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Interview with Ridwan Zebari

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Kurdish Oral History Project
Interview with: Ridwan Zebari
Interviewed by: Aynur de Rouen and Leslie Cody
Transcriber: Marwan Tawfiq
Date of interview: 16 April 2014
Interview Setting: Binghamton University
(Start of Interview)

AD: You are going to talk some good stuff. Okay, but I am going to ask you to sign it again, Ridwan, it is just a, oh see, if you are a lawyer, you read things before you sign it.

RZ: Yeah, you have to.

AD: That is right.

RZ: Why you want to do it, I have already done that.

AD: I know, the first time, but we are doing the second interview.

RZ: I do not have anything else to add. [laughs]

AD: No?

RZ: I said everything.

AD: Okay, here is the thing; As I am doing this project, Ridwan I am learning and I realized a lot of differences between countries, so now the questions will be very specific gear to Iraqi Kurds, because when I was first time talking to you it was more like in general and I had this image of Kurds from Turkey and there is a quite a big difference between like-

RZ: Yeah, you could say that.

AD: So, having said that as you know in Turkey because of the republic, the main, the approach toward the minority was like assimilating them, but in Iraq, thing like little different like I am not going far back I am just taking after the World War II especially like the constitution of 1958 with that constitution the Arabs and Kurds like all, according to the constitution they were considered associates in Iraq, right?

RZ: Yeah, that is true.

AD: See, if you are especially interviewing with a lawyer.

RZ: Yeah, you mean that you came to the implication it is different.

AD: So that is my question.

RZ: That part has never been applied it is just ink in the paper, on the paper.

AD: So, my question was even though the constitution stated that in reality were Arabs and Kurds partner in the nation.

RZ: This was the constitution said, yeah.

AD: But was it the reality?

RZ: No, it is not, it was too far from that, yeah.

AD: Okay.

RZ: What they called, there are new Kurds in the government like minister or, the government established some, some institutes like they call autonomous areas legislative and executive branches, but the government, the regime let us say they put in that branches their people and their men and whoever they wanted not elective people from let us say common people, no they put their friends.

AD: But Arabs not Kurds.

RZ: No Kurds, they had to be Kurds, but the Kurds that who they wanted to not anybody that wanted to candidate himself with let us say be elected by people, no. They put some people.

AD: They pick the nominees.

RZ: Yeah, they put whatever they want.

AD: So, it was not very democratic?

RZ: Not very, there was no democratic.

AD: No democracy.

RZ: Nothing, yeah.

AD: So, could we say that there was a cultural autonomy, or the Kurds had a cultural autonomy,

RZ: No, not even cultural actually,

AD: Not even cultural.

RZ: No, because they even did not let Kurds to educate in their language let us say in the school educational institutions they did not let Kurds study their language, in some cities Yeah they did but the people demonstrate and they opposed the government and they let them have some Kurdish schools in some cities; some big cities like in Erbil and Sulaimania, but in other areas even the education was in Arabic.

AD: In Arabic?

RZ: Yeah.

AD: That is important because I am specifically looking at those revolts and uprising to get some power you know like power relations within the Iraqi government so in what ways, for example you just said in Sulaimaniya and Erbil they revolted to get Kurdish Education and you said they got it.

RZ: Yeah, they had some Kurdish School, not all of them but some of schools and there was one Kurdish language class at university and that is it.

AD: And that is it.

LC: Like in what ways did they had uprisings?

RZ: What uprising?

LC: Like as far as revolting like education and stuff, like how did they get that?

RZ: Yeah, actually it was not like, the government I mean they did not give anything until they saw that the people were really serious, they are opposing the government policy, so they said let us give them some sort of autonomy like in education, in administration.

AD: Was something like let us shut them off, just a little bit.

RZ: Yeah, just keep them quiet, give them something they will be quiet.

AD: because there is like no political gain with that, right.

RZ: No, it was just-

AD: Politically Kurds did not have any power, is that what you are saying?

RZ: Yeah exactly, they did not have, they did not have anything. It was just something some sort of what they call administrative autonomy, they had local mayors even governor, but it does not necessarily mean that had to be Kurdish governor in the Kurdish city or Kurdish mayor, no but usually they were, but sometimes government transfer them to other place like in the south.

AD: Because the government, we all know Saddam’s government, I mean personally call a fascist government, so some sources said that there oppression even against Arabs, would you agree with that?

