Has Kurdistan just given the world its newest national anthem?

Voters!

Kurdish voters! Why can’t we have that inky finger in the UK?

Kurdistan – at least the bit of it in Iraq – has voted for independence. Go them!

Which means one of two things: either the Middle East is about to have its most earth-shattering moment since the creation of Israel, or the US will tell the Kurds to shut up and it’ll have to stay awkwardly part of Iraq for a few more years (here’s a good analysis explaining both possibilities).

But one thing’s certain whatever the outcome: Kurds will keep singing Ey Reqib – Oh, Enemy! – as if they already have a national anthem.

“Oh, enemy! The Kurdish people live on / They have not been crushed by the weapons of any time,” goes the song, written by the poet Dildar while in an Iranian jail in 1938 (he was locked up for campaigning for independence).

“Let no one say Kurds are dead, they are living / They live and never shall we lower our flag.”

That clip’s a version by the singer Dashni Morad, which she posted on Facebook just before the vote with the note: “To all my Kurdish brothers and sisters, times may have changed, but our objective hasn’t. Do not lose sight of what is important here. Independence is within touching distance. Let us unite and make this happen, as those before us always dreamed.”

As an anthem, it certainly does the trick, which explains scenes like this after the vote – (weirdly filmed in Iran, I think):

When researching my book on anthems, I considered a chapter on Kurdistan – I liked the idea of looking at the power of national anthems in countries that didn’t exist – and did some initial research by visiting Bayan Rahman, the Kurdish government’s representative in the UK.

In our first meeting, just down the road from Buckingham Palace, she diplomatically told me Ey Reqib isn’t an independence song:

“It was written at a time when Kurds’ language wasn’t recognised, when people were trying to deny the existence of Kurds at all in Turkey.

“They were killing Kurds – genocides – but it was saying, ‘I’m the never-ending Kurd. You can try to kill me but we will get up again.’

“It was a song about survival. ‘I will exist.’ It’s really not about independence.”

A few months later I went to meet her a second time – ISIS were bearing down on Erbil and I was trying to get access to the Peshmerga’s front lines so I could see if they sang Ey Reqib in battle. And that time, for some reason, she was far more open about the role the song had played in both her life, and the wider independence movement.

Bayan’s father had been a senior member of the Peshmerga and went on to be a successful politician until he was killed by a suicide bomber in 2004.

Bayan smiled while telling me about him, and suddenly remembered a night in the ’70s when he woke her and her brother, dragged them outside where all the adults were partying, and made the two children sing, while recording it all on a tape player.

“You would think that at that age we would be singing nursery rhymes, like Humpty Dumpty or whatever. But we were singing Peshmerga songs.

“My father was a Peshmerga. We’d lived in the mountains and we had guns in the house and he’d come home with his Kalashnikov, and so we had grown up with all that, seeing them sing before they went off to battle. So he made us sing like them.

“He got my brother to sing one: ‘Mother dearest, don’t start crying. I’ve been killed, but I’m a martyr, I’m a hero, I’ll come back.’

“And then my brother and father were killed in 2004, and my mother used to play that tape [over and over].

“And, of course, all she did was cry.”

I asked Bayan if Ey Reqib meant more to her because of that loss:

“Yes, I definitely think of them and others who have been killed when I sing it, because they were killed because they believed in it.

“They believed in what that song says.”

That quote tells you everything about the strength of feeling in Kurdistan and the power of anthems.

Whether Kurdistan becomes independent or it has to stay part of Iraq, neither the anthem nor the desire is going anywhere.

 

The Paralympics – more anthems than the Olympics (including some words on Trinidad and Tobago’s)

Australia on their way to winning gold at the wheelchair rugby. Always an amazing sport to watch

Ouch! Australia on their way to winning gold at the wheelchair rugby

If you watched the Paralympics, you might have noticed something. No, not that wheelchair rugby is an incredibly violent sport. But that the countries that won gold are hugely different to the Olympics winners.

Some 63 countries took that medal, four more than at the Olympics, and 17 of those didn’t win one gold a month ago, and that includes such giants (in population terms) as India, Egypt and Nigeria. What does that mean? Well, it probably says a lot about the lack of money in the Paralympics meaning there’s a more equal playing field, but, in the context of this national anthem-obsessed blog, it means only one thing: that people got to hear 17 anthems for the first time this year!

