By Huda Majeed and Saman Mahmoud
KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) – All are welcome to attend free English language discussions and lessons in Sami Sulaiman’s bookshop – on the strict condition that they steer clear of politics and religion and refrain from speaking their own languages.
The bookshop, Al-Tareeq (‘The Road’ in Arabic), is in the multi-ethnic northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, long riven by nationalist and sectarian tensions that have pitted Arabs against Kurds and Turkmens and Sunni Muslims against Shi’ites.
Sulaiman, a Kurd, said the aim of the three-hour-long English courses on Friday evenings was to promote peace and harmony among the diverse ethnic and religious groups that live in Kirkuk, which is the hub of a major oil-producing region.
“Discussions… about political and religious issues are not allowed. The main aim of the gathering is to bring together as many people as possible from all ethnic groups in Kirkuk but to prevent them from discussing politics,” Sulaiman said.
The condition is vital in a city where even children in alleyways can be overheard talking politics, he added.
Many Iraqi Kurds have long seen Kirkuk as the future capital of an independent Kurdish state, but those hopes were dashed last October when Iraqi government forces took back control of the city following the defeat of Islamic State militants in northern Iraq.
Sunni Muslim Kurds comprise the largest community in Kirkuk, a city of more than one million people, followed by Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim Turkmen, Sunni Arabs and Christian Assyrians, according to data from the Iraqi Planning Ministry.
Sulaiman said the use of English as a politically neutral language was vital to his project, in which he is supported by a number of young volunteers drawn from Kirkuk’s various ethnic and religious communities.
“The English language is accepted by all the people… By doing this we want to send a clear message to the world that the people of Kirkuk love to be together,” said Sulaiman, a graduate of the American University in Beirut.
“Kirkuk does not differ from other places in the world, it chooses life and it loves life.”
(Reporting by Reuters Television; Editing by Gareth Jones)