Ethnicity and Politics in an Iraqi Oil City

Episode 428

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How do ethnic and confessional identities become the basis for political mobilization? In this episode, Arbella Bet-Shlimon examines the long history of Iraq's first oil city, Kirkuk, to argue that the rise of ethnicized politics was by no means inevitable. She shows how a multilingual city long shared by Arabic, Turkish, and Kurdish-speaking communities transformed under Ottoman and British colonial rule, and how the political economy of oil shaped the city's politics in the twentieth century. In so doing, she sheds light on a question that should resonate far beyond Iraq: what does it mean for a conflict to be "about oil?" What does this explanation illuminate, and what does it obscure?

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Contributor Bios

Arbella Bet-Shlimon is Associate Professor of History at the University of Washington. In her research and teaching, she focuses on twentieth-century Iraq and the Persian Gulf region, as well as Middle Eastern urban history. She is the author of City of Black Gold: Oil, Ethnicity, and the Making of Modern Kirkuk (Stanford University Press, 2019).
Susanna Ferguson completed her Ph.D. in 2019 at Columbia University. Her work focuses on the conceptual and social history of education, gender, and democracy in Egypt and Lebanon. In 2019-2020, she will be a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Academy for International and Area studies.
Sam Dolbee completed his Ph.D. in 2017 at New York University. His book project is an environmental history of the Jazira region in the late Ottoman period and its aftermath. In 2019-2020, he will be a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University's Program for Agrarian Studies.


Episode No. 428
Release Date: 27 September 2019
Recording Location: Cambridge, MA
Audio editing by Susanna Ferguson and Chris Gratien
Music: Kai Engel, Dark Alleys
Soft and Furious,
Melancholic Ending
Audio clip: Oil from Iraq
Images and bibliography courtesy of Arbella Bet-Shlimon


Iraq. Kirkuk. A street scene in the older town, American Colony (Jerusalem) photo department, 1932 (image via Library of Congress)
Iraq. Kirkuk. Main street in the newer town, American Colony (Jerusalem) photo department, 1932 (image via Library of Congress)

Select Bibliography

Al-Azzawi, Fadhil. The Last of the Angels. Trans. William M. Hutchins. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2007.

Al-`Azzawi, Fadil [Fadhil al-Azzawi]. Al-Ruh al-Hayya: Jil al-Sittinat fi al-`Iraq [The Living Soul: The Sixties Generation in Iraq]. Damascus: Dar al-Mada, 1997.

Al-Ma`ali, Khalid. "Al-Sha`ir Sarkun Bulus" [The Poet Sargon Boulus]. `Uyun 6, no. 12 (2001): 90-170.

Al-Nakib, Farah. Kuwait Transformed: A History of Oil and Urban Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016.

Bet-Shlimon, Arbella. "Preservation or Plunder? The ISIS Files and a History of Heritage Removal in Iraq." Middle East Report Online, 8 May 2018, (View Here)

Jones, Toby Craig. Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Limbert, Mandana. In the Time of Oil: Piety, Memory, and Social Life in an Omani Town. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.

Fuccaro, Nelida, ed. Histories of Oil and Urban Modernity in the Middle East." Special issue, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 33:1 (2013).

Markaz Karbala' lil-Buhuth wa-l-Dirasat. Karkuk: Madinat al-Qawmiyyat al-Muta'akhiyya [Kirkuk: City of Fraternal Nationalities]. London: Markaz Karbala' lil-Buhuth wa-l-Dirasat, 2002.


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