Time Will Tell
Rohat Zada’s field is the complex and endless generative world of finance studies. His scholarly interests include emerging stock markets, corporate governance, financial performance indicators, novel accounting systems in new emerging markets, and managerial sciences in business administration. He has also completed a report looking at financial inclusion for vulnerable groups in Baghdad with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). Along with a passion for history, he also has an offbeat, on-point humour and a comic sense of tragedy that not everyone is armed with, nor can anyone master.
For the past seven weeks, Zada has been in the UK as a visiting research fellow at the University of Cambridge, on a Cara Syria Programme ‘research incubation visit’. Whilst in the UK, he reconnected with on old schoolfriend from Syria who now teaches at the University of Sussex, as well as connecting with other Syrian academics working at the University of Oxford However, the primary focus of his visit has been a project on corporate governance and stock performance working with Professor Simon Deakin at the Cambridge Judge Business School. He has enjoyed the collegial support and the exchange of ideas and will miss his desk at Fitzwilliam House. “I have been involved in the Cara Syria Programme since 2021. They provide a lot of opportunities including this visit, and last year, I participated in an online 5-week literature review course for [University of Edinburgh] PhD students, as well as benefiting from weekly one-to-one online English for academic purposes sessions.”
In the first few days here, he was given a tour of the campus and was impressed by the styles of architecture around Cambridge; it made him feel as if he were back in the ancient city of Aleppo, where he had spent his youth and was planning to embark upon life – Aleppo or the “Game of Thrones”, he adds.
Zada tells me he grew up between Aleppo city and Afrin, in the Governate of Aleppo. His village, Zeitounak, was just outside Afrin and so small that it consisted of just 55 houses where everyone knew each other. He is Kurdish and, thereby, a minority within Syria, and his experiences and multifaceted identity informed the decisions that have shaped his life. It’s been a journey of multiple belongings, but he rejects compartmentalisation and ultimately, is identical to no one.
The last time that Zada lived in Aleppo was in 2012. He returned to the city after three-years in Cairo studying business administration on a Syrian government scholarship. “I loved Cairo and still miss it.” He adds, “To be young and independent was very nice for me. I was there during the Egyptian revolution. I believe that I have been a witness to many historical revolutions.” The protests followed suit in Syria, but Zada misjudged the severity of the regime’s crackdown. He stayed until he discovered he had been conscripted and was wanted by the military.
So, he dodged out of Aleppo, not for another country but for his hometown near Afrin. It was a safe place, under the control of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) at the time and so outside of the Syrian government’s control. Now though, it was the turn of the PYD’s YPG (People’s Protection Units) to conscript him. “They asked me twice to be involved in military activities, to guard the village, but I refused. At the start, they don’t force you into such activities, but become more forceful over time, culminating in 9-months conscription.”
The conflagration widened with the advance of Daesh (Islamic State), and his father eventually made him leave Syria. Zada crossed the border, first to Turkey, and then across the mountainous border to Iraqi Kurdistan, an internationally acknowledged (but not recognised) territory, which has long operated as a space for Kurdish self-determination outside of the discriminatory nationalist projects of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria – countries where Kurdish minorities have historically been construed as a divisive threat. “We have a joke,” Zada says, “Right now, Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq are enemies. But when it comes to Kurds, they are aligned. When it is related to Kurds, they forget their differences. The trend, in every country in the world, is to become smaller and more divided, not larger! But should we ever decide to unite”, Zada teases, “we would be a majority in the region. Blame Sykes-Picot, not us!” He refers to the treaty between the United Kingdom and France, which arbitrarily carved up the Ottoman Empire to create the modern Middle East.
Thousands of fellow Kurdish Syrians moved to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, during the war. As a result, he says, Syrian restaurants serving good home cooking abound. He joined them in 2013, first lecturing at the Lebanese French University, and then as a visiting lecturer at the University of Kurdistan, in addition to a number of NGO consultancies. He is now working at the Catholic University in Erbil. In 2015, he married an Iraqi Arab statistician from Mosul, and now they have three children. They learned to speak Kurmanji, the Kurdish dialect spoken in Syria and Turkey, and now he is fluent in what he calls “Surmanji”, a mixture of Sorani (the Kurdish dialect spoken in Erbil) and the Syrian Kurdish dialect of Kurmanji, which it was legally forbidden to speak or write in Syria for decades lest the nation unravel.
“We grew up thinking it was wrong to speak our language, and from kindergarten until university, our teaching was in Arabic. So we preserved our language through conversation and speaking. When I was at Aleppo University, five or six of us, all friends, secretly conducted lessons on the Kurdish language. Security forces could have arrested us for six months without having access to a judge or a trial between 1963-2013. There was a lot of discrimination against us.” He refers to the blatant act of political manipulation when the previously stateless Syrian Kurds of the Al Hasakah territory in northwest Syria were finally granted citizenship in 2011 simply to garner political support.
Could he return to Syria, given this history?
“I did.” He says calmly. “It is my home. I went to see my mother.” His village was unrecognisable: camps of displaced people lined the roads and everyone he once knew had left, their homes occupied by strangers. But he thinks that he could return under the right conditions, namely where people grapple with the challenges of injustice, discrimination, and economic corruption. He reads widely outside of the world of economics, history is his passion after all, and he laughs otherwise he would cry. He suggests Amin Maalouf’s In the name of identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, which dissects adeptly “how people of all countries, of all conditions and faiths, can be transformed into butchers, while passing themselves off as defenders of identity.” Reading it, you get a glimpse into Zada’s mind, perhaps dreaming of revolutions as a young man, quietly knowing as a witness, that injustice left to fester can only engulf everyone in the end. His experiences across the region inform and enhance his work – a historical gaze and detached ability to measure and record some of the most important events of a century. His imagined community is one of free thinkers. His next research project is with other Kurdish academics, sponsored by Cara, and will explore the entrepreneurship under conditions of conflict in northeast Syria.