2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Basima Abdulrahman: An Eye on Iraq’s Future

The Trip: Engineer Basima Abdulrahman wants her city to look ahead.

Just over the horizon from the balcony we were standing on is where ISIS’ advance stalled out in 2014. ISIS, with their pickup trucks and shitty laws and black battle flags, had come less than 30 miles from the capital of Kurdistan. And that, to be honest, was far from the only crisis that had faced the region, before or since.

In that environment, of jihadism and civil war and genocide, it’s so tempting to think short-term. It’s contagious. It makes politicians and lenders and small-business owners think about how to make the most money right now, to distrust the future, to be wary of building anything of long-term value. You can see the results of that mindset in the half-finished towers of abandoned subdivisions, bleached like whale bones, on the outskirts of the city. And yet, look: the Kurds are still here. They will be here, and they will be living in the capital they’ve built for themselves for decades and centuries to come. Might as well go long on your own region and start thinking big thoughts about how to make this the capital they want it to be. That’s where Basima Abdulrahman comes in: a civil and structural engineer with a Masters from Auburn, she has made green city planning and sustainable architecture her cause here in Kurdistan. It’s something you see a lot of in the US, and even more in Europe, but in this part of the world, her push for building a longer-lasting, more well-planned capital is a sign of perhaps unreasonable optimism, and I am a huge fan of that kind of thinking.

This is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Basim. Subscribers can listen to the full episode here. If you’re not on Luminary yet, subscribe and listen (and get a 1-month free trial) by signing up here.

Thornburgh: You wanted to drink tea, but why?

Abdulrahman: Because this is our drink. That’s what we have in the morning after lunch, after dinner. Going out with friends we used to get tea. Iraqi tea.

Thornburgh: Iraqi tea. And the tea houses, the places that are lining the streets with wood burning stores, it’s almost ritualistic?

Abdulrahman: Yes.

Thornburgh: One of the things that has amazed me and I find just very charming, probably a better lifestyle, there’s a lot of sitting next to somebody at the park and just talking. I say that like it’s a revelation, but that just doesn’t really happen in a city this size, anyway, in the States.

Abdulrahman: The culture here also plays a big role when it comes to sitting next to random people and start talking. People are curious about each other. They’re usually nice. They like to be nice to others and they don’t to sit alone and just look into the distance and reflect. What we do as millennials, we try to stay isolated from others. But I think in general, people are kind and they’re very social, and that’s what makes them like talking to random people sitting next to them.

Thornburgh: Yeah. This is what I’ve also heard, why Kurdish people in the United States have a bit of culture shock, too, of just losing that ability to make connections, losing the interest in just chatting and hanging out in the plaza. It’s not a big feature of American life.

All right. Start with your company, and what it does, and how you got there?

Abdulrahman: My name is Basima Abdulrahman. I’m a Baghdad-born Kurd. I lived in Baghdad until 2006. We moved to Kurdistan afterwards because of the civil war and conflict that was happening there. I have an engineering background. I have a Bachelors in Civil Engineering and Masters in Structural Engineering. I worked with the government for some time. I didn’t like it. That’s why I applied for the Masters. I had no plan. I just wanted something different. When I was doing my Masters, I was working a lot in doing buildings, structural design and I didn’t like it. When I came back to Iraq around January 2015, it was the peak time that ISIS came in, and all the military operations are happening and all the disruption happening across the country. It was a bit different.

There were not many companies working, not much development happening, even here in Kurdistan. So I just joined the United Nations for some time. I worked there. The type of interventions they do is nice, still I didn’t like it. But as an environmentalist, I love the environment. I care so much about nature, about other creatures, and I feel responsible. I was introduced to the concept of green building, and at some point I was interested to learn more about it. So I went on my own twice to the States to study it more. I got accredited in this area.

Thornburgh: This was at Auburn?

Abdulrahman: I did my Masters in Structural Engineering in Auburn and I spent a little bit over than two years there. And that’s when I came back and joined the United Nations here.

The main reason I came back from the US after doing my Masters there is that I wanted to help build the country back up

But then, while I was with the United Nations, I was taking some time off to go back to the States to study a more about green building. I went to conferences. I took some training, and then I took two exams, one in 2016, one in 2017, to become LEED certified. And when I came back, in July 2017, I thought to myself, There are no green building companies here. There is no way I’m leaving the country. That’s the main reason I came back from the US after doing my Masters there—I wanted to help build the country back up, because of all the destruction caused by terrorist groups. I thought, Why not start it myself? I have the background, I have the expertise, I have the passion for it. And that’s how we started Kesk. It means green in Kurdish.

Thornburgh: It means green. When you say the country in which you’d want to rebuild and the fact that there’s no LEED certification, that’s all about Kurdistan, or is there no kind of green building movement in all of Iraq?

Abdulrahman: There are no green building movements or specialized companies or any projects of this type happening anywhere in Iraq. So we are technically the first.

Thornburgh: So you just have to do it yourself?

Abdulrahman: Yes. We are going to pave the road, but hopefully we will not be by ourselves.

