Former factory in Iraqi Kurdistan stirs hope for cultural tourism

From studio spaces to museums, a future complex holds the promise of galvanising artists

A former tobacco factory reincarnated as the Culture Factory in Sulaymaniyah Sabrina Wirth

A former tobacco factory reincarnated as the Culture Factory in Sulaymaniyah Sabrina Wirth

These days, it is difficult to separate the image of Iraqi Kurdistan from what is being represented in the media. Yet years of conflict and a relentless pursuit for national recognition have engendered a kind of resilience, and it is proving its strength in Sulaymaniyah. Known as Kurdistan’s cultural capital since it was founded in 1784 by the Kurdish prince Ibrahim Pasha Baban, Sulaymaniyah is the home of a thriving community of philosophers, writers and artists. Now the city is in the midst of creating a meeting place that will help nurture that community in a 60,000 sq. m former tobacco factory complex.

Until a few years ago, there was no place for this milieu to congregate. The only place where people could gather was at coffee shops or tea houses.

“The young people, they don’t know what to do if they’re not in school or college,” says 27-year-old Shero Bahradar, one of the founders of Xline, a utopian artistic collective through which people can explore ideas and seek to build a creative future. “When they don’t work on a project or participate in a volunteer program, they just go to the cafés and smoke, and that’s a problem.”

The smoking is not surprising, given that cigarettes were once one of the region’s major exports. From 1956 to 2003, the local tobacco factory was the main source of employment and income for thousands of Kurds, churning out 700 million cigarettes per year. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, it shut down and left many without jobs. The factory then lay abandoned until two visionaries, Dara Ola and Dr Khabat Marouf, saw the opportunity to transform it into a creative space and a magnet for cultural tourism.

“In Vienna, we saw that a lot of factories were turned into cultural spaces, like museums or artist spaces,” says Ola, who is one of the founders and curators of the nascent arts complex, dubbed the Culture Factory, and a project manager for the regional Organisation for Culture and Sustainable Development (OCSD), which he and Marouf also founded. "So we went to the government and proposed to them that we turn the factory into a culture zone.” Discussions got underway in 2013, but the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, prompted planners to put the idea on hold.

Now that Kurdistan is relatively safe and ISIS-free, Ola, who goes by the artistic name Daro, resumed discussions with the Kurdish regional government about converting the factory into a creative hub. The talks concluded five months ago and resulted in a 15-year contract with OCSD and funding of around $3 million for renovations and programming. The project is still in its early stages but has already resulted in the makeover of an entire building into studios for young artists. The rest of the compound is reserved for exhibition galleries and other future projects.

The hope is that in the next couple of years the Culture Factory will become an incubator for young creators, with artists finding mentors and taking courses to improve their skills.

“In the future, there will be all different kinds of departments for the young people,” says Daro. “We will bring in teachers for computer programming, sculpture, painting, digital media, everything. Every department will have a dedicated teaching space.”

OCSD also plans to develop a national theater, cinema, four galleries, a museum of fine art and an archaeological museum.

Bahradar says that the Culture Factory has already had an impact. “For example, there is an artist with a studio here, a girl with an Islamic background,” he said. “Her family didn’t believe in her work and were very strict with her, but now they see what she can do with all the projects she’s working on here, and they have started respecting her more and giving her more freedom.”

A studio space at the Culture Factory for the artist Tara Abdullah Sabrina Wirth