RZ: Yeah, there was against Shiite.

AD: But they are also considered religious minority in Iraq, right?

RZ: Actually, there are not minority, they are majority of the Arab, yeah. I mean speaking of Arab nation, yeah, they are the majority Arab in Iraq, but they were not in power, Sunnis were in power, Saddam and his group, so they, what they call, they killed Shiite too. Because they thought that Shiite more is related to Iran and closer to Iran especially in 1980s there was a war between Iran and Iraq so Saddam was thinking Shiite helping Iran in this regard and religious men did not make a fatwa against Iran, because some other scholars they made fatwa that fighting Iran is Jihad or Halal but Shiite did not do that, so they killed some other Shiites like al-Hakeem, I think and Sadr. Yeah.

AD: So, they were mistreated just like Kurds you would say.

RZ: Not like Kurds but-

AD: Not as much but?

RZ: Because they were not like Kurds, they were not opposing the government, there were some heads of Shiite they opposed the government but common people they did not do, they were like Iraqi citizens, they did not do like what Kurdish did, that way.

AD: What did Kurdish do?

RZ: They did a lot. They were not accepting the regime’s policy I mean whatever regime said they did not accept it. Especially Kurds were in the mountain, I mean it is easier for them to fight with the government and hide in the mountains, yeah it was easier for them, but for Shiite in dessert.

AD: Okay, so all that started in recent history we are talking about, we are not going back to Ottoman period because-

RZ: When you go back to far to Ottoman or during the British colonialism in the Arab countries be there was, the people who governed the country were not Arabs, say the people during the Ottoman empire belonged to Ottoman empire not Arabs, even they were Arabs but they were not Arab nationalism, they belonged to another bigger thing, Ottoman Empire. Same thing during the Britain colonialization; it was Britain taking care of everything but not Arabs, even in that time Kurds had a special opinion or special situation but I mean what happened after 1960s and (19)70s.

AD: Starting this constitution and all of that-

RZ: Yeah, after the, especially after the Baath party came to power, they started doing whatever they did against the Kurds and other nations.

AD: Is that constitution created during that Party, Baath Party time?

RZ: No actually before the Baath party, but it did not take long before the Baath party came to power.

AD: It is after Abdul-Kareem Qasim?

RZ: Yeah, Abdul-Kareem Qasim, he came to power in 1958.

AD: So how do you consider him?

RZ: I do not know much about him because it was, yeah, I read something about him in the history or I heard something from other people, fathers and grandfather. He was not that bad like Saddam, other people came after him, he was in the beginning of the republic, before that it was kingdom; Iraqi Kingdom, but after that Iraq became republic, and he was the first president, he was better than Saddam, let us say. Yeah.

AD – Okay, uh.

LC: We pretty much covered all this.

RZ: Sorry.

AD: Yeah because you said the language was Arabic in school.

LC: We should talk about the diaspora.

AD: Okay, now, I am going to ask you something about Diaspora.

RZ: Go ahead.

AD: Because currently there is not really, well not yet let me put it that way, there is not much about Kurdish Diaspora in the United States but there is a lot of work done in Europe from either Iraq or Iran or Turkey Kurds relocated to various European countries and their experiences over there, so now I am gonna read something to you. I know this guy I talked to him via email. He is from Turkey, and he has been living in Sweden for more than 25 years now. So, this is what he said about Sweden, he says: “When I came to Sweden, I liked this country a lot and I wanted to adopt it. I saw Sweden as my second homeland. Now I see myself as a Kurd, I see myself neither as a Swedish nor as an immigrant but as a Kurd who wants and wishes to go back. I do not feel any belonging to Sweden. I tried so much to make them as equal, but it did not work. Still after ten years they ask you where are from, do you miss your homeland, do you like Sweden. Now I know that whatever I do, I am net being accepted as an equal.” So, have long have you been in the United States Ridwan?

RZ: Six years.

AD: Six years. Okay, do you have similar sentiments like this guy like as a Kurd living in America?

RZ: I think this is his opinion, I do not think each Kurd feel the same way like he does in Sweden and everywhere. It does not mean that we came to here in America or any other country that we came here we want to live here forever. Everybody has something he wants to another country either, I mean some people wants to go and get better education, some people wants to go get a better job and better life. Some people I mean they run away from the political situation in the country because they have different political view, they belong to certain political party. They run away from the regime’s policy; I mean everybody has different reasons.