Many of those anthems I’ve written about on here or in my book. They range from greats like Algeria’s (the only anthem to mention machine guns) to the controversial like Iraq’s, the much loved like Malaysia’s, to the plain naughty like Mexico’s (the only anthem written out of lust).

But there were a few that I haven’t written about, of which one sticks out: Trinidad and Tobago’s.

What’s interesting about Forged From the Love of Liberty that makes it worth choosing? Musically? Nothing. And lyrically? Nothing either!

But there are two reasons it’s interesting. Firstly, it was originally written as the anthem of the West Indies Federation, which lasted from 1958 to 1962, and was an attempt to almost create one country in the Caribbean. Its author Patrick Castagne made his song vague enough to appeal to everyone, with lines about all the islands “side by side…our hearts joined across the sea.” But when the federation collapsed he didn’t decide to just let it disappear to history, he tweaked it to make it work for Trinidad and Tobago instead. He was somehow awarded $5,000 for those three minutes of work.

It’s the only anthem I know of that’s been rewritten in that way (Russia’s used to the be the anthem of the Soviet Union, but I think this is more dramatic).

The second thing that’s interesting is Patrick himself. Patrick wasn’t just an anthem writer. He also wrote calypsos, including this great tune, Ice Man for someone called Lord Melody.

I wonder if Akeem Stewart – the Trinidadian Paralympian who won gold in the javelin at the Paralympics and silver in the discus – would have preferred to have heard some calypso on the podium instead of his anthem. If you know him, please ask.

How not to write a travel book

1) Don’t try and go to war zones!

If you didn’t know already, I’m writing a book about national anthems, which involves travelling to countries to learn their stories. When I first came up with this bizarre idea, I planned a chapter on Iraq because it was getting a multi-lingual anthem aimed at bringing the country together.

That was back in 2013 when the country was relatively peaceful. Yes, I perhaps should have seen what was coming. Iraq still hasn’t got the anthem.

2) Don’t swap a war zone for Iran!

After a chapter on Iraq was ruled out, I applied for an Iranian visa. I’m still waiting. Dear Iranian government, I promise I’m not a spy. Unless that’s what a spy would say in which case… I am one, right?

3) Er…

Actually there isn’t a three because I recently came up with a solution. This weekend, I’ll be heading to Egypt to research their anthems. I probably should have planned to go there all along because Egypt is the Middle East’s anthem factory – its musicians being responsible for the anthems of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Palestine, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia among others.

The stories behind Egypt’s own anthems are fascinating too. I can’t write them on this blog unfortunately, but here for your listening pleasure is the anthem the country adopted in the ’50s. It’s called “Oh my weapon, it’s been a long time” and is sung by Umm Kulthum, the great diva of Egyptian music (she doesn’t come in until 1:12).

If you don’t speak Arabic, it includes lines like this: “The people are mountains, seas, a volcano of anger ready to erupt, an earthquake that will cleanse the earth to make their enemies graves.” Yes, it was directed at Israel!

I’ll try to write something about my trip when I’m back but I may not have time. Here’s another tip for any aspiring travel writers: don’t leave things to the last bloody minute!

Update: A few hours after posting this, I got a phone call from Iran saying I can have a visa, which is somewhat amazing given they’ve refused the BBC one for about six months. The magic of the Internet, perhaps. God knows what this means for the book!

The Islamic State’s national anthem – and why you’ll worryingly like it

I recently wrote this article for the Guardian on the Islamic State’s national anthem and how the body’s changing the music of jihad. It was the most interesting article I’ve researched in a while, so hopefully it’s a moderately interesting read.

For those without the time to read 1,500 words, here’s the actual anthem. It’s great… until 2’53 in.

Update: If you want even more on ISIS’ music, I recently spoke to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s brilliant Q radio programme about it. Listen here. They amazingly gave me 15 minutes to prattle on. You have been warned!

