In This Review

City of Black Gold: Oil, Ethnicity, and the Making of Modern Kirkuk
City of Black Gold: Oil, Ethnicity, and the Making of Modern Kirkuk
By Arbella Bet-Shlimon
296 pp, Stanford University Press, 2019

This fine social history of the city of Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, traces a century of political upheaval. Bet-Shlimon was born in the United States but hails from an Assyrian family with roots in Kirkuk. The ancient, polyglot city was transformed in 1927 by the discovery of oil nearby. Kirkuk had long been dominated by its Turkish-speaking Turkmen population, but the oil boom drew in a large population of poor, rural Kurds to work in the oil fields. With them came Iraq’s Communist Party, which sought to organize the workers. The Iraq Petroleum Company helped build a middle class in the city but neglected the mostly Kurdish lower class. The 1958 revolution that toppled the Iraqi monarchy exposed the fault lines created during the oil era. Kurds and Turkmens chose opposite sides in Iraq’s national-level struggles. The rise of Saddam Hussein added the force of Arabization and anti-Kurdish animus to the volatile politics of the city. The book criticizes essentialist explanations of ethnicity, but the massacres that rocked Kirkuk in the late 1950s smack of visceral enmities. In this case, essentialist and contingent explanations can both be true.