Grand Baghdad Hotel
Hundreds of displaced Iraqi families find shelter in Sulaymaniyah’s old hotels
I can’t remember my experience in the Grand Baghdad Hotel just by merely thinking of the name because this place looks nothing like a hotel nor does it have anything to do with the glamorous name it bears.
Instead, I think of the charming film The Grand Budapest Hotel where cinema beautifies tragedy and where protagonists die smiling or in the middle of a romantic kiss.
Maybe it’s because we know that we buy popcorn and sodas when we go to watch these tragedies even if its protagonists sell cigarettes, gum and tissues, or shine people’s shoes, or wait for relief — perhaps death — with eyes empty of color.
22/12/2014 — Sulaymaniyah, Iraq — A view of As Haba Spi and Kawa Street, where Babosi Hotel and Baghdad Hotel are, downtown Sulaymaniyah.
Abu Qasim who’s approaching 90 barely greets us; he sits erect on his bed, crowned by a white aura reflected by his traditional outfit, his mustache, his eyebrows, and even his eyes. You want to kneel in the presence of this being who glows with a disturbing holiness that reflects the long existence of the Yazidis; this being who hates to be kissed either on the shoulder or on the head as I try to do. He gently pushes me back talking to me in a language I can’t understand. The old man has a voice! I ask Aram, the photographer, to ask him about his hopes and expectations; and his words pours out like tears:
“We need everything we have nothing we cannot get up we have no support we want you to look at us and know us and help us…”
And the mountain of holiness collapses, gesturing all over the place and pointing at his wife Um Qasim, who nods while holding Asinat and keeping an eye on Anas who’s playing nearby — these are their grandchildren. The old man shows us his leg that was burned when an incoming rocket set his room on fire.
“That’s why he can’t walk. Here on this bed we help him with everything including defecation,” explains Abu Dilshad, the man who helped the family flee Sinjar. “They were stuck on Mt. Sinjar for 15 days, in the wild without food or shelter, until the Kurdish fighters finally managed to open a road they said was safe, so I brought them to Sulaymaniyah.”
A drawing of Anas, picturing unknown fighters shooting at people in the mountains. It was impossible to understand whether this scene was experienced by the child or whether he has seen in on TV.
08/02/2015 — Sulaymaniyah, Iraq — Abu Qasim, a 90 y.o. a Yazidi man from Sinjar, inside his room at Baghdad Hotel.
– And so where is Qasim?
“He stayed there, on the front line, fighting ISIS; he’s now a volunteer force commander. He doesn’t get paid like the rest of Kurdish fighters,” he answers. “He manages to visit us sometimes and offers as much help as he can.”
– And his wife? The mother of these two children?
“We don’t know.” He answers and turns to his wife who whispers something they don’t want to share. Abu Dilshad is Yazidi and also comes from Sinjar. He lives in the hotel which he manages. He informs us that “All the guests are Yazidis from Sinjar. Each guest pays 4000 dinars [$3] a night.”
Is the owner of the hotel a Yazidi, too?
– What is Yazidism?
Abu Dlishad and his nephew hear the question but neither is able to give a clear answer. “Yazidism is a minority” is the clearest thing Abu Dilshad can say. Why are you being killed? ISIS knows why it kills; the world talks of sectarian terrorism, but does the victim know?
– Why did ISIS attack you?
“They attacked everything; they seized land, bombed houses including ours, and burned it all.”
– Were there any weapons in it?
– Why did they bomb it, then?
“I have no idea.”
“They took my father. He’s 63 years-old; he has diabetes, high blood pressure and a kidney disease. They took him to Mosul on the 6th of August, and we haven’t heard from him since,” adds Khairi who works as a receptionist in the hotel. He shares the job with another displaced Yazidi and they split the tiny salary. “I live and work here for a month and in the other month I go to my family in Duhok Camp where my son Ridha lives.” He stresses that I write his son’s age accurately: 3 years and 3 months.
– Do you have another job, Khairi?
“No, I have a shoulder injury and I have complications in my stomach and colon.”
Dilshad, the ten-year old, is the only one who doesn’t utter a word despite my many attempts. He insists on silence and chooses to keep a steady smile on his face, playing with a small writing board he keeps in its original packaging to keep it new.
“They didn’t allow him to go to school here,” says his father. “He can’t speak the local Sorani dialect nor do they teach in Arabic.”