AD: But do you think your Kurdish identity is coming out in the society or people do not care where are you from, I mean in general what are your sentiments, do the people keep asking you those questions?

RZ: I think nowadays these are something you have to be worried about them much. I think human is getting like international identities right now. You live here today, your job is here, your work is here, tomorrow you may go some other country, you live there, you work there. I mean you do not have a clear identity; you do not care about identity as much as you care about wherever you feel comfortable, you get your life. Yeah, I think humans getting global identity more than, what they call a small global identity. Yeah that is my opinion.

AD: So, you do not feel like the otherness, like you are other. In here do you feel that do you feel like there is some kind of negativity attached?

RZ: I do not see anything like that here in America actually. I heard people like they are complaining in Europe and other countries but here I have not seen anything.

AD: You do not see that-

RZ: I do not see any difference between me and somebody that lived here and born here grew up here, the difference only, I mean, is personal.

AD: I mean there are some racist people everywhere in this world no matter you go but we are like dwelling on natural attitude of people here.

RZ: I have not experienced anything like that actually. I feel very comfortable here in this country.

AD: Okay.

LC: So, Ridwan do you feel like you, your family and like the other Kurdish people around here have not maintained their like Kurdish traditions and to what extent have they? Now that you are living here.

RZ: In our family actually they say, we do not feel like we are in a problem with our culture or with our identity. I do not see the situation that way. We still practice our cultural issue our cultural matter. There is not to concern about in this regard. And nowadays it is, in this like you have many ways to maintain your culture, your identity; you have internet, you can, I mean talk with your family, yeah on skype we see everything. This new world you will not lose anything if you want, unless if you do not care about it, just go I mean whatever you see, but if you wanna, you have many ways to do whatever you want. Now I could know much about every other culture not only my culture. When you check internet, you find anything you want, and yeah there are many say Kurdish channels, TV channels you could watch them, all day long. I think if you really want, you will not lose anything, you will be just like, not exactly like, but like other people live in Kurdistan.

AD: But then you have children, and they are, they were born here, and they will grow up here and so do you think things will take another turn for them a little bit.

RZ: I am not saying that they will be the same as we are right, no. But if they really want to, they will be good too. I mean their parents must tell them where they came from and how they came here and tell them a little about their culture. I think they will find their way to explore more about their culture and identity.

AD: So what do you observe, I am not talking about you; your kids are very young, when you look at local community members, Kurdish members and some probably they had their kids or the kids came in a very young age may be they are teenagers now, like do you see an influence like, are they like very Kurdish or do you see like American effect on them?

RZ: Not all of them, no, some of them yeah, they are like other people live here, like American, but not all of them, but even those who are go in a wrong direction they still have opportunity they could come back look other people do, their Kurdish friend what they do, what they belong to.

AD: How about, do you have any American friends or your wife? I am not talking about colleague at work, you know everybody has a colleague but do you have an American friend like you hang out with?

RZ: I personally do not have any American friend but my wife does actually, she does have. But I think it is not easy here to find a friend like a really close friend. I mean friends usually come from work or education, school somewhere, when you are done with your work or your school, your friendship gets less and less, I think. But my experience now six years, I do not know but I think American like that much friendship even with each other, they go what their job require, sometime they stay a little bit longer after they are done with their job but I mean in our country it is different. Friendship is different, and it is not associated with job or school. I mean, I still have friend we talk to each other often, I mean we have very close friendship even we have not worked together or we have not been ins school, but we know each other and we still know each other and have a good friendship, but here I do not see that way, here I think friendship come from either you work together or you have been at school together, may be after school a little longer then you forget each other, do not you think.

AD: Yeah, I agree with you, and I do not, it is not even Kurdishness it is I think geographically where we are coming from, there is like our ties is stronger, social ties. But this is a capitalist society and that is the end results.

RZ: I am not saying it is something bad or good but that is how it looks like, maybe here is better than we do. I mean you never know you the future this will be better.

AD: That is different, but like let us say your kids grew up, do you mind if they marry an American or what I mean American, could be anybody and could be Muslim from Pakistan or Turkey or whatever you know because there are issues; there is religious issue.

RZ: I know what you mean.

AD: Do you mind if someone?

