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Will Iraq’s wounds heal with time?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Over the front desk in my hotel in Irbil, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, are four dusty clocks that display the times in different cities around the world. The country also runs on four time zones, but the spacing among them dwarfs anything a simple set of clocks could convey.
“Kurdistan time” is the most modern. Having ended their bitter civil war a decade ago, the Kurds are enjoying the fruits of peace, newfound freedom and high oil prices. People in Irbil, including Western visitors such as me, linger in markets and cafes without fear. The main roads are smooth, and an increasing number of homes have electricity and clean water. Yes, there are still blast walls and gun-toting soldiers, but mercifully, they are not being put to use.

Visitors to Irbil can hardly believe that this is Iraq. Late in the evening, in a new water park, parents stroll on the walkways while their children laugh and play. And throughout the city, anti-Americanism is rare. A friend asks a pet store keeper the price of a bird because he wants to compare it to the cost in the United States. The storekeeper replies “There is no price. You liberated us; what I have is yours.” After a few days, I hesitate to look too long at bread or fruits or sweets because I know the shop owner is likely to offer some to me as a gift.

Less than an hour’s drive from the center of Kurdistan, the predominately Arabic part of Iraq runs on the clock that held sway here during the mid-1990s. The “Arab Iraq time” zone is punctuated by unpredictable, brutal violence and constantly shifting strategies and alliances by various factions. Colleagues from Baghdad, who are here to attend a psychiatry course I am helping to teach, tell stories of kidnapped doctors, mothers seeing their children killed, and the unending fear that when spouses part in the morning, it will be for the last time.

The third clock of Iraq is “Saddam Hussein time,” which can rear its head anywhere in the country. When Iraqis criticize the government, they still instinctively lean in closely and lower their voices, scanning with their eyes from side to side before speaking. And corruption is rampant, with every government ministry issuing a large number of paychecks to employees who never come in to work, if they exist at all. The most despairing Iraqis say they long for Saddam Hussein’s return, but the fact is that, in many ways, he is still here.

“Medieval time” is the last and most frightening time zone in Iraq. Colleagues from Ramadi, Diyala, Mosul and Basra live in fear of theocratic militias who wish to roll back human rights a thousand years – especially for women – and terrorize anyone who stands for modernity, education and rationality. To return to the medieval time zone is a prospect my well-educated Iraqi friends dread, particularly because they know that many less-privileged Iraqis are sorry they ever left it. Many people at the bottom of the society brood over the lost grandeurs of the Abbasid Caliphate, and believe that only the sermons of conservative imams give full voice to their desperate hope and seething anger.

When the disparate time zones of Iraq intersect, the result can be humorous. A cultural center named after the bisexual poet Rimbaud, of the French Decadent movement, displays paintings of transvestites to puzzled Kurds in the middle of the 8,000-year-old citadel of Irbil. An antiques store contains piles of Saddam Hussein-era suitcase phonographs and 13-channel televisions with rabbit ears a few blocks from a store with the latest Nokia cell phones and iPods.

But the clash of time zones can also be horrifying. A psychiatric resident diagnoses a young woman with schizophrenia and prescribes the latest, best medication and psychotherapy. At the next appointment, she arrives bruised from head to toe and has multiple broken bones. Upon learning the diagnosis, her parents took her to a traditional healer, who strapped her down and savagely beat her to drive out the jinni that causes her illness.

A main topic of conversation here is whether Iraq will ever converge in a single time zone, and if so, which one? Is Arab Iraq truly just a decade behind post-civil-war Kurdistan, or is it a fantasy to believe all that separates Kurdistan from the rest of the country is time?

The Kurds are clearly different in ways that can’t be ascribed simply to the passage of time. Not religiously, although most Americans would not know it because the Western media regularly uses the term Sunni as if it only applied to Arabs, when in fact the Kurds are predominantly Sunni Muslims as well. But other differences are pronounced. Kurds have their own language and identity. Even across clans, they feel a strong sense of kinship, not the least because they were so brutally persecuted by Hussein.

Most of the people I meet who are stuck in “Arab Iraq time” do not see a Kurdish future for themselves. A sad-eyed woman from Baghdad says simply, “Because we have oil, they will never allow us to be happy.” A few are desperate enough to want to move backward to “Saddam Hussein time” or “medieval time,” where there was some predictability in daily life, if little justice.

Others Iraqis are more optimistic, noting that the factional rivalries in Kurdistan were every bit as bloody as those in the rest of Iraq, but the population (with encouragement from the United States) figured out that there was much more to be gained by putting down their guns and sharing Iraq’s riches for mutual benefit.

Who is correct, the optimists or the pessimists? Even after hundreds of conversations with Iraqis over the past few years, I still can’t do better than fall back on a cliche: Only time will tell.

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University who has been a volunteer consultant to the Iraqi mental health care systems since 2004. E-mail comments to insight@sfchronicle.com.

Encyclopaedia of Kurdistan Online “KURDISTANICA”