2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Cengiz Yar: Why Iraq matters

The Trip podcast: Cocktails in Iraq with journalist Cengiz Yar.

Let me interrupt this Iraq happy hour with a quick but important rule of doing journalism overseas, something the legendary correspondent-wrangler Howard Chua-Eoan taught me early in my career at TIME Magazine. Know who you’re going in with. A well-connected contact, or a wary and smart fellow journalist, or an expensive-but-worth-it fixer: these are the people who will make your reporting better, more truthful, and safer.

For me, for Iraq, Cengiz Yar is the person I’m going in with. I’ve worked with him for years—he was most recently the managing editor at Roads & Kingdoms—but he’s also put in a lot of time in this country, from Kirkuk to Mosul to Baghdad but especially here in Erbil, in Kurdistan in the north. So when we started talking about bringing The Trip to Iraq, there wasn’t any question: I would go when Cengiz was there, and I wanted him on the show. He is, to me, the platonic ideal of what a photojournalist should be: compassionate, intelligent, has a great eye but isn’t in love with the aesthetics of the work. He’s brave without being stupid, and he makes a very very good drinking partner. 

Over the next four weeks this show will be in Iraq. Why here? It’s not known for its, um, drinking culture, especially and totally not during Ramadan, which is when I visited. But I had lots of reasons for coming here. One, I actually like tea, and the Kurds are tea fiends. Two, I knew I would find some very intense, very funny, very smart people to talk to here. Three, I like boiled sheep, and you just can’t find that anywhere. And four, I think every American should come to Iraq. It’s like when your dog pees on the floor and you have to actually show the spot to the dog when you’re scolding it. Otherwise they just forget or don’t even understand what they fucked up. We Americans have been peeing all over the world for most of my adult life, and somehow our government wants to add to it in Iran, just a little over a hundred miles from where I recorded these episodes. Forget Spring Break Daytona, or backpacking through Europe: the real travel experience for Americans should be to go see those places we lit on fire. It should be like a mandatory Aaliyah for would-be NeoCons: come visit, stay in a marginal hotel like my $30-a-night Hotel Fareeq, drink and talk with locals, and really start to understand how little you actually know the place, and yet how much you like it. It would take all the fun out of nation-building and foreign policy floor-peeing. Just saying. 

This is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Cengiz. You can listen to the full episode, for free, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Nathan Thornburgh: I’ve got some Old Fashioneds. You said you make the best Old Fashioneds.

Cengiz Yar: Yup.

Thornburgh: This is really good Old Fashioned I have to say. Is that an Erbil-wide or Kurdistan-wide or a Middle East conflict journalist-wide. Who are you beating in this best Old Fashioned?

Yar: Well, I would say definitely make the best Old Fashioned in Kurdistan that I’ve ever had and among my friend group. I don’t know another journalist that has hung out in my circles that mixed cocktails for their friends after a day of war reporting. This Old Fashioned is what I learned to make in Chicago, busting my ass behind a bar, and routinely got told this was the best Old Fashioned that people had. So based on John, Jim, and Suzie’s recommendation of a bar in Chicago, this is the best Old Fashioned. Which I’ve taken with me.

Thornburgh: Little did the foreign correspondent press corps know, the Iraqi fixers and local journalists. They didn’t know what was coming. When you came from Chicago to come and cover the conflict in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere that you were bringing a really strong Old Fashioned game.

Yar: I brought a really strong Old Fashion game but also a really strong margarita game, which was a hit.

Thornburgh: Oh yeah?

Yar: The margaritas really, really set the tone for what cocktails could be. I had requests on a pretty frequent basis for cocktail nights. Which were mainly just margarita nights and often cooked burgers as well.

Thornburgh:  Okay, Jesus. You were bringing the whole, the full buffet. The full chimney buffet to Iraq.

Yar: I like to host. I love to host, so having people over, cooking and socializing, is a lot of fun.

Don’t be a fucking asshole. That’s the core for traveling internationally. That’s the core for reporting internationally.

