The Kurdish resort town that Sunni Arabs now call home
I wound up the curved mountain road towards Shaqlawa from the hot dusty plain where spring was only just ending. It was a late afternoon and the atmosphere in the centre of town was soporific. The market stood empty and the traders had all gone home to rest.
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 and who now outnumbered the local Kurdish population.
Their presence gave the town a palimpsest quality of overlaid languages and desires. There was much to think about for those who passed through the wide main streets, lined with shops selling trinkets for tourists who had now been replaced by the displaced; and for those sitting huddled in Shaqlawa’s outdoor cafes, sucking the smoke from gurgling shisha pipes or quietly draining small glass teacups.
On the hill’s crest above the town I looked out at the graveyard packed with bodies. The remnants of a dust storm hung in the air as my friend, a theological student displaced from Fallujah in Iraq’s western Anbar province, searched for his uncle in a new part of the cemetery, climbing boulders and calling back to me. Fallujah was taken by militants in January 2014 and then bombarded by government forces, the latest in a long line of violence visited upon the city’s residents. Those who could afford to travel north started arriving in Shaqlawa shortly after.
28/08/15. Shaqlawa, Iraq. — A portrait of Fawziya and her youngest son (24) Mohamed, displaced from Falluja. Fawziya does not remember if she is 45 or 46. She has been living in Shaqlawa with her two sons and their families for the past 7 months. They left Falluja after that one day a bomb hit and destroyed their house killing Fawziya’s daughter. In Shaqlawa they are renting two small concrete shacks, for which they pay 400 usd.
Many of the newer graves hold the bodies of Anbaris who fled war temporarily and not made it back. My friend explored the small mounds of packed earth with his eyes before he found the grave. Abdullah, his uncle, had a long career as a town planner in Anbar and once almost ran for governor. He was not yet fifty when he died of a heart attack.
Someone had laid a sprig of pine on his grave. Behind us a girl walked unevenly with a jug of water back to where her family had gathered to wash another headstone in the soft insect-filled light. My friend looked down at his uncle’s resting place and then back over Shaqlawa. “If you told me two years ago I would be a refugee here I wouldn’t have believed you,” he said, adding, “I love Fallujah; it’s my city. I used to take pictures of the river, the sun, the clouds and the mosques, but now it’s a city of ghosts and ISIS controls everything.”
I had come to Shaqlawa with a Kurdish friend from the city of Kirkuk who remembered visiting the hill-town as a child and the way it always seemed to be “filled with water even when everywhere else was dry,” referring to droughts which, along with water shortages, are a feature of Iraqi summers.
On a quiet back road, sixty-five year old Samia Abed was waking up from an afternoon nap. She greeted me outside her two room house, trailed by her husband Allawy who yawned at the late afternoon sun and lit a cigarette. The ground below their small blue door was smudged with fallen berries. It was mulberry season and baskets of ripe fruit stood for sale on the roadsides at the edge of town.
The main room in Samia’s house was bare except for a Persian rug and cabinet donated by the imam from the local mosque who, at that moment, was overseeing a funeral less than a mile away. Her face was lively and her hands were tattooed in swirling black patterns. “I was a child and thought it looked beautiful. My mother did it with seven needles and black ash – only the first prick hurt,” she said. “But now of course I’m jealous. My husband has another wife who doesn’t have hand tattoos. We are both jealous of each other,” she sighed.
29/08/15. Shaqlawa, Iraq. — The children of Sabah, 48, from Falluja, sleep inside a windowless room, in the basement of a residential complex. The complex was bought by a rich man from Falluja at the end of 2013. The man is now renting out the 16 apartments as well as the basement to displaced families for 250 usd each.
And then the conversation turned to death. Allaway looked sullen. “I asked my family if I die to please bury me in Fallujah,” said Samia as Allawy continued to smoke and seemed to be considering the implausibility of her statement: the road was blocked by ISIS. Four months ago she woke in the night with chest pains. As the left side of her body went numb, Allaway went out into the dark streets to find a taxi to bring her to the hospital.
“One of the muscles in my heart died,” she said showing me the doctor’s drawing of the valves and pumps of her heart. “I was sick in Fallujah but not like this,” she said speculating that the heart attack could have been caused by the tragedy of moving. “It could be the mountains, the weather or the sadness,” she said.
Of their five children, one had never come home. “When my son died we only had a small ceremony,” she said, her voice trailing off. He was a taxi driver and went missing in 2003 as the American’s fought in Fallujah. His body was never discovered. There was something hopeful in her voice as if he still might walk in through the door.