08/02/2015 — Sulaymaniyah, Iraq — Dilshad 10, from Sinjar at the reception in the Baghdad hotel. His father works at the reception to afford the room where his family is staying since their arrival to Sulaymaniyah in the fall of 2014.
We decide to give them a break from our questions and we go for a walk. Aram guides me through the maze of the old city, telling me about the people we are meeting next — a Muslim family who escaped the district of Hit which was attacked by ISIS. Dust throws a veil on Sulaimaniyah. “God is sprinkling turmeric on us,” an Iraqi woman remarks while Aram’s head shakes with resentment. He mutters the word “East” and then follows that by cursing dictatorships. I understand that he means the “Middle East.” He asks me about the Baath regimes in Syria and Iraq and about the two Assads. He tells me that he, like most Kurds, had brothers who were Peshmerga and that one of them was “martyred” while fighting Islamist groups in Shahrizor.
We return to the hotel and meet Abu Qasim, the man as lofty as the ancient mountain of Sinjar; something I’ve only seen on the news. The world was shocked by images of what took place there and then the issue was forgotten like everything else. Abu Qasim reminds me of the mountain. I research its history and discover that its name is Kurdish for ‘The Beautiful Side’ and I understand that Abu Qasim’s eyes are not empty as I first imagined. He left them there: on “the beautiful side” from where beautiful girls still throw themselves to escape ISIS captivity.
20/12/2014 — Sulaymaniyah, Iraq — A family of displaced Iraqis from Salahadin at Babosi Hotel.
My room shrinks until I feel that I’m breathing the air of Zero Moustafa’s room in The Grand Budapest Hotel and I am no longer able to resume working on the Baghdad Hotel story. I move to a nearby cafeteria, but I’m ashamed of myself as I sip my expensive coffee. A group of westerners — probably NGO workers — occupy the next table. Pharrell’s ubiquitous Happy song fills the place. I pick up my pencil to continue what I started, remembering Khaled who is not yet 16.
Khaled eats, drinks and sleeps in a room he shares with three other men. He has a ‘normal’ life. All he has to do is stay attached to the rope around his neck that holds the cigarette tray as he walks through the streets. I am sorry, Khaled, this mechanism reminds me only of yokes. Khaled had worked in the orchards of Rabia before ISIS burned everything including their house. He went to Zakho looking for a job and ended up in Sulaimaniyah where his brother Utto is also yoked by a cigarette tray.
“Why would I study?” shrugs Utto. “Books won’t buy us bread. My brother Murad is an unemployed graduate of political sciences. My younger brothers used to study before escaping to Zakho. Now they live in an unfinished building.”
I’ve known cigarette salesmen in my homeland. As a child I used to fear them because they looked like criminals. I hear the defeated crack in Utto’s voice despite his proud attempt to hide it. I hear his spontaneous, unaffected speech and its tone of simplicity. This is a kind man whose only concern is to send his mother abroad for treatment from her “terrible disease.”
He doesn’t utter its name, but I realize it’s cancer and I don’t inquire further.
“There’s no treatment for her in Iraq, she must travel, and there’s no money…”
08/02/2015 — Sulaymaniyah, Iraq — Utto 32, from Sinjar, in his room at the Baghdad Hotel. His family is in Duhok. He is working in Sulaymaniyah to support his family. His mother is very sick, but he cannot afford to go see her, as he hardly can stop working on the streets where he sells cigarettes with his younger brother Khaled.
08/02/2015 — Sulaymaniyah, Iraq — Khaled, 16, from Sinjar, lives at the Baghdad Hotel with his brother Utto who is 32. Together they sell cigarettes to pay the rent.
Embracing his writing board, Dilshad is still roaming the hotel’s corridors like a wet cat seeking sun. Khaled settles in a spot on the hotel’s pavement working near a kebab restaurant. The streets are teeming with people and the smell of kebab mixes with that of fish, putrid water and gold. Yes, gold has a smell here, but it doesn’t shine. I ask the children of the Hit family about the smell of gold. “Gold is the homecoming,” answers Abdulhakim. A while before that, Yasser yells into the house: “Mother! The photographer’s here!” as if Aram carries salvation in his camera.
