People and Culture
The people living in the Kurdistan Region are Kurds as well as Assyrians, Chaldeans, Turkmen, Armenians and Arabs. The Kurds are descendants of the Medes, an ancient Iranic people. They are the largest ethnic group in the world who do not have a state of their own.
The region has a young and growing population, with 36% aged 0-14 years, and only 4% aged over 63. The median age in Kurdistan is just over 20, meaning more than 50% are less than 20.
The Kurdistan Region’s demography has changed considerably in the last few decades mainly because of forced migration by the previous Iraqi government, which is one of the main reasons for the movement from the countryside to towns and cities. By 2001, at least 600,000 people were internally displaced mainly because of the previous Iraqi regime’s policies since the 1970s. This included more than 100,000 people expelled in November 1991 alone from Kirkuk by the Iraqi government. According to a UNDP survey, 66% of people living in Duhok province have been forced to change their residence due to war at any point in their lives, while the figures in Sulaymaniyah and Erbil are 31% and 7%, respectively.
The Kurdistan Region’s official languages for government purposes are Kurdish and Arabic.
The two most widely spoken dialects of Kurdish are Sorani and Kirmanji. Other dialects are spoken by smaller numbers are Hawrami (also known as Gorani) and Zaza. The Sorani Kurdish dialect uses Arabic script while the Kirmanji Kurdish dialect is written in Latin script. Sorani is spoken in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah governorates, while Kirmanji is spoken in Duhok governorate and some parts of Erbil governorate. As the Region’s Kurdish-Language media has developed and the population has moved, today nearly all people in the Kurdistan Region can speak or understand both of the major dialects. The Kurdistan Regional Government’s policy is to promote the two main dialects in the education system and the media.
Arabic is also an official language and is widely spoken or understood. Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, Chaldean Neo-Aramaic and Turkmani are also spoken by their respective communities.
The Kurdistan Regional Government promotes linguistic diversity and rights, and schools have been established that teach mainly in Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, Chaldean Neo-Aramaic, Turkmen and Arabic.
Conversational phrases in Kurdish, Sorani and Kurmanji
A few basic expressions in the Sorani and Kurmanji dialects.
Note: The spellings used here are transliterations from English, to make it easier for non-Kurdish speakers to read the pronunciation.
There are 11 public universities in the Kurdistan Region, and several licensed private universities. The four largest are Salahaddin University in Erbil, the University of Suleimani, the University of Dohuk and Soran University. They offer studies in various subjects leading to specialised diplomas, bachelors and masters degrees and doctorates.
Salahaddin University was established in 1968 in the city of Suleimaniah, and was moved to the city of Erbil in 1981. After the Ba’ath regime withdrew its administration in the aftermath of the Gulf War, in 1992 the Kurdistan Regional Government established the University of Sulaimani and the University of Dohuk.
The University of Koya, Soran University, and Hawler Medical University were established after 2000.
Four new public universities were established in 2010/2011: University of Halabja, University of Raparin in Rania, University of Garmian, and University of Zakho.
The University of Kurdistan - Hawler, launched in 2006, is publicly funded and its only language of instruction and examination is English.
At the private American University of Iraq - Sulaimani, all instruction is in English. It offers an intensive English programme to prepare students for its degree programmes.
Some of the private universities in the Kurdistan Region include Cihan University, SABIS University, Ishik University, Dijlah College, Lebanese French University, Hayat University, the University of Human Development in Slemani, and Nawroz University in Duhok.
The majority of people in the Kurdistan Region are Sunni Muslims, mainly of the Shafi’i school. Some Muslims in the Region follow Sufi orders. There are also a large number of Christians of different churches, such as Syrian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Armenian, and Catholic Chaldean.
A religion that is practiced only in Kurdistan is Yazidism, which has tens of thousands of adherents. The Kaka'i faith is also practised in the Kurdistan Region. The Kurdistan Regional Government protects people’s freedom to practice their religion and promotes inter-faith tolerance. Thousands of Christian families have fled violence and threats in other parts of Iraq and found refuge in the Kurdistan Region.
For further reading about religion in Kurdistan, see the book Kurdistan Land of God, bilingual in English and German, by Francois-Xavier Lovat.
Kurdish Traditional Dress
The Kurdish dress is one of the folklore clothes that have been worn as a sign of pride although the Kurdish-Iraqi market is full of modern fashionable clothes. Specific wide areas sell the Kurdish dress which becomes a need in feasts and national occasions such as Newroz (The feast of spring). This dress is unique for its bright colors decorated with flowers and glittering threads. Though, every area in Kurdistan has its own special prints when it comes to clothing.
Women’s dress is composed of different parts; the headscarf (Hareteen) which is made up of two colored pieces; one for the head and the other hangs on the shoulders. In villages, headscarves are a little different. They are colored ribbons, sewed in glittering threads with a soft touch that is wrapped around the neck. Women’s body dress is made from long “Kaftan” piece and a piece of “Beshmalk” from black velour. On the waist, women wear a thin belt of wool. The final piece is the traditional pants (Al Chroal).
Men, however, have a different kind of dress. They wear colorful turbans with small- flowers decorations, white shirts with long sleeves, jackets, pants (Chroal), and healthy belt made from silk.