25/08/15. Shaqlawa, Iraq. — Young IDPs from Falluja play football in the evening. They organize themselves in teams and play several times a week.
On the main street young Kurdish men joked loudly as they drank tea. The cafe looked out on the busy shifting street as the tin roof echoed with the clatter of domino tiles. Off to one side sat a line of older men speaking sparingly and clutching canes, legs apart under long white and cream robes.
For Subhi Rashid there was much to think about and consider despite the hum of the street outside where young men and women streamed by like glittering fish through the blue-glazed evening. Subhi, a dapper 72 year-old with dyed black hair and a matching trimmed moustache, sighed as I said hello.
His hands were resting on the worn wooden head of his walking stick as he began to talk. “Just now I was thinking and worrying about my children,” he said. “I have four boys and three girls, all of them married except for the youngest. I worry about the two with Sunni names still left in Baghdad.”
Baghdad is more dangerous for Sunni Muslims these days. During his dictatorship, Saddam Hussein favoured the Sunni, but after his ouster, the Shia took their revenge and the bodies of Sunni civilians were found with holes drilled through their skulls. Many left. Now the Shia militias have become even more powerful as they fight ISIS militants who practice an extreme version of Sunni Islam which paints Shia as apostates who must be killed.
“I think about how I suffered to raise my kids and build my homes in Fallujah, Ramadi and Baghdad,” he said reflecting on a long life torn from its roots. “The government has tried to prevent us from going to Baghdad without a sponsor and even with a sponsor we feel it isn’t safe there.” At the Bzebiz bridge marking the entry to Baghdad from Anbar province, Sunnis fleeing fighting are asked for Baghdad residents to vouch for them before being allowed to enter the capital, but many remain stranded. The lucky few who make it through then head north to the Kurdistan region.
Subhi explained how Anbaris lost trust in the Shia led government. He worked as a teacher and a headmaster in a primary school in Fallujah for 31 years. “In the 1970s out of all the employees in the school only the principle had a car. After 2003 everyone had a car, but the security situation got much worse.”
He shifted his body slightly to the right to exchange a few words with an older man beside him. They sat with resigned decorum, peering out onto the faces of the street. The sky turned blood red. Displacement doesn’t hold new opportunities for men who have already built lives elsewhere.
Subhi listed the professions of his children: an anaesthetist, a teacher, a dentist and a graduate of the medical college. As the conversation lulled he turned back to address his friend, but not before giving me a polite nod. I thanked him. “You are most welcome,” he said. I wondered how Fallujah, a city of such men, could be overrun by militants.
It was night and cars were parked on grassy verges next to picnic spots. Groups of men sat around on wooden benches with bottles of whisky, beer, cigarettes and snacks. To the clink, swig and draw, five men from Fallujah welcomed me as I approached them. Behind us Shaqlawa was cool and flat in the dark, only visible by the pin prick house-lights and glitter of traffic.
The discussion that night was deeply pessimistic, but the men were open and gracious in their solemnity. The city of Ramadi had fallen that week and the men saw this as an omen. How had the Anbari capital fallen? What was wrong with the tribes – the tribes they belonged to? As they picked at these subjects with anger-tinged sadness, a local man wandered over wearing tradition Kurdish baggy trousers. He was greeted kindly and sat down to listen, but didn’t speak.
Here under the darkness they explained their fears like card players dealing out a pack. “ISIS came out of the blue. The army simply melted away – and why, please tell us, didn’t the coalition airstrikes destroy ISIS as they travelled to Ramadi?” They smoked and wondered aloud why the US wasn’t doing more to help the fight against ISIS.
They were businessmen and traders who had left shops and offices in Anbar. Now they feared looting by the Shia militias who were fighting to retake the province. “ISIS never represented Sunnis,” one man said. “And now we have no hope.”
“We Sunnis should rule ourselves, but who would lead us? Look at the Kurds,” his friend interjected his tongue loosening as he poured more whisky from the flask into a plastic bottle.
29/08/15. Shaqlawa, Iraq. — Omar, 35 y.o. from Falluja. Every morning Omar sits on the side of the main street in Seirmaidan area where Kurdish building companies collect workers when needed for the day. He will stay there from 6 in the morning until 11. When he works he usually makes 25-30.000 IQD.
In the hotel that night the sounds of water didn’t stop. I stayed up drinking wine from small hotel bathroom cups with my friend from Kirkuk. We’d bought the wine earlier from an open air liquor shop in the Christian part of town, up on the hill. I slid back to my room around 2am and noticed that many of the house lights in Shaqlawa remained on. Perhaps people were up late chewing over the day like I was; or were kept up with worry about lack of jobs; or perhaps the lights were meant to guide home the men who by now would be winding their way back from drinking whisky on the quiet hill roads.
