Stephen Mansfield remembers what Kurdistan was like in the early 1990s: “To be among the Kurds in the northern Iraq of those days was to be in the middle of a civil war while the troops of a tyrant amassed on a nearby border. Economic sanctions added to the general miseries by making life disease-ridden and spake. Makeshift checkpoints punctuated cratered roads. So quickly could fighting erupt that men carried their Kalashnikov machine guns while strolling markets with their families. Grocery stores were seldom more than shelf lined half-huts partially rebuilt from loose stones and rubble. Streets were muddy and crowded. The sound of explosions nearby cleared them instantly. Jets and helicopters flew deafeningly overhead while those on the ground prayed Saddam Hussein had not sent them” (18).

When he returned recently, he landed in a new airport and drove by hotels and buildings taller than buildings in his US home. Restaurants, grocery stores, city parts, monuments and quiet neighbors filled Erbil. 

Mansfield visited a school “with thousands of students in which classes were conducted only in English, standards were high and some graduates went on to the finest universities in Europe.” The Kurdish authorities had taken a stand on freedom of religion: Under a new ruling, all religions would be taught equally. Extensive knowledge of Islam would no longer be required for graduation. My Muslim host and his aides celebrated this decision like American Pentecostals, hands raised to heaven” (23).

Mansfield’s forthcoming The Miracle of the Kurds is not, he admits, the work of a Middle East expert. It’s a very personal glimpse into the transformation of Kurdistan, of which a writer says “Kurdistan is what America wanted Iraq to be” (26).

Now one of the few bright spots in the Middle East is in danger. Pray that the miracle survives this latest onslaught.

More on: Kurdistan

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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