Iraqi soccer star Ahmed Yasin talking about everything but national anthems

Iraqi footballer Ahmed Yasin

He plays for one of Sweden’s top football clubs, has been compared to Cristiano Ronaldo and carries the sporting hopes of 33 million people on his shoulders. In a few months, if all goes to plan, the Baghdad-born winger will help Iraq qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

Here’s a Q&A with Ahmed Yasin I did for Gulf Airways’ inflight magazine, Gulf Life. No, it has nothing to do with national anthems, the usual remit of this blog. But I get a lot of people coming here looking for Ahmed since he spoke to me about the Iraqi anthem, so thought I should post it. Feel free to read the rest of the magazine if you’re on a flight in the Middle East during February!

How does it feel being Iraq’s football ambassador?
“It’s scary sometimes. I’m only 21, but kids are always asking me questions like, ‘How can I play better?’ or ‘How can I be like you?’ But it’s proof I’m doing a good job. The message I have for them is always, ‘Believe in your dreams and train hard, because you never know when a professional club will be watching you play’.”

When did you start playing?
“My whole family loves football and I have three brothers who played in Sweden, so they pushed and encouraged me to follow them. Really, it’s what I always wanted to do. I’ve had football in my head and nothing else since I was seven.”

How did you get your nickname, the Iraqi Ronaldo?
“I think it’s because the Iraqi team has never had a real dribbler before, someone who likes to run at players. So when the fans saw me, it reminded them of him and his style of play. Of course it’s nice to hear, but professionally you always have to be yourself.”

What’s been your career highlight so far?
“The first time I played for Iraq was huge. When I put the shirt on, I knew that my friends, family and everyone in Iraq was watching. The biggest match of my life so far was a World Cup qualifying game against Japan. I’d never played in front of 60,000 people before. Every time Japan attacked, I wanted to put my hands over my ears – it was so loud – but it didn’t stop us playing well.”

Will Iraqi football become more known soon?
“Of course, we’re definitely improving – many other players in the national team could play in Europe. They’re fast, strong and good with both feet, and many new players will come through because so many kids now play. They just need better pitches.”

You’re still young, but have already played for the Iraqi national team 18 times. What’s your ambition?
“I want to be a top player. Not just in Sweden, but in a league like the one in Spain. I also want to get Iraq to the World Cup, hopefully this time or to Russia in 2018. Of course, I dream of scoring the winning goal in the final. I think I’m a bit too young to say I want to be captain, but someday I hope so.”

You’ve become nearly as famous for your hairstyle as your skills on the pitch. Would you ever consider being a model like the real Ronaldo?
“It’s funny, a lot of people are always pushing me to do that, and David Beckham, Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimović do it, so, hey, why not?”

Follow Yasin on Facebook or Twitter.

Please rise for our polyglot anthem

International Herald Tribune op-ed pages

[I originally wrote this for the International Herald Tribune/NY Times, as the picture sort of shows. Feel free to read it on their website too]

Iraq’s politicians are set to reach agreement soon on an issue they have been arguing about for almost a decade: a new national anthem.

It may sound trivial, but Iraq has been searching for one ever since Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003. The U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, selected the current song, “Mawtini” (My Homeland), after hearing it at a concert in 2004. But it was always meant to be a stopgap.

The reason it has taken so long is ethnicity. Any suggestions put forward over the years have soon collapsed over arguments about whether the author was Sunni, Shiite or Kurd, and what part he played in Saddam’s regime.

The proposed solution to these rows is a novel one. The main verse will be a poem by Iraq’s most famous writer, Muhammad al-Jawahiri — a choice no one can argue with. But the final words, “Long live Iraq,” will be sung in Arabic, Kurdish, Turkmen and even Assyrian.

In effect, politicians have have decided to create a multinational anthem, hoping it will make everyone finally feel they belong to the “new Iraq.”

It might have the desired effect. I’ve spoken to several Kurds about it, from footballers to civil servants, and they all felt it was a positive move — a sign that they are being accepted (Kurds make up 15-20 percent of Iraq’s population).

What’s surprising to learn, though, is that South Africa may be the only other country that has a multilingual anthem. Its anthem features five languages and has been widely celebrated as helping bring the country together after apartheid.

Perhaps it’s time we had more anthems like this.

At first glance, this may appear to be a silly suggestion. In the United States, for example, more than 12 percent of the population speaks Spanish at home, but just try to add a few words of it to the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The same goes for France, where no one would contemplate adding words in Arabic to the “Marseillaise,” despite the large North African populations.

