Iraqi Kurdistan has been getting a lot of attention lately — but not for the usual reasons. The autonomous region in northern Iraq is still on the frontline in the battle against the Islamic State, but its capital city, Erbil, is now known for another reason: as home to a group of fashionable young hipsters.
Taking social media by storm, these hipsters have formed a contemporary “gentlemen’s club” to share their love of male couture and promote a more modern, cosmopolitan, and peaceful image of their homeland. Known collectively as Mr. Erbil, they aim to invigorate the local economy and encourage civic engagement, all the while looking dashing for their 100,000 social media followers. Fans include residents of Israel, a country Mr. Erbil members told this journalist they admire and hope to one day visit.
Because of the striking incongruity between pictures on the Mr. Erbil Instagram account and those of war-torn Kurdistan we are used to seeing, the group has attracted extensive international media coverage. However, Erbil, which is only about an hour’s drive away from front lines, has more of a modern veneer than might be assumed.
Foreign investment flowed into the oil-rich region following the establishment of Iraqi Kurdistan as a federal entity governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. American and multinational oil companies arrived, and with them shopping malls, cineplexes and other trappings of globalization.
But the boom went bust with the decline of oil prices in the summer of 2014. As the Islamic State rampaged through Iraq, over a million Iraqi and Syrian refugees began pouring into Iraqi Kurdistan.
The difficult situation continued and many young men were unemployed or underemployed. And then Ahmed Nauzad and his fellow dandy friends Goran Pshtiwan and Omer Nihad decided to launch a men’s club in Erbil in February 2016.
“We had an idea for a gathering that was inspired by Pitti Uomo,” Nauzad told The Times of Israel, referring to the prestigious semi-annual men’s fashion industry event in Florence, Italy.
‘We’ve got all kinds of gentlemen. We’ve got a car mechanic, a doctor, engineers, shop owners, government people, everything’
“We used social media and talked to friends to try to find people for the gathering. We also went out into the streets looking for guys who dressed like us,” said Nauzad in a video interview in excellent English. “Like us” could be indicated by Nauzad’s long, expertly groomed beard and a super-stylish haircut.
They ended up attracting 22 young men with an affinity for bespoke tailoring and personal grooming to the event, which they held at the ancient citadel in the heart of Erbil. One year later, the club has doubled in size and increasing numbers of gentlemen are applying.
According to Nauzad, the members range in age between 18 and 32. Some are married and some are single, but none have children. The men come from all walks of life and different religions. (Iraqi Kurdistan is religiously diverse, with Muslims of various sects, Yazidis, Assyrian and Armenian Christians, and others).
“We’ve got all kinds of gentlemen. We’ve got a car mechanic, a doctor, engineers, shop owners, government people, everything,” said Nauzad, who is a marketing research manager.
Mr. Erbil holds quarterly seasonal gatherings for all club members at historic sites in the city — which serve as a scenic backdrop for the many photographs and videos the men take of themselves and their latest looks. For a gathering for Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, they wore their traditional Kurdish costumes for a photo shoot in the mountains.
In between these larger gatherings, smaller groups of members meet on a weekly basis at local cafés.
Nauzad, 26, emphasized that Mr. Erbil is about a lot more than merely looking splendid. The men are proud of a Mr. Erbil men’s fashion line they are designing and having made by local tailors.
‘We are not only using local tailors, but also local fabrics. This, for instance, is made from local goats hair that is sheared in the summer’
“We are not only using local tailors, but also local fabrics. This, for instance, is made from local goats hair that is sheared in the summer,” Nauzad said as he pulled his yellow tie out from his dark blue vest to show this reporter.
“The fabrics are very authentic. They may have a slightly rougher feel than you’re used to, but they are very good quality,” he said.
The men are inspired by the latest European fashions, but their style also harks back to the historical affendis, or lords — respected and well educated Kurdish men who would dress in their finery to attend salons and tea shops. Mr. Erbil is about bringing fashion to Kurdistan, and also gentlemanly etiquette and protocol. This includes keeping religion and politics out of the club.
“Religion is a private matter,” said Nauzad, who fled Kurdistan temporarily with his Muslim family to Germany in the early 1990s.
Following the First Gulf War, the Kurds suffered great economic hardship due to embargoes imposed on Iraq by the United Nations, as well as embargoes Saddam Hussein put on the Kurds. A civil war within Kurdistan ensued between 1994 and 1996.
“My earliest memories are of my Dad hiding us in the house because there was fighting,” Mr. Erbil co-founder Pshtiwan told Vocativ.
‘It’s really important to us to fight the close-minded image people have of us’
In addition to supporting the local tailoring economy, Mr. Erbil seeks to promote social causes. Every Thursday the gentlemen give a shoutout on their social media accounts to exemplary women making an impact in Kurdish society. They recently highlighted Taban Shoresh.
Now living in the UK, Shoresh is a child survivor of genocide under Saddam Hussein. She founded Lotus Flower, a charity helping women and girls in refugee camps in Kurdistan through sustainable employment and psychological recovery.
The club is also preparing a video with an anti-violence against women message in 14 languages, and viral content promoting environmental awareness and encouraging people not to litter.
‘You know, there’s a deep connection between the Kurds and Israel’
“It’s really important to us to fight the close-minded image people have of us. Kurdistan is always represented by war, but it’s a positive place too,” Nauzad said.
Nauzad said he and others in the club would be interested in visiting another part of the world that also has an erroneous reputation for being a constant war zone — namely Israel.
“You know, there’s a deep connection between the Kurds and Israel,” Nauzad said.
Nearly 200,000 Jews from historic Kurdistan, divided today between Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, live in Israel. The Kurdish-Israeli community maintains positive ties with Kurds within the Kurdish heartland and in the Kurdish diaspora.
The Times of Israel reported on Bakhteyar Ibrahim, an Iraqi Kurd who was in Israel in 2013 to celebrate Saharan, the annual Kurdish Jewish holiday (celebrated during Sukkot). Ibrahim, who lives in Germany, founded the Kurdistan Israel Friendship Association in 2010. The organization has chapters in a number of countries, including Australia, German, England, and Benelux. According to Ibrahim there are even chapters in Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
‘Ties between Israel and the Kurds run deep’
“Ties between Israel and the Kurds run deep. A Mossad officer named Sagi Chori was sent to help his close friend, the late iconic Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani, manage the Kurds’ battles against the Iraqi army in the 1960s. There have also been persistent reports of Israel training Kurdish commandos.
“Nationalist Kurds tend to see Israel as a role model for an independent Kurdistan: a small nation surrounded by enemies and bolstered by a strategic partnership with the United States,” wrote Lazar Berman in a Times of Israel article about a battle between the Kurdish Peshmerga and Islamic State fighters at Mt. Sinjar in late 2014.
Nauzad said he’d love to get an invitation to visit Tel Aviv. He is particularly interested because of the beard care line Mr. Erbil has launched called Rishn. All the combs are handcrafted in Kurdistan, but the oils are imported.
“I understand there is good production of grooming oils in Israel,” Nauzad said.