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On Growing Old (and Being Young) in Kurdistan

There are few things rarer than an old Kurdish man. Decades of oppression, poor nutrition and medical care, war, flight and starting over have taken their toll. The low life expectancy of Kurdish men goes a long way to explain why the survivors are so revered.Old_Kurd_Shaqlawa_market.jpgMore than most, Kurdish culture is patriarchal and personality-worshipping. And no patriarchs' personalities are more worshipped than the Barzanis. In every office, shop and home hang portraits of Mustafa Barzani, the deceased Kurdish revolutionary, and his son Massoud, the current head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the dominant party in Erbil and, with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan based in Sulaymaniyah, the heart of the Kurdish coalition that has been kicking ass at the polls since January.Extremely high birth rates -- an artifact of Kurds' obsession with nuclear families -- mean that despite historically high death rates among men, Kurdish population is exploding. All Iraqi peoples have very very young populations. (That many Arabs have multiple wives contributes to this.) High birth rates aren't all good. Feeding, clothing and educating all these kids is a real challenge. At the public hospital in Shaqlawa, a resort town north of Erbil, Dr. Bestum Ali is doing all he can to keep thousands of kids healthy. That means up to 50 innoculations per day and aggressive childrearing education for new mothers. Ali says things are getting better, especially since the fall of Saddam. Medicine, personnel and expertise move more freely, international aid is up, and expatriate doctors like Shaqlawa head of pediatrics Dr. Yusef are returning to Kurdistan from places like Zurich. The result of all this and of Kurdistan's new era of peace, hopefully, is that old Kurds will one day be as common as young ones.-- David Axe

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