Arbella Bet-Shlimon, City of Black Gold: Oil, Ethnicity, and the Making of Modern Kirkuk (Stanford University Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Arbella Bet-Shlimon (ABS): In the first year of my PhD, I decided to write a seminar paper on Kirkuk, a disputed city on a linguistic borderland that was once the hub of Iraq’s oil industry. Kirkuk had been on my mind because of the stereotype that it was one of the Middle East’s biggest flash points. I also had a personal connection to it—my mother was born there and both of my grandfathers, like many Assyrians at the time, worked at one point for the Iraq Petroleum Company, the foreign-owned producer of Iraq’s oil that was headquartered in Kirkuk for many years. In the seminar I was taking, which was taught by Mary Lewis, we aimed at examining (and writing our own) histories with innovative spatial framings—histories of multiple regions, borderlands, oceans, provincial towns, and so on. We were reading works by historians like Peter Sahlins, Prasenjit Duara, and Sugata Bose. Kirkuk seemed like a fitting paper topic.

Once I started to look into the subject, I was shocked to discover that although many, many people were deeply interested in Kirkuk’s history—particularly about how the dispute over the city’s control is largely about staking claims to its past—nobody had ever written a history of Kirkuk based on substantive primary research. Very few books had considered the political and social history of oil in Iraq at all. We so often talk about how conflicts in Iraq, or imperial interests in Iraq, are “about oil,” but what does that really mean? After a day in the library, the book topic felt like it had fallen into my lap.

I did find fascinating and detailed works of original research on Kirkuk’s past in that initial search, but they were limited in scope in such a way that they would mainly be of interest to locals. They included a collection of images and maps of historic architecture and artefacts (The Urban Fabric and Traditional Houses of Kirkuk by Suphi Saatçi) and numerous books by Ata Terzibaşı documenting the Kirkuki dialect of Turkish. Similar works have come out since, such as an ethnographic encyclopedia of Kirkuk’s mosques (Tarikh Jawami’ wa Masajid Karkuk by ‘Ismat Rafiq Sari Kahya, published in 2015). There are a number of books by Kurdish authors chronicling the Arab-nationalist ethnic cleansing of Kirkuk under the Ba’th regime. Anglophone historians have also written some more about the Iraq Petroleum Company. But no book other than mine has used primary historical research to trace and analyze the origins of Kirkuk’s present disputes or the role of oil in that process.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

ABS: This book speaks to both historical and non-historical literatures. Outside of academic history, I ask those with an interest in Iraqi affairs to reexamine some of the premises that are common in recent writing on Iraq. I find that a lot of writing on Iraq is stuck responding to the false notion that Iraq is inherently divided into sects or that Iraqi ethnic or sectarian rivalries are primordial. Indeed, this is true of scholarship on the Middle East and other historically colonized parts of the world in general.

I say “stuck” because, in academic contexts, it may feel pointless to refute these vapid ideas, but they remain so common in policymaking circles and popular discourse that we have to keep engaging them. As a result, it is not uncommon for scholars in Iraqi studies to conduct excellent, innovative research and yet find themselves spinning wheels in the same argumentative rut: “You might think Kurds, Turkmens, and Arabs, or Sunnis and Shias, have always fought each other, but that’s not true!” This argument also overlooks—sometimes intentionally—the experiences of marginalized and disempowered minority groups, such as the Assyrians in Iraq. The goal of my book, therefore, is not only to argue that ethnic rivalries in Kirkuk are social constructions, which should be obvious, but also to try to understand the origins, components, and mechanisms of ethnicized politics.

As far as academic literatures are concerned, I primarily see my work as contributing to the social and political histories of oil-fueled transformation by scholars including Alison Frank, Nelida Fuccaro, Toby Jones, and more recently Farah Al-Nakib. My first mentor for this project was the late Roger Owen, who steered me toward economic dynamics, spatiality, and materiality early in the research process.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

ABS: I came to this project having already done some historical research on Iraq and the imperialist politics of oil extraction, production, and trade for my MA thesis. So, I first approached Kirkuk’s history with the assumption that I would be using oil and urban development to look past the framework of ethnic politics that is usually employed to understand conflict there, a framework I saw as cliché. As I researched the project, though, I came to realize that there was no way to write about the history of oil in Kirkuk without writing about the history of ethnicity in Kirkuk.

J: Who do you hope will read the book and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

ABS: First, I hope that people from Kirkuk will read it. I realize this means that I will have to get it translated into languages other than English, which is something I aim for eventually. I have already had a few older Kirkukis, who live in the diaspora and are fluent in English, read it, and I have been fascinated to hear their views about what rings true and what does not. As far as impact goes, it is my wish that Kirkukis will start sharing those kinds of thoughts about their history with each other and not just with me.

In an academic context, I know the book will be read by those who study Iraq, and I hope the book will also be read by scholars with interests in urban history, the petroleum industry, and intercommunal conflict. Ideally, it will have something new to say for those audiences. For instance, policy specialists who have put a lot of thought into conflict resolution in some part of the Middle East might have some of their pre-existing assumptions challenged and reshaped by reading this book. Urban historians might find it helpful to compare Kirkuk to other cities on linguistic, national, and cultural borderlands, or other cities transformed by a single resource or industry.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

ABS: I am working on a couple of article-length projects that address questions I was unable to spend much time on in the book—one on the troubled notion of Kirkuk as an exemplar of Iraqi pluralism, and one on the political anxieties surrounding Iraqi oil. I have also started gathering sources for a project on Iraqis’ ideas of their country’s position in the Gulf, especially with relation to Kuwait.


