View of the city of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan (photo: dpa)
Learning German in Erbil

More than Mere Symbolism

The opening of the first German language department in the Kurdish-speaking world is a landmark event in the cultural relations between Germany and Iraqi Kurdistan – and one which demonstrates the esteem in which Germany is held in this country. Albrecht Metzger reports

Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, is booming, hotels springing up everywhere. One of them, the luxury 5-star Rotana, a stone's throw from the airport, played host to some illustrious guests last year when German ministers and their advisors, the Consul General and representatives of the German Academic Exchange Service gathered in its ballroom to hold a special celebration.

The occasion was the official opening of the first German language department in the Kurdish-speaking world – a landmark event in the cultural relations between the two countries and one which demonstrates the esteem in which Germany is held in this country.

The course at the University of Erbil has twenty-seven students; one of them is the petite and hard-working Awezan Khnoshnaw Majmuldin. Already able to express herself astonishingly well in German after only five months of study, Awezan has an unusual and ambitious goal – she is determined to become a teacher of German in Cologne, despite never having been to Germany and knowing the city only from photographs.

Kant, Marx and Schiller in Kurdish

Opening of the DAAD Information Center Erbil and the German section of the Faculty of Languages of the Salahaddin University Erbil (photo: © DAAD)
A new chapter in Kurdish-German relations: opening of the first German language department in the Kurdish-speaking world at the Salahaddin University in Erbil

​​Why Cologne has been chosen as her favourite is something she herself is at a loss to explain, but she is sure of one thing: she loves German literature and philosophy. Already familiar with the works of Nietzsche, Kant, Marx, Goethe and Schiller in Kurdish translations, her great ambition is to read these classics in their original versions. It is an ambition that has been driving Awezan on with her German studies at the university in Erbil since autumn 2011.

The project is being funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in collaboration with the University of Leipzig's Herder Institute, home to Germany's largest department for the study of German as a foreign language. Isabell Mering, the DAAD's German teacher in Erbil, is pleased with the way her first semester has gone. "The standard of our students has improved enormously," she says. "At the beginning, many of them did not even see the point of studying. But I saw how their motivation increased after we finished the first book."

Practical orientation

In contrast to many of the long-established German Departments in the Arab world, such as that at Cairo University in Egypt, for example, the academic programme in Erbil is pioneering and unique in its practical orientation. In Cairo, the German curriculum is still based on the norms of the 60's and 70's.

The result of this is that the graduates, though they may be able to read Middle High German literature by the time they finish, don't stand much of a chance in the labour market. "If everything goes well, they might end up as tour guides, showing people the pyramids," claims Christian Hülshörster, head of the DAAD for the Middle East and North Africa. "If all else fails, they'll become taxi drivers. That just doesn't make a lot of sense."

Therefore, since 2005, the DAAD, in co-operation with several German Universities, has begun to develop new concepts which will allow German language departments outside of Germany to become more career oriented, and more attuned to future economic developments.

"The most important thing is to know for which job market the students need to be educated," says Christan Fandrych, a professor at the Herder Institute, and one of those responsible for developing the curriculum for the German Department in Erbil. He believes that talking to employers is vital in order to identify relevant occupational fields. "The challenge is to provide an intensive German Course while also, and at an early stage, in the second and third year, conveying practical career elements," says Fandrych.

Three occupational fields are viewed as particularly promising: German as a foreign language, translation and intercultural communication. The German Department in Erbil exemplifies this innovative approach. The initial semesters are characterised by intensive language studies; in subsequent semesters, the focus is on methodology, didactics, linguistics and cultural studies, all of which should give the students a good understanding of German culture and the German mentality. Ultimately, German in Erbil is being taught more as a foreign language and less as traditional academic German Studies.

Female students without headscarf

The question is, will the students from the programme speak German well enough to find a job after graduation? Some doubts still remain, as the students in the German Department are statistically not those who have achieve the best school-leaving grades. Iraqi-Kurdish students who excelled in secondary school usually decide to study medicine or engineering; others, if they want to study a language, tend to choose English or French first, then German.

Christina Fandrych, Professor at the Herder-Institut (photo: © DAAD)
In charge for developing the curriculum for the German Department in Erbil: Christan Fandrych, professor at the Herder Institute in Leipzig, Germany

​​One day after the official inauguration of the German Department in the Rotana Hotel, the second ceremony is taking place on the university campus. The celebration is outdoors, with a big tent protecting everybody from the strong sun. All the students are present, about half of them women. Although Kurdistan is a conservative society, none of them are veiled. Some have actually dressed themselves up, are wearing make-up and high-heeled shoes. Each and every one of the students is required to say something in German.

The diligent Awezal quotes Jutta Limbach, the former President of Goethe-Institute: "English is a must, German is a plus." But not all of the students can speak as well as Awezan. German is a difficult language, after all. Isabell Mering estimates that only a third of the students will be able to really use their language skills at the end of their studies. And Awezan's dream of teaching in Cologne is likely to remain just that. Shwan Abdullah is more realistic. He wants to stay in Kurdistan. "I love German culture," he explains. "I love German and think that it's a world language. In the future, I would like to teach and work as a translator."

Discussing the dark side of German history

It may well be, however, that some of the shine will be removed from Shwan Abdullah's idealised image as he progresses through his studies. It is important to teacher Isabell Mering that her students are made aware of the dark side of German history, too – the Holocaust should not be glossed over. It is a topic that is not altogether unproblematic in the region, and Erbil is no exception. Here, as elsewhere in the Middle East, you are likely to encounter taxi drivers who are more than willing to express their admiration for Adolf Hitler.

"But I found out when I worked in Jordan that one can get students to think about such things," Mering says. "Some of them will even change their minds." Colleague Christian Hülshörster from DAAD Head Office explains that a crudely positive image of Germany is not what they want to deliver. "If we want to have mediators, people capable of acting as intermediaries between the two cultures, we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the problematic areas of our history." So what does such a study programme have to offer? It is never going to create a huge number of jobs.

Symbolically, it is important however; it reveals the sense of attachment that Iraqi Kurds feel towards German culture. It makes clear, too, that Muslims have no problem when it comes to appreciating Western literature and art and shows that they are about more than just taking to the streets to rampage and pillage whenever some silly Mohammed film appears in the US. Ultimately, it also sends out a political signal. It shows that the Kurds value their contact with Germany and not only in the field of higher education policy.

Albrecht Metzger

© 2013

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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