Thornburgh: It’s funny, because these are delightful skills and we’re joking around about them. But I think having dived into your world over the past few days here in Kurdistan—a world of journalists and journalism. It’s a different generation  than mine, slightly. But I know some of the people here, some of the names we’re talking about. We bitch a lot about journalists and people who are rude, just untoward, and set a bad reputation from themselves. It still happens. It’s shocking to me because it is such a small community. I feel like we’re on the verge of some really great advice for the kids out there.

Yar: Be good. Be the guy that makes a drink for somebody. Just take care of your people.

Thornburgh: Yeah.

Yar: Don’t be a fucking asshole. That’s the core for traveling internationally. That’s the core for reporting internationally. That’s the core for walking down your fucking street.

Thornburgh: That’s right. These are not specific journalism skills.

Yar: You just have to be a good person and you’ll make it.

Thornburgh: I don’t know how many foreign journalists have come through in your years in Kurdistan. Would have been 30, 40?

Yar: Way more than that. Especially through the battle from Mosul. You had TV crews coming through. Every reporter who wanted to do international work already came through. It was actually a lot. There were lots of people that came through here, but the circle is still really small. Talking like a couple hundred people. Under a hundred that stayed for a long duration, and then under 50 who are here for most of it. Most of the fighting. And then, way, way fewer that have stayed for a year or more. And then a really small amount that have made this their home.

Thornburgh: This hotel room just reminds me of that expression. Don’t shit the bed. You are in a very small group, relatively. Whether it’s a few thousand or a couple hundred even of people who will talk about you. Will know how you treat people and how you treat yourself. It’s the kind of bad behavior that we’ve seen time and again, and is very strange. It’s one of the things that always attracted me to you as a person and the work that you did—it wasn’t just the photography but it was the sense of, I really love Cengiz.

You’re a shooter right? You are trying to frame pictures well and tell a deeper story through still images basically. That’s your job, and yet the things that you do really well that make you an exceptional person in this business have to do with making this drink. The way that you do it and the intent behind. It’s just so competitive and people are always stretching and under stress to get assignments. Fighting and struggling in this business. But just being a really good person actually works, it actually really works. I think it’s worked for you.

There isn’t a single person who’s going to have your back if you’re doing this on your own.

Yar: Well, I’m totally not sure about that. I could probably guess that there are people that talk shit about me on a regular basis. But I think I’ve tried my best to take care of a lot of people. Just be good. I don’t think you need to put that much effort into life just to look out for others. That’s been my mantra here, more or less, just to try to establish a sense of a community and a home for the people that work here. For the journalists, fixers, and anybody else we interacted with. Because, especially in the freelance community, there’s no one looking out for you. There isn’t a single person who’s going to have your back if you’re doing this on your own. We needed that. We needed some sort of stability, and I hope that I was able to provide that for a few people in the very least. If that was running to a hospital to check on some kid I’ve never heard of, I did that. If it was running to a hospital to check on my friend, I did that.

Thornburgh: The question that I put to you is incredibly broad and biographical but, how did you get here? How did you end up in Iraq as a photographer?

Yar: I was doing a big project on Syrian refugees in 2014. My idea was to create a portraiture of Syrian refugees that gave a more personal and sensitive look at kids. What is a Syrian refugee kid look like? What do they think? What do they want? What do they like doing? And just like, who are they? And present that to an American audience in the hopes of trying to convince them that these people matter and Syrian refugees matter. They shouldn’t be looked at like, however American audiences look at Syrian refugees.

Thornburgh: Why kids? You don’t have children, at that point were in your 20s. It’s like the valley in terms of kid connectivity for most people. Why did you decide that those will be the subjects of this huge project that you were going to take on?

