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Middle East

Through war and IS group threat, the Erbil teahouse that never closed

© Guillaume Guguen, France 24 | The Mackho teahouse is tucked into the southern wall of the historic Citadel in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2017-09-11

History lives in Machko, a book-lined teahouse in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. With a controversial independence referendum looming, the past is once again determining the future as the lessons of history are not necessarily being learned.

The pantheon of Kurdish heroes looms over the packed teahouse – or chai khana, as it’s known in these parts – staring down from walls plastered with photographs of cultural greats including writers, musicians and much loved shayirs, or poets, who have recorded the sorrows and yearnings of their people through the years.

There’s the iconic image of the late Mullah Mustafa Barzani, a nationalist hero whose descendants continue to dominate politics in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, today. To his left, is a somber Qazi Muhammed, a separatist leader who headed the short-lived, breakaway Republic of Mahabad in the 1940s in Iranian territory before he was hanged for treason. Finally, there’s the current crop of political stalwarts: Massoud Barzani, head of the KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) and Jalal Talabani of the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). The two living Kurdish legends smile genially next to each other in the photograph even though in real life they have competed – sometimes murderously – for much of their lives.

The Machko chai khana has been in business in Erbil, the Kurdish heartland in Iraq, while these leaders have risen, fallen, declared war, made peace or perished. For 77 years, Mohsin Majeed Machko’s family has served tea, sympathy and free books stuffed on groaning shelves to a clientele that has included Kurdish notables and their fans.

The chai khana hugs the southern wall of Erbil’s imposing Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site that has survived, in some shape or form, since the Assyrians and Sassanids controlled these fertile plains abutting the Zargos mountains.

Business as usual through war and subjugation

Back in 1940, when Machko’s father, Muhammed, started the family teahouse, World War II was raging and the area was a pawn between the great powers, a fate the Kurds have been historically unable to resist since kings and cartographers conquered and divided their lands, depriving them of a cherished motherland. Like the mighty fortress that shields it, this little chai khana has survived the tests of time, never once shutting down even as conflicts – internal and external – raged.

In the early 1990s, shortly after the Kurdish autonomous zone was established in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, Erbil was under PUK control. By the mid-1990s however, fighting broke out between forces loyal to Barzani and Talabani, plunging the area into a brutal civil war that claimed thousands of lives and sent many of the city’s residents fleeing for safety.

From left to right: Photographs of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, Qazi Muhammed, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani on Machko’s walls. © Leela Jacinto, FRANCE 24

It stayed open during the fearful months of 2014, when the Islamic State (IS) group captured Mosul, capital of the Ninawa province west of Erbil, and seemed intent on an invincible eastward sweep into the capital of Kurdistan. Panic gripped a city whose residents had a living memory of subjugation and atrocities, including chemical attacks and aerial bombardments.

As thousands of residents from the Ninawa plains poured into the city, settling in parks and public spaces while local authorities and aid organisations scrambled to cope, Machko kept its doors open to customers heatedly discussing the situation over steaming glasses of tea. But business was slow. Residents uneasy about the security situation preferred to stay home and visitors from across Iraq and the region stopped flowing into a booming city that had been dubbed “the new Dubai”.

‘History, let it go’

But that was three years ago, and it seems already like a lifetime.

“Business is good, very good, thank god,” says Machko between instructions to waiters balancing trays of tea. It’s the busy evening time, when families converge around the Citadel, but Machko consents to a short break to offer a brief history of one of Erbil’s most iconic chai khanas.

Sitting at one of the street tables outside his teashop, Machko runs through a family timeline with brusque efficiency. “I was born here in Erbil in 1956. This chai khana was already in the family then and my father ran it until he died in 1962. Then my elder brother took his position, until he passed away in 1991, and then I took over.”

But he doesn’t want to talk too much about the past. “History, let it go,” he scowls. “Our people had a history of hardship under the dictator Saddam [Hussein]. But now we’re living in peace and freedom,” he maintains as the dipping sun casts a pink glow on the giant Kurdish flag on the Citadel wall above the teahouse.

