The New York Times
May 23, 2003
In a Muslim City in Iraq, Christians Enjoy Their Quarter
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
ERBIL, Iraq, May 22 _ Tucked in a corner of this ancient, somber Muslim city is a neighborhood that wears skimpy clothing, eats cheeseburgers and drinks beer.
It is called Ankawa and it is home to a small but lively community of Assyro-Chaldeans, or Assyrian Christians, one of Iraq's smallest _ and proudest _ ethnic groups. They number 1.3 million in Iraq and are descendants of the indigenous people of Mesopotamia, with a language that dates back to 3000 B.C.
An equal number of the Assyrian Christians have settled outside the region, mostly in Chicago and Detroit.
"We are the remains of the original Iraqis," said Yonan Hozaya, a senior official in the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a political party. "You must take care not to lose us."
The neighborhood here is in no danger of disappearing. It is the main meeting spot for many in this city. A steady stream of slowly cruising cars flows past on the main thoroughfare, referred to by locals as Champs lyse for its lively shops. Young men sit low behind the steering wheel of their cars. Women walk arm in arm. Liquor stores abound.
Ankawa stands in contrast to the rest of Erbil, a Kurdish Muslim city where alcohol is not for sale and most women wear a hijab head covering. Young people are not allowed inside the city park at night without being accompanied by a family member.
In Ankawa, even young women stroll through the local amusement park alone. On a recent night there, Rajuna Yelda, 22, a basketball player in jeans and sandals, walked arm in arm with Sabina Gilyana, also 22, a smiling young woman wearing a tight-fitting leopard print T-shirt.
"In Erbil, families can't just walk around like this," said Ms. Yelda, gesturing with her hand and polished fingernails. "Our parents trust us."
The beating heart of the neighborhood is a restaurant called Italiano, the only one in Erbil that serves pizza. Locals sit on the tiny outdoor terrace and graze on quattro formaggio pizza until midnight.
The restaurant's name "is very strange," said Hekmat Shaba, an Assyrian Christian who is the chief cook. "No one here knows Italian food."
For locals, the most mystifying item on the menu is called, simply, Kentucky. Mr. Shaba described it as a chicken dish but could not explain its origin. It is a Western word, he said, adding that he thought it referred to the way the chicken was cut.
"I heard there is a place that is also called Kentucky," he said, and laughed self-consciously after a visitor explained that it was the name of a state in America.
Why, one might ask, is Ankawa so free? Mr. Hozaya said it was because Assyrian Christians throughout the centuries had always been ruled by foreigners, like Persians and Romans. That made them more flexible and tolerant to those around them.
"We are always thinking of European life and of freedom," he said. "We are the barometer of democracy."
In Ankawa the Assyrian Christians are Catholics. There are five religious groups in the ethnic group, three of them Eastern Orthodox. The Assyrian Christians splintered time and again throughout history, most recently in 1963, when one group split into two over a dispute about which calendar the church should follow.
"You see we have many names, but we are all one people," Mr. Hozaya said. "It's a very deep ancient history with many problems. It was always divide us and conquer."
Now Mr. Hozaya and others in the Assyrian Democratic Party are trying to demand their fair share in representation in the new interim governments being established in the north of Iraq. As fewer than 5 percent of the Iraqi population, they will never play a large part. But as the government becomes more democratic, their role as a swing vote will be key.
The two main Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party, "have been ruling this area by themselves," he said. "That's not fair."
Assyrian Christians are always on the cutting edge of change in Iraq's north, Mr. Hozaya said. They are the first to have the latest fashions. They had the first soccer team in all of Iraq.
A former resident of the area, Leo Zirar Halifa, 21, was out for a stroll on Wednesday night. He was visiting from Austria, his home since he left Iraq during the war between Mr. Hussein and the Kurds in 1991.
"Now life is better," Mr. Halifa said in confident English. Still, he would not consider moving back. In Vienna, his new home, his Polish girlfriend and his bartending job await him.
"I asked her to come with me on vacation, but she said, `No it's crazy in Iraq.' But I don't think it's dangerous. I like walking around. It's my neighborhood."
Original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/23/international/worldspecial/23CHRI.html
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