RZ: I will try to tell them who we are and how we have to be, then if they decide to choose a different way, you do not have to force them to change that-

AD: But you are not gonna disown them like because they do not marry a Kurdish person from Iraq?

RZ: No, I would not do that I personally would not do that; I will tell them the reality, I mean the reality that we want, that we want to be.

AD: Your wish.

RZ: Yeah, but if they choose a different way, it is their choice I cannot force them.

AD: But in general, when you look at this society it is pretty conservative, right? Like what I-

RZ: Things are changing right now.

AD: It is changing.

RZ: Yeah, it is changing. Very widely change not like, I mean since let us say 19th century, I mean this twenty year it has changes more than a century before. Twenty years I mean from 1991 until now has changed a lot, not only in Kurdistan in I mean all other countries.

AD: Oh Yeah, in Turkey too. Did we cover all of these? Yeah, definitely, definitely. So, we asked all those questions because I have the other interview, but this was like very specific gear to Iraqi society.

LC: And this is not necessary.

AD: No-no.

LC: And I do not know.

AD - Well we kind of talked, things have changed that is what he just said, but you are, what I see like over these interviews, the ones I have been part of it or the ones that I did not participate that Leslie transcribed and I listen but come out is the Kurdishness, you know the Kurdish identity and I think this all goes back to history because especially really Ridwan in Turkey, you know they were not recognized and so many Turks have been assimilated into society and they even forget about their Kurdish identity and what is, did you have to, that is the other thing, did you have to hid your identity while you are living in Iraq, let us say you are in Baghdad for business or where did you go to university?

RZ: Erbil.

AD: So, but did you have to live in Baghdad, I do not remember you told me all that but-

RZ: I have never seen Baghdad not even-

AD: I mean did you live outside the so-called northern Kurdistan?

RZ: I know what do you say, I mean it was easy before, let us say after 1980, it was not easy for Kurds to go or to live or to buy a land or a property in let us say from the Arabs cities, it was not like.

AD: After Saddam took power.

RZ: Yeah After Saddam and after some year passed in his ruling, it was not easy for Kurds to go to live or to, it was easier to visit, but to live in another city that majority were Arab, it was not easy. Not even easy to go for an education.

AD: So that is why… Like for minorities there is actually not just Kurds like being minority in Europe or any other country like hiding minority you pretty much negotiate your identity, so you did not have that kind experience I gather.

RZ: I think if you are the minority, I think you wanna show your identity more when you are the majority. I think that, maybe it is not right.

AD: That you could not do it in Turkey.

RZ: but unless if there are some restrictions that you are afraid, they might make fun of you say I belong to this special group, but if there is no restriction and there is no exclusion, you prefer to show your identity. I mean their certain group Kurdish or Turkish or whatever. That is what I am thinking. I think when you think let us say you are in danger or you are dangerous situation to lose your identity, you try to show your identity more than if you among all of your own peer, your own group members, you do not care what your identity, but if you are a minority within the majority then you try to show your identity.

AD: so that is interesting to me I never heard that before because not, yes in a dangerous situation, that is correct, but also economic and political I have seen or read many examples that people do not bring or did not, not do not I should use past. Did not bring their minority identity forward or even social because they wanted to be accepted socially otherwise you get be exclude from the community or let us say you want to do business, if you bring your minority identity out strongly, then you will not make money, but you will be pushed out.

RZ: I think if you look at, in business let us say economic way it is different, when you want to, yes you could say that this is one of the restrictions because you want to get some sort of benefit that is why you do not want to show your identity. But in normal situation that there is no risk on that you will show your identity, why not?

AD: Of course, no you shouldn’t have to hid your identity Ridwan, that is how I feel, but that is not how it has been, you know unfortunately that has been the case and that is still the case in so many other countries.

RZ: I said unless there is some sort of- I mean restriction of some sort of shame when you I belong to that certain group or the group that you belong to is not accepted by other people then you will try not show your identity. Yeah, this is true.

AD: I mean what I am saying this it is even happening in the United States maybe you can, I mean you are an American like let us say you have some African American heritage, but you appear like me, I am not saying like you because you are really fair complected. So, if you do not bring that out, I witnessed because I lived in deep south for 10 years, you do not come and say, oh you what legally, and those people are legally black, when you go mark your race, and you know what they never talk about it. I mean forget about me, Middle East, Europe, we are talking about the United States because blacks are the minority in the country and that is still continuing you hid to be accepted, because then you say oh she is white, I mean not blonde hair blue eyes, but you are still considered white. I have seen this so. I witnessed, I witnessed.

