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Kiss sparks debate in Iraqi Kurdistan

On the charred remains of a modern symbol of love in the Iraqi Kurdistan city of Sulaimaniyah, a young couple sparked a public debate about the religious versus secular nature of Iraqi Kurdish society.
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SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq — A photo of a couple kissing in the city of Sulaimaniyah in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, while standing on the charred remnants of the Statue of Love, won wide local acclaim. The photo was a protest against the vandalism targeting the statue — which had been destroyed — and the grave of poet Shirko Bekas, both in Azadi Park. The latter is one of Sulaimaniyah’s largest parks, and its name means “freedom” in Kurdish. The details of the vandalism and its perpetrators have yet to be revealed. Fingers are pointed, however, at Islamist extremists.

On Oct. 12, 2013, unidentified individuals set the statue on fire, destroying it. In addition, dozens of trees surrounding the statue were scorched. Days later, this was followed by an attack on the grave of the well-known Kurdish poet Shirko Bekas.

The famous photo showed a Kurdish man named Karaman Najm kissing his Dutch girlfriend, Jantine Van Herwijnen. Najm told Al-Monitor, “We were passing by the ruins and ashes, and spontaneously thought about protesting against the vandalism. We decided to imitate the statute and convey a message of love. A photographer who happened to be there took our photo. Then, we posted it on Facebook so that it could be disseminated on social media and in the news.”

Regarding the consequences of a potential lawsuit against them on charges of violating public norms, Najm said, “I do not regret it at all. This is my way of protesting, which apparently was wrongly interpreted.”

Opinions on the photo were divided between support and strong condemnation of this violation of social norms. Supporters saw the photo as challenging extremism and a triumph for liberation and secularism.

What is interesting is that his girlfriend, who appeared in the photo, is Dutch and has been living in Sulaimaniyah for about three years. “I would have done it, even if my girlfriend was Kurdish. I would choose the girl who thinks the same way as me, even if she was Kurdish,” Najm said.

When asked what he would do if a lawsuit is filed against him, he said, “I have the right to defend my own way of protesting against some behaviors that have nothing to do with humanity.”

A number of intellectuals and journalists staged a protest, expressing their resentment at the vandalism targeting cultural landmarks in Sulaimaniyah. They saw these attacks as targeting the Kurdish liberal spirit and undermining the freedom of creativity and thought.

For his part, Sarkout Mohammed, spokesman for the Sulaimaniyah police, stressed that they have not yet arrested any suspects for burning down the Statue of Love and vandalizing the grave of the Kurdish poet, and the investigation is still ongoing.

Author Khaled Suleiman told Al-Monitor that accusations were not randomly directed at Islamists; rather, they placed themselves at the center of the event. In the beginning, the demonstration was not directed against any specific party. However, when Najm kissed his girlfriend on the charred remains of the statue, Islamists suggested removing all statues from the garden and replacing them with statues of martyrs. This sparked a debate between them and the intellectuals.

“The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Kurdistan Islamic Union urged one of its members to file a lawsuit against Najm and his girlfriend. They believe that this protesting kiss is in direct contradiction with public decency,” Suleiman said.

He added, “The shrine of Shirko Bekas was vandalized because Islamists harbor a great hatred against the poet, as they had threatened to kill him during the 1990s.”

Perhaps Islamists have been accused of these acts of vandalism in light of what happened previously, when they attacked nightclubs, shops selling liquor and massage centers in the Kurdistan Region on the grounds that these locales have a negative impact on ethics and contradict Islam.

The sister of the late poet called on the security apparatus to protect cultural monuments from this “fierce” attack at the hands of “hatemongers.”

Bekas died of cancer at the age of 73 in a hospital in Sweden. He is seen as one of the leading innovators in contemporary Kurdish poetry.

The vandalized statue was seen as a very daring monument, for it represented two lovers who are about to share a kiss. It has been standing there for more than a year.

According to social and religious norms in Iraq, public affection between couples is offensive and indecent. Lovers avoid showing affection in public, and religious characteristics are prominent in this small city, the second-largest in the Kurdistan Region, where most women wear the hijab. The city’s population is about 1 million.

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