Yar:  I don’t know, I love children. I love the innocence of children everywhere, and I always personally connect and relate to kids in a very emotional way. I wanted to try and communicate that sympathy I felt for Syrian refugees and try to pull that out of an American audience. I thought that if I can present them as I see them, maybe that would connect with somebody else. I was doing that through Polaroids, which is what the whole project was based around. Polaroid camera, instant photography. Everybody knows what a Polaroid looks like. Beyond the fact that it’s an original, you can’t ever replicate a Polaroid. Just like you can’t ever replicate a child. Everybody knows what a Polaroid looks like. It’s relatable to a wide American audience. To use that as the medium to try to make a connection was the general idea. The whole project was all four countries that surrounded Syria, which also had the largest Syrian refugee populations. That was Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. I would go to those countries and I would talk to children, their families and just present them in a non-political way. Who are these people? Who the these kids? What’s their favorite color? What’s their favorite food? Try to bring that back in and make a connection. That was the first time that I came to Kurdistan and experienced Iraq.

Thornburgh:  You hadn’t worked at all in the Middle East before.

Yar: No, I had. My first experience of the Middle East was 2012 into Aleppo with the Free Syrian Army.

Thornburgh: That was a more conventional, just straight-up foreign correspondence, I’m going in with combatants and we’ll try to shoot near the action?

Yar: Yeah, yeah. That was much more straightforward. Let’s do straight up journalism, straight-up photojournalism and try to communicate that. I did a weird project there too where I photographed young Syrian fighters. Seventeen, 18, 19-year- old guys and asked them why they’re fighting. Who are you? Why are you fighting? How old are you? Where are you from? What did you do before this? Just those normal questions that I think correspondents miss. That’s not a news peg. No one asks, Who are these people?

Thornburgh: What did they study?

Yar: Yeah. But I think that’s important. I think it’s important what Ahmed studied, and why he picked up a gun? What happened to his family? And try to present that in a portraiture series. That was outside of the straight photojournalism. That was one of the first projects I did in the Middle East. It was terrible. It was really shitty. I wasn’t a good photographer in 2012. I’ve grown a lot since then but that was my first attempt working in the region. And then, In 2014, I tried to expand on that with a child push. Guys with guns don’t relate really well to, well maybe they do, but…

Thornburgh: I mean, almost too well sometimes.

Yar: Middle Eastern guy holding a gun, and trying to make that person relatable, is harder than a kid on a swing set more or less.

Thornburgh: It’s that classic conflict that we have in journalism, where people understand that image of a Middle Eastern guy with a gun in a way that’s probably not useful to the conversation at all. Because they’re just going to say, Oh well, this is a place where everybody is just always shot at each other. Which is actually very far from the truth. They’re one of the things that even now, however many years later—we’re 15 years after the invasion of Iraq. Multiple Iraqis have felt it necessary to remind me that Iraq is a rich and educated country.

They have a self-image that they know from long and hard experience is not the image that is presented in the West. In the places where decisions are being made about their lives, right? They’re like listen we have other dreams besides, just defeating ISIS. That was not, that’s not the plan. The plan is something beyond that. I don’t recall having seen your pictures from 2012 in that project. I’ll take your word that they were shitty pictures, but that instinct of trying to push through some of those prejudices or those stereotypes about who this people are, why they are fighting and how inevitable it was that they’d be fighting, those are great instincts.

Yar: I think probably it has something to do with that fact that I didn’t go to journalism school. I never set out to be some foreign correspondent. I somehow, down my roads of traveling, started wanting to tell stories and tell stories with pictures. Trying to figure out a way to make people relatable. To make people care about the world around them. I thought one of the ways to do that was by presenting people as they are. Which I wasn’t seeing anywhere else. I grew up on a diet of Fox News.  That was my whole idea, growing up, of what journalism was. When I started taking pictures of other people and being able to share their stories to an audience back home. The most obvious thing to me was just present them as they are. Present people as I would present my brother to someone else or I would hope some other person, some foreigner in my country would present my family to their audience. I always carried that with me.

Thornburgh: You were working on Syria’s Children, as a project. Which was this formation look at how the children who are affected by the war saw themselves and through Polaroids. How did that get you up here and why did you stay in northern Iraq?

