from its current crisis, but whether it will look like anything that the US, the post-World War I Allied Powers or even Saddam had ever imagined.

An award-winning writer, Joobin Bekhrad is the founder and Editor of REORIENT, a publication about the contemporary arts and culture of the Middle East.

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