But elsewhere the idea may not be so easily dismissed. Kosovo’s anthem has no words due to the sharp divide between Albanian and Serbian speakers. Having an anthem with both languages could be a way to foster a sense of national belonging.

A similar argument could be made in Belgium, where there are increasing calls for the Flemish-speaking region of Flanders and French-speaking region of Wallonia to part. The country’s anthem, the “Brabançonne,” can be sung in French, Flemish or German. Why not a new song featuring all three languages?

Changes like these are not necessary in countries where different ethnic groups speak the same or similar languages. Still, their anthems could also be rewritten to be more inclusive. Take Rwanda’s, “Beautiful Rwanda.” It talks about the “single language” joining the two main ethnic groups, the Hutu and Tutsi, who fought a vicious civil war in the 1990s. But it does not mention either by name. Would it not be better to spell out who people are, so everyone can identify themselves in the song, than hide the past?

A similar case could be made in Bosnia, where Croats, Serbs and Bosnian Muslims are at loggerheads over words for a new anthem. Maybe an anthem change could even help improve Catalonia’s relationship with the rest of Spain. The Spanish anthem, the “Marcha Real,” currently does not have any words, so at least they have a simple starting point.

Yes, there are practical issues with doing any of this. It would be difficult for many people to learn anthems in multiple languages, and it would be difficult to fit them all into a one-minute song, let alone a good one-minute song.

But if in five or 10 years’ time a new national identity is flourishing in Iraq and helping get a grip on its many problems, I wouldn’t be surprised if other countries start looking at the idea as one worth following.

Iraq: from the terraces to parliament, country prepares to sing a new anthem

Ahmed Yasin, Iraqi football’s Cristiano Ronaldo, speaks Arabic, Swedish and English. But in a few weeks, the 21-year-old midfielder may need to brush up on a few more languages. Kurdish will be a must, as will Turkmen, and probably Assyrian too.

In December, Iraq’s parliament looks set to end a fractious nine-year search for words to a new national anthem – and surprisingly they will not all be in Arabic.

The anthem is set to feature words from each of the country’s main minority languages. It is a decision that will give Iraq the world’s second-most multilingual anthem, after South Africa’s.

“If we have to learn to sing it, then of course we will,” the footballer said. “If it’s for Iraq, it’s not a problem.”

Iraq has been searching for an anthem since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The American administration selected the current anthem, Mawtini (My Homeland), as a temporary measure in 2004, but MPs have repeatedly failed to agree a replacement since with splits along ethnic lines. Last year, the parliament’s culture and media committee came up with an answer, according to its chairman, Dr Ali al-Shalah.

“We decided to look for texts by the most famous poets in Iraq – people whom everyone could respect. It’s like deciding to take a bit of Shakespeare and make it the English anthem.”

Peace on the Hills of Iraq by Muhammad al-Jawahiri quickly became the frontrunner. Jawahiri is revered by Iraqis of all ethnicities for fighting corruption and social inequality as much as for his poetry. But it did not prove easy to get even agreement for that. Earlier this year, Iraq’s Kurdish politicians called for a whole verse to be in Kurdish. Kurds make up 15-20% of the population and Kurdish is an official language. Turkmen and Assyrian groups soon asked for the same.

Shalah has only just achieved a solution. “The idea is the song is in Arabic, but at the end we say ‘Long live Iraq’ in all the languages,” he says. “We can’t have a song with four verses in four languages. No one would be able to sing it. But I think it’s good to have some words. It’s a symbol that in the new Iraq we respect all cultures and that all cultures want to be part of the country.”

The first lines of Iraq’s new anthem run: “Peace be upon Iraq’s hills, its two rivers, their banks and their bends/ Peace be upon the palm trees, and the lofty mountains spreading light.”

The only barriers to approval, Shalah says, are the “one or two colleagues who are poets. They want their own poems used, but we cannot accept that.” Then all that will be needed is some music. “That will not be a problem,” Shalah adds. “In our culture we speak all the time about poets, not musicians.”

Ahmed Yasin says he is happy to wait for any change. “I actually like the song we have,” he says. “But if they want to change it, it’s no problem for us players.”

[I originally wrote this for the Guardian newspaper. Feel free to read it again there!]