Beating the Daf and Darbuka: Testing the Boundaries of Ethnicity, Evoking a National Imaginary, and Dancing a Contemporary Iraqi Identity

Elliot Leffler


In the heat of a spontaneous dance party at an international summer camp, an ethnically and religiously diverse group of young Iraqis stretched their national imaginary through an exuberant, embodied engagement. In a moment when the strict universality discourses of their camp programs did not seem to apply, the adolescents—Sunni and Shia, Kurdish and Arab—explored the potential synapses and interrelationships of their ethnic identities on their own terms.

“First and foremost, you are Iraqi. Not Sunni or Shia; not Kurdish or Arab; not Southern, Western, Northern, or Baghdadi. You are all those things, but first, you are Iraqi.”

That was the essence of the message that the teenagers I met in 2012 received from the adults who ran their summer program. These teens were part of an initiative called IYLEP: Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program. Funded by the US State Department, and run by sev- eral not-for-profit agencies across the United States, this program brought a cadre of Iraqi teens to the US to learn about leadership, democracy, civic engagement, and pluralism. They lived with host families in US cities; they attended seminars, lectures, and social programs; they went shopping in American malls; they walked through national parks; and for part of the sum- mer, some of them attended a two-week summer camp with other teenagers. That’s where I met them.

The Global Youth Village (GYV) is a camp in the forested foothills of western Virginia.1 Founded in the 1970s by members of a small intentional community, most of whom are white American Sufis, the Global Youth Village attracts an international group of teenagers for summer programs that emphasize international understanding and personal development.2 In Summer 2012, when these particular teenagers came to GYV, campers hailed not only from Iraq, but also Nigeria, Kyrgyzstan, Taiwan, Russia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia, and the US. The staff at GYV teach the value of harmony across lines of racial, ethnic, reli- gious, and national difference, and the founder — a Sufi sheikh who opens and closes each camp session — emphasizes a transcendent unity of the universe in which we are all cosmically interconnected.

As a staff member at the camp and an ethnographer embarking on a dissertation project about intercultural dialogue, it seemed to me that most of the campers embraced these values of unity and harmony. Many came from communities in which their parents, teachers, peers, and media trumpeted these values, and the cultural diversity of the camp offered a context to put them into practice. But the Iraqis had a harder balancing act than most. For them, the two-week camp experience existed within their broader IYLEP experience. The IYLEP staff emphasized national identity above all. Back at home, their various communities were reeling from violent clashes that were built on an understanding of fundamental difference, but with IYLEP, they were explicitly told that their ethnic, religious, and regional identities were superseded by their Iraqi identity, of which they should be tremendously proud. At camp, all of these markers of identity — nation, as well as race, ethnicity, and religion — were trumped by an emphasis on “universal values.” Each person’s cultural background was important because — and as long as — it offered insights into these universal values.

Adding to the complicated nature of this balancing act, about 25 percent of the IYLEP delegation were ethnic Kurds. Kurdish Iraqis speak a different mother tongue than Arab Iraqis, they have their own semi-autonomous regional government in the north of Iraq, and they have aspirations for independent statehood. The Kurds in this delegation understood that they were politically Iraqis, as they carried Iraqi passports, but they didn’t identify with the nation’s symbols, historical narratives, or leaders. At camp, they occasionally spoke about an independent Kurdistan — a rhetoric that was met with resentment and anger from the Arab Iraqis. They weren’t supposed to talk about that. They knew that. They were Iraqis, first and foremost. Moreover, the Arab Iraqis knew that their country’s long-term viability depended on thwarting Kurdish control of the oil in northern Iraq. Kurdish independence wasn’t just a theoretical blow to the idea of a united Iraqi identity; it was a material threat to the Iraqi state.

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