Language barrier and the future of Arab-Kurdish relations in Iraq

By Sabir Hasan: Kurdistan Tribune – 23-2-2013 – The relationship between humans, starting from interpersonal relationships up to international relations, is established through communication. And the vehicle of communication is language, whether it is expressed verbally or in writing.

Today’s complex Arab-Kurdish relations are mostly addressed and dealt with in Baghdad and, specifically, in the Iraqi Council of Representatives (the Parliament). Although Arabic and Kurdish are both recognized as official languages in the Iraqi Constitution, Arabic has maintained its position as the predominant language of communication in the parliament. Thus, not only Arabs, but also Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians use Arabic as a medium of communication.

As far as Kurdish MPs are concerned, they are mostly people of older generations; they received education at a time when the Kurdistan region had not achieved its autonomous status but was part of a centralised government, with Baghdad being the central power. At that time Arabic was the only official language, and Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians had been heavily linked to Baghdad for various reasons, above all, education, university life, and mandatory military service. This has helped the Kurdish older generations to learn Arabic. That is why it is not surprising that President Talabani, President Barzani, Mr Barham Salih, Mr Hoshyar Zebari, among Kurdish politicians, all speak Arabic as fluently as Arab native speakers.

However, after the 1991 uprising and the establishment of the autonomous Kurdish region and the opening of several universities in the region, relations and contacts between Kurds and Arabs were seriously weakened. Besides, reducing Arabic teaching materials in the school curriculum and promoting English as a substitute for Arabic, have resulted in a new Kurdish generation that does not understand Arabic. The promotion of English is driven by the Kurdish government as well as the media, but there is also a general tendency among the new generation to learn English. Whatever the actual reason for this trend, the fact is that those Kurdish MPs who fight for the rights of the Kurds are those who speak Arabic perfectly well. By contrast, there are some Kurdish MPs who I have never heard speaking in the parliament, giving comments in Arabic on TV or in newspapers – I am sceptical that they can speak Arabic well.

The gap between the Kurds and Arabs in the past two decades has increased the distance between the two nations. Today, if Kurdish young people want to communicate a message in Arabic, they will turn to machine translation. As Kurdish is not one of the available languages in the Google translation, they usually use English to mediate.

For example, in the AFC Cup final match at Franso Harriri Stadium, some Kurdish youngsters wanted to pass the message that ‘Kurdistan is not Iraq’ onto the Iraqi Arabs. They wrote the message on banners in three languages – Kurdish, English and Arabic. The message did not come across in Arabic, though! That is because the English message was rendered into Arabic by Google translation as ‘Kurdstan al-iraq laysat’, literally meaning ‘the Iraqi Kurdistan is not’ – an incomplete sentence and meaningless utterance. The current Kurdish leaders speak Arabic fluently, yet most of their messages do not get across; one wonders how the new generation’s messages can ever get across using incomplete, broken Arabic sentences!

The example of Iraq today is a country where the new generations of the two major nations – Arab and Kurdish – do not have a common language to communicate. This has increased the communication gap between the new generations of the two nations, which inevitably affects their political and sociocultural relations – a potential issue that should not be neglected.

Bearing in mind that Iraq remains united, the real issue will arise when the new generation replaces the older generation and plays a role in the future political stage of Iraq in, say, 10 years time. Preliminary indications suggest that one possible channel of communication will be through translation. A not-so-practical solution, though. MPs are supposed to fight for the rights of the people in their constituency – or rather, in the case of Iraq, the nations they represent – and it is difficult, if not impossible, to fight through translation-assisted medium. Watch this space and fingers crossed for the future of Arab-Kurdish relations!

Sabir Hasan is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds (UK) Centre for Translation Studies