RZ: It is true, but I am talking about the normal situation. If something in your benefit when you hide your identity then you will hide, if there is, but I am talking about the normal situation. I do not know I personally prefer that to show my identity to others.

AD: That is how should be, but unfortunately. But you did not experience that either? Wherever you lived your life experience, you did not have to deal with that. That is what I am asking, like did you have any experience like that wherever you lived.

RZ: Not here no, not in the United States.

AD: Not in Iraq?

RZ: In Iraq, yeah it was, I mean many people they hid their identity during the Baath regime. Yes, that happened. But I am talking about here actually.

AD: Not here, I was like speaking about homeland.

RZ: Yeah, there were some people they did hid their identity even some people they marked in the official documents themselves as Arabs.

AD: So, they were even lying.

RZ: Yeah, not because they wanted to, but if they wouldn’t have done that they would have treated in some different way. They might have lost some opportunity of a job or an education or something, so they prefer to-

AD: Okay, that is what I was asking about, I was refereeing actually to homeland-

RZ: But this is not something they wanted to, they did that because of the situation, otherwise they would have lost something, but many people refuse that and they lose the opportunities but they did.

AD: But here it is different, in America, you say you do not have to-

RZ: Yes, here is different because I mean everybody is equal in front of the law there is no pressure on you to hide your identity and nobody asks you to do that I mean, and if you did not do that you will lose something or you did not get benefit, no you are free.

AD: Well but there is this negativity toward Islam also in this country, maybe not toward Kurds, probably they even they do not know what Kurds to be frank with you after this 9/11 you know there is this negative sentiment toward Islam all though as a man it wouldn’t really affect you but if you are covering your head then you are exposed completely that you are Muslim.

RZ: Not everywhere, but in some places, it is true. Like in airports let us say if you have scarf on or if they know you are Muslim, may be they will look at you in different way but in other places I do not see anything like that, like when you apply to a job or to a school or something, I mean any other place but in security, I mean talking about security they will sometime-

AD: When you are going through passport control for example.

RZ: Yeah when you go through what they call the metal detector, Yeah, they will probably look at you and, I mean they will keep an eye on you. But in other places, I do not see, and I do not blame them actually that, in the security issues, that is how they keep this country safe and out of any terrorist attack.

AD: Yes, exactly and then even this, what. It was the anniversary yesterday the Boston Marathon, even those guys came from Daghistan, from former Soviet Russia and they are Muslim too. The picture is getting more and more negative; it is like… you know what I mean.

RZ: Unfortunately, that is true, that is how I mean we do not have to blame them; we have to blame ourselves first. That is what some Muslims do, some of them.

AD: Yeah, who are extremist,

RZ: Yeah, but it is a small group, but they do in the name of Islam, so.

AD: Jihad, right?

RZ: Yeah, I mean whatever they call it. It is happening.

AD: I think I covered everything, right? Do we have any questions?

LC: We covered everything.

AD: We covered everything. Is there anything you want to add Ridwan?

RZ: No.

AD: No? That is good. So-

RZ: I did not come for this actually. [laughs]

(End of interview)

Date of Interview

16 April 2014


Leslie Cody and Aynur de Rouen


Ridwan Zebari

Biographical Text

Being part of the Zebari tribe, Ridwan has 8 sisters and 7 brothers. In 1991, he fled to an Iranian refugee camp on foot. He came to the States after marrying a Kurdish refugee who arrived later in 1996. Ridwan earned a Law degree in Kurdistan and received his master's degree in law from Syracuse University. He is an active member of the Kurdish community.


46:11 minutes



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Binghamton University

Interview Format


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Kudistan; Kurdish Culture; Kurdish Diaspora; Religion; Iraqi Shia; Assimilation; European Kurdish


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In 2011, Binghamton University Libraries received the donation of the Vera Beaudin Saeedpour Kurdish Library and Museum Collection. The acquisition opened a dialog with the local Kurdish community in Binghamton, N.Y., which led to the creation of the Kurdish Oral History Project. These interviews provide deeper insight into the… More

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“Interview with Ridwan Zebari,” Digital Collections, accessed May 28, 2024,