The next morning, General Kayfi Ali who is in charge of distributing aid to refugees in Shaqlawa, was meeting a group of smartly dressed men in the hotel lobby. I would speak to him properly later on. I went outside into the morning where purple trembling clouds were threatening to burst with late spring rain. Across the street in the entrance hall of the Media Palace Hotel, a woman sat silently in full make up as if she was waiting for something to happen. I walked up to the wooden desk and spoke to the man behind the counter who was wearing a powder blue shirt.
He told me that the hotel was built in the 1970s and was probably the oldest in town. Its structure was angular and concrete, with stairs running up on the outside of the building at the back. “The Baghdad Hotel opposite did rival us, but was torn down and a car park was built in its place.” Across much of Kurdish Iraq an economic boom had spiked and then crashed, leaving the skeletons of building projects scattered across the skyline like toys left out.
“In the 12 years I have been here we’ve never served alcohol,” he said, adding “This is why we’ve never had any problems with rowdy guests.” The room rates had been cut by a third as refugees arrived in their thousands and Shaqlawa became less popular with tourists. Now only displaced families stay at the Media Palace Hotel. Peering into the dining hall I could hear the sounds of breakfast dishes being washed and put away, but the room was empty.
The streets leading to the Christian neighbourhood were overgrown and winding. A group of men stood collecting mulberries on a blanket, shaking the berries from the boughs into the stained sheet below. No cars passed. It was the weekend after all and down the track outside a wedding hall teenagers sat outside watching a Bollywood film. Their voices combined with the Indian pop music from the film and trickled across the deep green fields.
29/08/15. Shaqlawa, Iraq. — Displaced children from Falluja hang their washing on ropes outside the basement where they have been living for the past year and a half.
11 families live in the building, each of them using a 3 by 4 meters’ room for which they pay 300.000 IQD (250usd).
At the bottom of the hill, displaced people thronged at an intersection almost blocking the road as they waited to receive payments from Baghdad to help them with the costs of living. That day their wait was fruitless. The General told me that the central government wanted them to pay for smart cards to claim their food vouchers. “I refused,” he said, bristling at the idea of obeying orders. “The people here can’t afford to pay 50 dollars for these cards. They don’t have any money.”
In the plush home of the General’s friend, the dining table was packed with huge dishes of rice, meat and salad. The displaced families I had met lived in rooms with plastic sheets for ceilings and bare concrete walls. One family had pinned a teddy bear up on a hook for decoration. The General dug his feet into the white carpet and placed his tea down on a glass side table.
A day earlier someone had smeared the logo of the ISIS extremists on a wall a little further out of town. “We have a lot of women and families here whose husbands are still with ISIS or are detained on suspicion of being with them, but we help them all the same,” he said, his pistol rested beside his burning cigarette. “I think it was locals trying to stir up hatred between Kurds and Arabs. I don’t think displaced people would do something like that,” he said. When I asked to see the graffiti he said it had already been washed away.
Outside the small home of a family from Al Dour, near Tikrit, two teenagers became restless as I spoke to their parents. The younger son seemed bashful, but as I left he turned to me full of teenage bravado and said “I’ll kill myself if you don’t marry me.” Then he blew me a kiss.
“That’s our humour,” the father apologised with a laugh. I took the proposal as a sign of his boredom and desire to taste something outside Shaqlawa. They weren’t attending school at that time and seemed to have little to do.
The boy’s older brother Omar was locked up, beaten and accused of drinking alcohol by ISIS when they seized control of Al Dour. His father called everyone he knew until his son was released. After that the family fled. “They’ve never touched alcohol!” he exclaimed. Behind him the same son quickly inhaled the smoke from a cigarette.
The family’s home town is now free of ISIS, but before they could return they heard reports that their home was looted by the same Shia militias that fought to liberate Tikrit. With a Sunni name like Omar, they family fear becoming victims of revenge attacks from Shia militia intent on revenge.
Omar’s sister stayed inside. I went in to speak to her and she followed me back outside, keeping covered while chatting happily. She had full cheeks and a smile still girlish in late teenage-hood that sparkled without the constrained intensity of her brothers. Here there was love and quick wit, but also jobs and lives stalled; homes too dangerous to return to. She laughed and joked with her brothers. Taking my hands in hers the moment before I left, she stood and asked me for sisterhood, clenching her fists quickly into my palms.
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