The silky belt has a lot of benefits:
1. It tightens the muscles of the back and stomach (abdomen) especially when doing hard labor or mountain climbing.
2. It protects the back and abdomen from cold.
3. It can be used as a stretcher in case of injury during wars or even to move luggage.
4. It holds gear and daggers.
A man can also wear a felt coarse coat over his jacket in cold weather. The Kurdish dress is two kinds; the shawl and “shabak”or Al-Rank and “Al-Jogha.” The headcover (headdress) differs between mountain and city residents. It consists of a strong woolen hat with a square-shaped piece of cloth wrapped around.
Kurdish Traditional Food
Kurdish people own a special historical heritage, as diverse as Kurdistan’s nature. Out of that heritage comes the popular historical cuisine which tells about the history and tradition of Kurdish people. Needless to say, Kurdish cuisine is known for its tasty, delicious food which is called “ The Original Kurdish Food,” for example; Kolendi, Nesc, Brenji Sheer, Zer Fejk and Kishk, Tranikha, Kishke Coli…etc. These foods are prepared in specific areas, so that foods prepared in Erbil province differ from other types cooked in Sulaimaniyah and vice versa. Also, some foods are prepared in special seasons.
Among the most popular prominent cuisine in Kurdistan is “Aldoana” which is usually eaten during winter and spring due to low temperatures. Here are the steps for preparing “Aldoana”: First, soak wheat in water for several days. Next, spread them in the air to dry completely, but they should be crushed in specialized mills. Then they have to be mixed with Dogh (yogurt). After that, butter is separated from the yogurt and put in a big bowl with the addition of the mixture which is mixed thoroughly and left to a boil. After being exposed to the sun, it dries and turns into dough which is in turn formed as small balls under the sun on a clean floor as a final stage. After dough balls dry up completely, they are stored in wooden boxes to avoid getting rotten to be used in winter in which it is soaked in hot water that is boiled until the balls turn into soup. That time, oiled onions are added with some salt and spices. Finally, Aldoana is served as a healthy dish eaten in the morning before heading into the field or at noon as lunch. This kind of food is prevalent in most rural areas of Kurdistan.
National Holidays and Important Dates
Key dates in the Kurdistan Region’s history
- 21st March: Nawroz, Kurdish New Year celebrated on the spring equinox.
- 5th March 1991: Uprising against Saddam Hussein’s regime, which began in the town of Rania.
- 14th March 1903: Birthday of Mustafa Barzani, leader of Kurdistan’s national democratic movement.
- 16th March 1988: Halabja Day, commemoration of chemical weapons bombardment on the city of Halabja.
- 14th April: Commemoration of Anfal genocide campaign against the Kurds
National holidays observed by KRG Council of Ministers
Ministries and government offices are closed. Businesses may also close. Please note that of the national holiday falls at the weekend (Friday or Saturday), then the next working day is taken as the national holiday and government offices are closed.
- 1st January: New Year’s Day
- 6th January: Army Day
- 24th January: Mouloud (Prophet Mohammad’s Birthday) *
- 5th March : Uprising Day (Liberation of Ranya City)
- 11th March: Liberation of Erbil City
- 14th March: Mustafa Barzani’s Birthday
- 21st - 23rd March: Nawroz Kurdish New Year (Spring equinox)
- 9th April: Baghdad Liberation Day (fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime)
- 1st May: Labour Day
- 14th July: Republic Day
- 7th – 9th August: Eid-al-Fitr Feast (End of Ramadan. Estimated; according to lunar calendar) *
- 14th - 17th October: Eid al-Qurban Feast *
- 4th November: Muharram (Islamic New Year) *
- 13th November: Ashura *
- 25th December: Christmas Day
- 31st December: Iraq Day (tentative; new public holiday announced by Iraqi Prime Minister)
Other important dates
These are working days at the KRG Council of Ministers, and businesses are open. Special events take place around the Region to mark these dates.
- 8th February: Ramadan Revolution Day
- 10th February: Kurdish Authors Union Day
- 18th February: Kurdish Students Union Day
- 1st March: Commemoration of Mustafa Barzani’s Death
- 7th March : Liberation of Suleimaniah City
- 8th March: Women's Day
- 13th March: Liberation of Duhok City
- 16th March: Halabja Day
- 20th March: Liberation of Kirkuk City
- 1st April: Assyrian New Year
- 14th April: Commemoration of Anfal genocide against the Kurds
- 16th April: Remembrance of Chemical Attack on Balisan and Sheikh Wasan
- 17th April: FAO Day
- 25th April: Anniversary of First Cabinet of Kurdish Government (1993)
- 13th June: Suleimaniah City Fallen and Martyrs Day
- 8th August: Ceasefire Day (end of Iran-Iraq War)
- 9th July: Start of Ramadan, month of fasting (estimated; according to lunar calendar) *
- 16th August: Establishment of the Kurdistan Democratic Party Day
- 3rd October: Iraqi Independence Day (National Day)
- 11th December: Establishment of Kurdish Women’s Union
* Follows the Muslim calendar, Islamic holiday dates are estimated only.