Yar: Well, in 2014 Iraq had a Syrian refugee population of almost 320000 people. And those were mainly Syrian Kurds who were fleeing the fighting and the economic disparity that the fighting was causing and just were more or less… Most of them were economic refugees but they were living in camps around Iran Kurdish held Iraq. Part of my goal was to stop and meet them. Use the project to tell their stories. That’s what I did. I took a bus from Diyarbakir across the border and got into Erbil at one o’clock at night. Had some local connections and started the project here. I had never been to Iraq before, I had never been to Kurdistan before and didn’t know much about the country besides what I’d seen on the news and growing up. I thought I should be afraid as American, most of the perception about Iraq is just to be afraid.

Thornburgh: You should fear Kurds as well, right?

Yar: I’d read about Kurds and I’ve heard about them from friends. I’d never met a Kurd before. Upon being in the region for a couple of days it was almost like my mind was blown, This is what Iraq is and this is what Kurdistan is and separate from Iraq. All of these weird things that I never thought about were opening my eyes for me. There weren’t that many people here and everybody I met was really friendly. I thought, this place is super interesting and I want to learn more about it and I want to keep photographing it. I want to come back here. I left, and I finished the project, went to Jordan and then Lebanon, and then went home. It was always in my mind. I really want to come back to Kurdistan. I really want to experience more of the country, learn more about it and learn more about Iraq through it. It seems like an easy place to be because you can just land with an American passport and live safely, and there were people here I knew by that point. I tried over the next year, it was just, I’m going to figure out a way to get back there. At some point I made the calculation that I was going to do that, I don’t know when that was. And ever since I got back to the States it was nagging at me. At some point I just decided that’s what I was going to do. And then I moved back, I moved here in 2015, so a year later.

Thornburgh: What are we talking about? What is Kurdistan versus Iraq and why is it different? What is it like being here?

Yar: Kurdistan, is more or less, the north of Iraq. It’s where the Kurds call home. It was more or less a protected region, from 1991 onwards.

There are all these complications between Kurdish identity, nationality, and hopes for the future mixed in with what it is to be an Iraqi.

Thornburgh: This is a no-fly zone that Americans would have heard of. It’s basically US air superiority enforced because Saddam was up here just slaughtering Kurds wholesale.

Yar: Exactly.

Thornburgh: Kurds are Muslim, most Kurds.

Yar: Most Kurds, yes. Kurds are also spread over four countries. There are Kurdish populations in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. They’re split by borders. People often call them the largest ethnic minority without a home. I think that’s disputed. It’s kind of like the classic saying, as well, that Kurds have no friends but the mountains. People also claim that they’re a large minority without a home. There is no Kurdish state. Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, is the closest thing that they’ve had to having a state, and it’s still not a state, it’s an autonomous region within Iraq.

You have three main cities, there’s Duhok, Erbil, where we are, and there’s Sulaymaniyah. That is the area of the world where the Kurds have the most control over themselves, their politics, and who governs them. Kurds in Syria are slowly getting a bit more control through the civil war there and with the fight against ISIS, but it remains to be seen what’s going to happen next. Kurds in Turkey don’t have really any control over their future, with the fighting between the PKK and the Turkish government.

Thornburgh: They’ve got a boot on their neck. But it is one of the things that makes this area beguiling at least to me, from a far is that, this is a laboratory for what Kurdish autonomy could look like. Because you’re right, as you were saying, it’s easy to come to and easy to transit in and out of because they control their own borders apart from the Iraqi state. You can come in. Specifically me, I could come in this week with an American passport just get a stamp at the airport when I arrive. If I came into Baghdad it would be a much different story. There’s this weird sense that they are part of Iraq but much more open for business than the rest of Iraq. Just different.

Yar: They try to separate from Iraq. They want to be different from Iraq. They want to be their own country. They had a referendum in 2017, right after the battle against ISIS finished along their borders, where they tried to separate. It failed massively. They lost a bunch of territory that they were fighting over with Baghdad.