Excerpt from the book

From the preface

Scholars who have focused on Kirkuk since 2003 have mainly studied the city from the perspective of conflict resolution and have operated almost exclusively within an ethnopolitical paradigm. Political scientists and journalists writing about Kirkuk have typically held that the crisis is best understood as a clash of three main narratives, each primarily associated with an ethnic self-identity. The Kurdish narrative asserts that Kirkuk is rightfully a part of Kurdistan, and its proponents often try to make the case that the city has always been Kurdish. The Turkmen narrative holds that Kirkuk is a historically Turkmen city that has undergone demographic changes but has retained its Turkmen character. The Arab narrative does not try to claim that Kirkuk has ever been an Arab-majority city but instead insists that the city is a multiethnic “Iraqi” city first and foremost and hence that it must retain its pluralistic identity.

Why do these groups fight over Kirkuk? Most commentators, whether implicitly or explicitly, offer a simple answer: oil. After all, the city rests atop a supergiant oil field. For much of the twentieth century, before the development of larger fields in southern Iraq, Kirkuk was the heart of the country’s oil industry. Kirkuk’s oil fueled its growth. It also made both the city and its hinterland a strategically crucial region for Baghdad, which went to great lengths—sometimes quietly, sometimes brutally—to integrate the largely non-Arab area into mostly Arab Iraq. One would be hard-pressed to find a discussion of Kirkuk’s political crisis since 2003 that does not contain the modifier “oil-rich” to describe the city.

Yet the idea of oil as a cause of Kirkuk’s ethnic conflict is seldom explored in any great detail. What does it mean, specifically, for a dispute to be about oil?

It is not only “about oil” in the simplistic sense that Kirkukis have no stakes in other forms of control and legitimacy. Indeed, claims to Kirkuk’s history and culture are a powerful factor in the dispute over its status even in parts of Iraq far from the city itself. For example, in 2011, while driving through a rural part of Arbil Governorate about 130 kilometers north of Kirkuk, I saw the words “Kirkuk is the heart of Kurdistan” spray-painted in Arabic and Kurdish on a cliff near a Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) military checkpoint. And when the Kurdish nationalist leader Jalal Talabani invoked the idea that Kirkuk is the “Kurdish Jerusalem” in 2011 during his term as Iraq’s president, many residents of Baghdad were so deeply affronted by this notion that they took to the streets in protest.

The city of Kirkuk is also an omnipresent theme in Iraqi Turkmen discourses, both popular and literary. Turkmen writers, representing a much smaller group than the Kurds, have referred to Kirkuk as the “ancestral capital” of their people. A viewer of the Turkish-language Iraqi satellite television channel Türkmeneli TV will notice that it features bilingual Arabic and Turkish advertisements for businesses that are almost exclusively located in Kirkuk, an indication that the city is the dominant social and economic center of the Iraqi Turkmen community.

To someone familiar with the ethnic and sectarian violence of Iraq’s recent history, all these contemporary problems may seem obvious and expected. But the assumptions about Kirkuk’s ethnic politics just outlined, while not always inaccurate, are ahistorical and thus superficial. Emotive comparisons to Jerusalem and the disturbing sight of suspected criminals burdened with ethnicity-identifying placards would have been baffling to a Kirkuki observer around the turn of the twentieth century. At that time, Kirkuk was a site of relative stability in northern Mesopotamia, a key stop on travel routes between Baghdad and Syria’s major cities, and the location of an Ottoman garrison.

In a memoir of a visit to Kirkuk in 1909, a British military officer named E. B. Soane celebrated the presence of a diverse array of people—“Jew, Arab, Syrian, Armenian, Chaldean, Turk, Turkoman, and Kurd”—in the city. He described Kirkuk’s urban public spaces as “indifferently” multilingual and asserted that this state of affairs afforded the city “considerable freedom from fanaticism.” Similarly, in a 2001 interview, the late Kirkuki poet Sargon Boulus recalled that the city in his youth had been a “crucible” of parlances whose multilingualism nurtured his development as a writer. It is clear that communal social-linguistic identities—what scholars today usually call ethnicities—have long existed in Kirkuk. They were not, however, constant in definition, nor were they sites of political mobilization or the cleavage lines in a territorial status dispute until relatively recently.

How, then, did ethnic identities in Kirkuk develop into the institutionalized Kurdish-Arab-Turkmen schema with which Iraqis are so familiar today? How did these ethnicities become politically salient?

And what role did oil really play in that process? In his documentary, Karzan Sherabayani, like many Kirkukis, condemns Kirkuk’s oil for the trouble it has brought to the city. He calls oil a “black curse,” tacitly referring to a common nickname for Kirkuk in its native languages, City of Black Gold. “In a way, I wish we never had it,” he says to the camera. “The only thing this brought to us is disaster.” Yet the film also makes clear that oil is inextricably bound up in the city’s identity. In another scene the manager of a fueling station gives his friend free gasoline ahead of a long line of cars waiting to purchase it. With a laugh, he explains, “In Europe, people give flowers to their friends as gifts. Here, we give petrol.” Oil is central to Kirkukis’ popular imagination and everyday interactions, including their interactions with ethnicity. This phenomenon is what this book aims to understand.