Displaced children rush to different people in the market trying to sell tissues or gum. Some of them live in the Babosi Hotel in the same quarter. Others have left without a trace: the hotel, the area, and the land. Meanwhile, stars shine in the sky over Hollywood and Wes Anderson’s name is rightfully immortalized in the Walk of Fame. The applause of audience and critics echoes like the sound of crackling bones, the bones of hotel refugees spread all over the earth, touching the floors, the bricks of pavements, and even the careless passers-by, or maybe smashing over the rocks of the beautiful mountain.
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The Kurds in northern Iraq were suffering under the burden of a long frontier war with the Islamic State (ISIS), a financial crisis and the arrival of more than one million people displaced by war, altering the ethnic balance of their proto state. Shaqlawa, once a popular holiday destination had become a shelter for thousands of Iraqi Arabs fleeing the grinding war further south who now outnumbered the local Kurdish population.
THE BUTCHER OF KHALAKAN
Thirteen year-old Ali fled the violence in Salahaddin and found refuge in the remote Kurdish village of Khalakan where he works as a butcher.
THE ORPHANS OF ALQOSH
One evening late in the summer of 2014 people from five villages in the province of Nineveh streamed onto the roads along with the orphans from Alqosh. Between their cars and ISIS stood only burning pyres of rubbish and an emptying no man’s land. Milad Hani, 9, and his brother Wissam, 11, were part of the exodus.
OIL AND BLOOD
Zaidoon’s seventeen year-old cousin, Jamal, darts through the refinery’s enormous storage drums. He is trying to fill a jerry can with gasoline for one of the truck drivers who’s pulled up in an empty tanker. Jamal runs over to the huge drum that holds the gasoline and throws open the spigot at the bottom. A jet of black liquid shoots out which then turns clear. Jamal cups his hand and catches some of it, bringing it up to his face as if he’s about to take a sip.
TWO RELIGIONS ONE ROOF
Maysun Yalda and Widad Fadill sit opposite each other, sipping tea under a brightly coloured rug. “It’s Jesus,” says Maysun, pointing towards the male figure sewn into the heavy tapestry hanging from her kitchen wall. 44-year-old Maysun is a Christian from Tel Kaif in Nineveh, some 400km north of 47-year-old Widad’s hometown of Fallujah in Anbar, a Sunni stronghold.
On August 3rd 2014, ISIS insurgents attacked the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar in an attempt to expand their so-called ‘caliphate.’ During the weeks following the fall of the city, the Sunni militants who see the Yazidi people as devil worshippers carried out a genocidal campaign, killing tens of thousands of people and kidnapping over 5,000 women who they later sold into sexual slavery.
In the camp one morning a plane passes overhead and Awatif, Adam’s wife looks up with a start. Marwan doesn’t hear the noise and continues to cut hair in his make shift shop. For Sulaiman returning home seems a long way off after news of the killings. Stuck between different factions in Iraq and trailed with suspicion, Adam, Marwan and Sulaiman must build their lives again at edge of Kirkuk.
THE EXEMPLARY SCHOOL OF SITAK
Isn’t this the story of every mosque, house and city in the Middle East? A mosque is built over the ruins of a church which has been built over the ruins of a synagogue which has been built on the ruins of an ancient temple; and someone comes to ruin it all over again. Ruins inherit ruins, and generations follow generations. They rise from the ashes and restore everything, a long feverish struggle for survival. We cannot call it a war because it isn’t, regardless of the fact that we are all fighting for a dream.
The air is thick with dust and the smell of sewage in Chermo camp where a cluster of prefabricated cabins house 196 members of the Shabak minority. Brittle fencing draped in freshly-washed clothes separates the makeshift homes from a busy highway; a linear strip of hot tarmac that runs from the town of Chamchamal to the city of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The barren piece of land was lent to the families cost-free by a wealthy Kurdish tribe.
YEARS OF WANDERING IN THE LAND OF IRAQ
When the Americans came so did al-Qaeda waving the banner of religion. They made a few military operations against the Americans to gain people’s trust and support, but then started slaughtering them. Either you supported them or they killed you. Meanwhile, they wore shorts in the evening and played sports with the Americans to convince them that they were not terrorists.
AT THE CHICKEN FARM
The chicken farm stands amid an expanse of wheat fields at the end of a long dirt road several kilometers from the nearest village. It was lush and green when the 47 Sunni Arab families from Jarallah arrived and the ripening wheat stalks rippled in the wind. Now the harvest is over and the parched golden stubble gives up clouds of dust when the wind blows.