Thornburgh: You won’t be alone on this long journey. Well, let me start with that one part about coming back from the United States because, I think that it’s a big theme here. It’s a big problem. Is that all the good ones leave, right?

Abdulrahman: Yes.

Thornburgh: What makes you different? Or are there a number of people who’ve made the kind of commitment that you’ve made?

Abdulrahman: I know a number of other scholars who went to the States and came back. The majority usually stays, because people want to have a good life, and they like living in the States, and it helps them advance personally and professionally. In my case it was something more like a personal decision. And it happened on the night when ISIS took over some of the big cities in Iraq. I remember that night I was following up with my family, and they were worried ISIS was very close, 10 kilometers away from Erbil city. I got really worried, and I felt sad and ashamed because I did not want to be associated with all this mess. Then I had this—I don’t know what to call it—moment of clarity, I guess. When you hit rock bottom and then the only way is to go up again. And that’s when I felt, You know what, maybe I can help somehow. I didn’t know what I was going to do, then I thought, I should go back. I should do something good. I was thinking more towards things related to how can we promote this region—as this very old historical region that is rich with all the knowledge, all the history, all the good things. And so the rest of the world will not only think of us based on the last three decades of this region’s life. That’s why I wanted to promote.

Thornburgh: So you were in the States when ISIS took over?

Abdulrahman: Yes.

Thornburgh: And that’s when you were talking to your family that lives here in Erbil. Kurdistan was a refuge for you and your family already once. That can be a powerful thing to realize—that you’re not always safe everywhere else. And here’s a place where Kurds can actually live.

Peace will be here one day and then we’ll have to reckon with what we’ve built and the lives that we’re leading in it.

Abdulrahman: Yes.

Thornburgh: So in the motto of environmentalists is, Don’t destroy you’re bit of land?

Abdulrahman: Exactly.

Thornburgh: One of the reasons why I was excited to talk to you is because, I think the number of the people that I’m talking to here are connected directly to the conflicts in one way or the other. And that’s important, and it’s obviously a huge part of what’s been happening here. It’s a huge part of everybody’s lives, but the ability to pick your head up and look around and think of the bigger picture, even in an era of crisis, I think is also really fascinating. And it takes a special mentality, I think.

Abdulrahman: Yes.

Thornburgh: When everybody here is concerned about building for security and making sure that their buildings won’t be bombed and so on, that for you to say, Well, wait a second, peace will be here one day and then we’ll have to reckon with what we’ve built and the lives that we’re leading in it. I think it’s a fascinating ability to look deeper into the future. Is it hard to make that argument?

Abdulrahman: It’s about the perception of the public. It’s not easy. It takes time, but it has to happen. Because, like you said, peace is coming, peace is going to be the norm one day. I feel we are on the brink of this new era. And hopefully the next years are just going to be about rebuilding and developing and advancing in all different sectors. When we think in a more futuristic way, when we think long-term, we are embracing this belief that we are going to be living in peace, right?

Thornburgh: You manifest it…

Abdulrahman: Exactly.

Thornburgh: …and make it happen.

Abdulrahman: This is the kind of way of thinking we want to promote. Not just think of how things are going to be in the next five to 10 years. We need to think further, and any investment has to be done. Whether by public or private sector, it should be around this futuristic, forward-thinking kind of investment, and to make sure that current and future generations are going to benefit from every single penny we are putting into developing this region.

We are having discussions with as many stakeholders as possible involved in the rebuilding process and the development process. It just that we have reached the conclusion that we need to work top down. And that means that we need to work with the government. We have to have the government beside us to support whatever activities and services we provide. The reason why, because developers are more a profit-oriented thinkers.

And when I was talking to one of them just few days ago. I was talking to this about a developer that a builds huge complexes, thousands of units at the time. And I was talking about how good sustainable buildings are and how we can help them provide these units to people, affordable, sustainable housing that will help reduce energy and water consumption. And he said, But we don’t want people to use less energy and water. We make money from people using energy because we provide electricity and the water privately now and we want them to use more. That makes them use more money for us.

Thornburgh: That’s a remarkable statement. Another thing that certainly would stand out in the States—being a female entrepreneur who has started her own company in engineering to go and bang the drums and convince all of the men in power to make these changes. What is that like for you and how does that affect what you have to do or how you have to do it?

Abdulrahman: Being a female entrepreneur?

Thornburgh: Yeah.

Abdulrahman: It’s giving me somehow more power. You’d be surprised. But people wouldn’t listen. They wouldn’t because maybe from the first side they would think, Oh, that’s a female, going to tell us how we should do things. But then, when you’re talking from knowledge, from expertise, this mask will just disappear—and they will just see someone who knows what they are talking about and listen. Surprisingly, I haven’t felt ever that I am judged or not heard because of being female. I think maybe that is giving me more power and setting a good example for other females to just step forward when they believe in and want to do something, they believe in something and they just step up.

Listen to the full episode here, or subscribe and listen (and get a 1-month free trial) by signing up here.

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