A campaign of all ‘Yes’ and no ‘No’

A sea of Kurdish flags has flooded downtown Erbil these days. Just weeks ahead of a controversial September 25 referendum on Kurdish independence, the city is in full campaign mode with vote “Yes” posters emblazoned everywhere.

The “No” campaign is nowhere to be seen because there isn’t one.

The two main parties, the KDP and PUK, have backed the September 25 referendum despite pressure from the central government in Baghdad as well as regional and international powers to scrap, or at least postpone, the vote.

Click here for more on Kexit: Why a Kurdish independence referendum has few backers

The opposition Gorran (Change) Movement has called for a postponement of the referendum and has slammed the vote as illegitimate since it lacks parliamentary approval. The Kurdish parliament has not been in session since October 2015, when the elected body opposed an attempt to extend the limits of Barzani’s presidential term for a second time.

But the Gorran Movement insists that the Kurdish people have a constitutional right to self-determination and to a referendum, and is therefore not conducting a “No” campaign.

Tensions between Erbil and Baghdad

The capital of Iraqi Kurdistan is a Barzani stronghold and detractors are hard to find on the streets of Erbil. There are certainly none to be found, or none to publicly admit they oppose the September 25 referendum, at Machko – and that includes the owner. “Unlike before, we are independent now. We hope to have our own state soon. By the will of God, we hope Kurdistan is independent,” says Machko.

Ahmed Chicho, a 24-year-old law student drinking tea with his friends, agrees.

“The economy is a big problem, but we think in the future it will get better after there is a Kurdistan. Our vote is bale, yes,” explains Chicho in English.

Mohsin Majeed Machko’s family has run the teahouse since 1940. © Guillaume Guguen, FRANCE 24

Kurdistan’s citizens have been feeling the pinch since 2014, when then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki cut the region’s budget after the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) attempted to export oil produced in the areas it controls independent of Baghdad.

Current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi did not roll back the decision despite friendlier relations between Baghdad and Erbil, including military cooperation between Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces against the IS group.

Following Barzani’s call for a referendum, budgetary and territorial negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad after the IS defeat are likely to get tougher. Meanwhile oil prices have been falling and there are few international takers for Erbil’s oil exports until the outstanding legal issues are resolved. What’s more, neighbouring Turkey – a country that’s critical for the oil exports from landlocked Kurdistan – has opposed the vote. Turkey has a sizeable Kurdish population, estimated at around 14 million, and Ankara views any independence moves by the Kurds in Iraq as a domestic threat.

‘We hate Arabic people’

Nevertheless Chico and his friends are convinced their economic wellbeing lies in an independent Kurdistan even though they aren’t Kurds.

Chico describes himself as a “Hawleri,” after Hawler, the old name for Erbil. A Turkmen whose ancestors controlled the region during the Seljuk period in the Middle Ages, Chico has a fluid sense of identity. “Inside Erbil, we are Turkmen. But outside Erbil, we are just Kurdish,” he says before explaining the underlying reason for his proximity to the Kurds in faltering English. “We hate Arabic people because we don’t have freedom under them. There must be freedom in the new Kurdistan.”

The IS group threat may have receded, but a deeply divided Iraq now confronts enormous challenges with sectarian and ethnic groups, armed to the teeth for the fight against the jihadist group, figuring if and how to coexist peacefully together.

At the tables around the chai khana, a number of students and older men pour over books donated to the establishment by writers and politicians who have frequented the place. The books and photographs on the walls of Machko emphasise the rhetoric of a people historically deprived of a motherland, a yearning for a homeland that will not be quenched and one that’s particularly susceptible to revolutionary leaders of yore and contemporary politicians playing the populist referendum card.

Under the watchful gaze of the pantheon of Kurdish resistance heroes, this little chai khana tucked into the walls of the city’s past is not about to break with history. The details can sort themselves out at a later date. An independent Kurdistan is an emotional calling and in this little café, where the past is plastered on the walls, the weight of history beguiles all despite the owner’s admonishments that he simply wants to move on.

Date created : 2017-09-10

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