Thornburgh: Well, the referendum won. They voted yes.

Yar: Exactly.

Thornburgh: And Baghdad said, oh no.

Yar: Right.

Thornburgh: And took their richest city.

Yar: Yeah, they took Kirkuk, which wasn’t previously controlled by the Kurds. There’s a large Kurdish population but the Kurds were able to take it when the Iraqi army ran away from ISIS in 2014. So they seized control of Kirkuk and held it until they had the referendum, and then at that point Baghdad said, We want that oil-rich city back. They got it back. The Kurdish government lost a lot of territory, they lost a lot of support from Kurds who wanted and hoped for a free country of their own through the referendum, and through the lack of support from the international community for a Kurdish state of their own.

There are all these weird complications between Kurdish identity, nationality, and hopes for the future mixed in with what it is to be an Iraqi. All these different things that are playing factors into the emotions of the general public here. As well as the corruption, the in-fighting between the parties, and the massive wealth disparity between the poor and the average Kurd. Political and government officials are in fucking Ferraris driving down the street. There’s a lot of resentment in that. But then also you just had a referendum where the majority of the population voted to pull away from Iraq. That was the first time where average Kurds… Before that referendum I was talking to they were super excited: We’re going to do it. We’re going to get our state, and they had a lot of faith in the government to be able to pull that off. To be able to pull away from Iraq. All that faith just blew up, immediately after. It was devastating, and Baghdad responded really strongly. What’s it like to lose faith in this belief that you can have your own country when you really believe you could? It’s just really sad in many ways. Lots of people I talk to were just absolutely crushed. What is it now? What is it like now to be Kurd and wonder if you’re able to have a state? Most of the people I talk to just don’t think it’s going to happen.

Thornburgh: Tell me about Mosul and how you got involved in covering the battle to liberate Mosul.

Yar: Mosul was held by ISIS since 2014. At that moment the city was on lockdown and you couldn’t access it. In 2016, Iraqi forces starting moving out of Mosul. I started living here in 2015 and in early 2016 they were villages on the outskirts of Mosul that were being attacked by the Iraqi army. I embedded with them and I covered refugees, IDPs, fleeing people. I covered people fleeing from those areas. That was the buildup to Mosul. From I think it was March 2016 until the actual assault on the city started which was October of 2016. Yeah, I tried to cover it the best I could. Starting with the Peshmerga on the outskirts of the city in that first month, and then the Iraqi Army hit the city from the eastern side over the next month so, and by November the Iraqi Army had reached the city outskirts.

I embedded with Iraqi units, I embedded with medics, I spent a lot of time in refugee groups where they were collecting refugees and bringing them to camps. I spent a lot of time in camps talking to people about their experiences fleeing the war, getting bombed by US air crafts and none who were living under ISIS. All that stuff as well as the frontline aspect of war. I tried to do the best I could to document as much as I could about what was happening through that fight.

It was nine months. It was a lot of fucking people killed. The Associated Press did an investigation afterwards and the estimate was like between 9,000 and 11,000 people were killed in nine months. That’s a lot of civilians. There was a lot of Iraqi soldiers as well, but that was a lot of civilians.

Thornburgh: Not to mention the four years under ISIS. I think when a lot of people in the United States and Europe would have heard about ISIS was around the time that they had swept through Mosul because Mosul wasn’t a very important Iraqi city. And the fact that national Jihadists, Salafis, dead-enders, to use a Cheney-ism, to overpower a large Iraqi city and then occupy it for four years, is astonishing.

Yar:  When did the West hear about ISIS, and what does the West care about ISIS? As far as most people I talk to, the West doesn’t care what happens to Iraqis, they don’t care about what happens to Syrians. Nine thousand Iraqis were killed trying to get Mosul back from ISIS. But you talk to any American or anybody in the UK, they don’t know that. They think about, What’s ISIS able to do here. What’s ISIS able to do in America or the UK?

You can listen to the full episode, for free, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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