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 The French are winning Kurdistan's 'hearts and minds' 

 Opinion — Analysis    
  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


The French are winning Kurdistan's 'hearts and minds'  14.6.2011
Inside the Other Iraq: Exclusive Columns by Mariwan Salihi -

June 14, 2011

In recent years, a good number of foreign consulates and embassy offices have opened up in Kurdistan Region, mainly because of the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) good diplomacy, and the excellent economic opportunities that exist in this stable part of the Federal Republic of Iraq (and I use this term for the first time).

Erbil, the regional capital, hosts the consulate general of the United Kingdom (UK), France, Germany, the Russian Federation, Turkey, Egypt and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Countries, including Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have also plans to open their consulates in the city. Furthermore, Qatar, Lebanon and Kuwait have also showed their interest in the past, so do Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and a couple of other friendly nations. The Republic of Korea maintains an embassy office, while Austria, the Czech Republic, Greece, and Italy hold economic or trade offices. 

Mariwan Salihi
Japan, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden have appointed honorary consuls in Kurdistan Region. The United States is represented by its Regional Reconstruction Team (RRT), but thanks to the passing of a Congressional Resolution last year a US consulate is scheduled to open in Kurdistan in the near future.

Of all these foreign representations, unfortunately, none is as active as the French consulate, and its detached French Cultural Center. Since their establishment in Erbil, both have widely opened their doors for the average local citizen, and residents from all around Iraq that have made Erbil their new home. The consul, Frederic Tissot, and the director of the French Cultural Center, Amelie Banzet, have already won the 'hearts and minds' of many Kurdish citizens. Believe it or not, but at times I think they are easier approachable than an average Kurdish official!

While most foreign representations are here for obvious economic reasons (or perhaps for their own political interests), the French are increasingly more involved in cultural and educational fields. They act as a floating bridge between Kurdistan Region and France, and besides their spread of the French language and culture, they also manage to help preserve the Kurdish language and culture, and much more.

"The French Cultural Center (Institut Français) has four classrooms, a library and a hall and offers a continuous stream of events and workshops. Cultural enlightenment is one of the center's primary goals," said a recent report from a Kurdish newspaper.

To add to this, the center offers educational and cultural programs, including lectures, workshops, classes, art exhibitions, dance performances, music recitals and cultural exchanges. So far, I have successfully participated in some of their programs and workshops,
www.ekurd.netincluding a recent workshop with two well-known French photographers (Vincent Ohl and Quentin Caffier). It was a huge success, and all the other young, local participants benefitted as mush as I did. The workshop was concluded with an exhibition at the Minara Park in Erbil (which I, sadly, couldn't attend for personal reasons).

The Institut Français also hosts the French Language Learning Program, which provides students the opportunity to learn French. Nearly 100 students are currently enrolled. Furthermore, as one of only a few places in Kurdistan Region, the French consulate also provides citizens with the Schengen visa. That said, it's not that easy for the average Iraqi passport holder to obtain that service, but most applications have so far been processed successfully.

The main purpose of this lengthy column is to shed some light on a very important issue: foreign consulates have to do more in Kurdistan Region! In fact, most of them should learn a good lesson from the French. To them, I say: please, open your doors to the Kurdish people and show interest in the local culture (by providing the same programs as the French), because the people of Kurdistan are also interested in your country, language and culture. To have a long-term relationship with the Region and its people, you should build the same 'bridge' between your countries and here and not just build ties based solely on economical gains.

I can't wait one day to learn from a Russian photographer, a British journalist, or improve my Turkish or Farsi.

Merci France, for giving me and tens of others, the chance to enlighten ourselves more. I will certainly knock on your doors more often!

Mariwan F. Salihi, is a Netherlands national, a freelance journalist covering Iraqi and other Middle Eastern issues, and regular contributing writer. You may reach the author via email at: [email protected]  

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  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


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