Postcard — September 30, 2014, 11:41 am

Marooned at the Mall

Iraq’s forgotten Christians in Kurdish exile

Six weeks ago, as Islamic State militants threatened Baghdad, Suleiman, a member of Iraq’s Christian minority, abandoned his job at the airport and set out with his family for Kurdistan, the autonomous northern region that has become a haven for persecuted religious minorities. Along the way, their car was stopped at an Islamic State checkpoint. Terrified, Suleiman decided to flatter the terrorists in the hope that they might let him and his family pass: “Good job, I told them. After only twenty-four hours you have taken over here.’” Recalling the incident, he paused. “Really, I was thinking about death.” The militants took his papers (“They knew I am a Christian”) and all of his money before finally letting the car pass.

ERBIL, IRAQ: The interior of a building that is now inhabited by displaced Iraqi Christians. Photograph by Sebastian Meyer

ERBIL, IRAQ: The interior of a building that is now inhabited by displaced Iraqi Christians. Photograph by Sebastian Meyer

Sitting cross-legged on a mattress in a makeshift refugee camp in Erbil, the Kurdish capital, where he and his family had ended up, Suleiman pulled open his wallet. It contained a small blue bill: 250 Iraqi dinar—about twenty cents. In Ankawa, the affluent, predominantly Christian neighborhood where the camp was located, 250 dinar is enough for one bottle of water. For Suleiman, whose scant possessions (mainly toiletries) were laid out fastidiously on a shelf, not having any money meant not having an identity, nor any hope of regaining one.

Suleiman and his family were not alone. In mid-August, hundreds of displaced Christians who had fled to Erbil were moved by Kurdish authorities into the concrete shell of a half-built mall. Most of them were from Iraq’s northwestern Nineveh Plain, home to some of the oldest Christian communities in the world. It made perfect sense, in a way: Iraqi Kurdistan is in the midst of an economic boom, the harvest of which, so far, seems to be half-built malls. With the Islamic State on the border, construction has come to a halt, and the malls and other developments—the future offices, apartments, and shops of the hyper-developed oil state that Kurdish leaders and investors like to envision—are being used to house the nearly 1.5 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have poured into Kurdistan.

Hauling foam mattresses, bright-blue U.N.H.C.R. blankets, and purses containing well-thumbed American visa applications, the Christian IDPs rushed to claim spots on the mall’s three floors. The structure, situated on a busy road, was exposed and dreary, full of construction hazards and looking more post-apocalyptic than pre–grand opening. Still, it was better than sleeping outside.

Displaced people from Karamlish, a town of about 10,000 that lies fifty miles west of Erbil, took the top floor. Up there it was open and breezy, relatively private, with good views of Saint Joseph’s Church, a fortress-like building topped by a glowing cross, where many of the displaced had spent their first nights. But being up high was also more dangerous. The outer walls of the third floor were unfinished, and just beyond them was a perilous drop onto the craggy rubble of a construction site. A temporary stairwell connecting the floors had no railing, and, in the middle of the structure, what would one day become the mall’s atrium was now a gaping hole.

On the first floor, families from Qaraqosh claimed space as far away from the busy main entrance as possible. Men policed that entrance, but they feared strangers; it was hard to know who belonged. Some refugees leaned their belongings against the cinder blocks that had been stacked into rudimentary walls. They were grateful for the privacy. Others gravitated to the open areas—temperatures had reached 110 degrees in Erbil and even a thick, hot breeze was better than nothing. They hung blankets and jackets on the rebar that jutted out of columns and tried to claim even a small bit of turf as their own.

Latecomers from Qaraqosh and nearby Bartella, as well as the sick or wheelchair-bound, were forced below ground into the future parking garage. Down there, the air was still. Sick IDPs lay on mattresses. Water dripping from buckets or plastic bottles formed puddles that never seemed to dry. A two-foot gap just below the ceiling let in some breeze, which brought along dust and garbage kicked up by passersby on the street; many of the residents blocked the opening with cardboard. It was dark even during the day. One elderly woman wept, sweeping bits of trash into a dustpan. She said that she felt like she was living in a grave, and that her real home was a ghost town.

The Christians living in the mall knew that they were just a few among a multitude of IDPs. Some were quick to point out that, compared with other minorities in Iraq—the Yazidis in particular—they were lucky. The Islamic State had not ambushed them in their homes. Instead, the Kurdish peshmerga who had been guarding the towns had determined, in the days before the U.S. began assisting them with air strikes, that they had to retreat and regroup. The Christians were warned, and given time to leave. Most received word through an unexpected late-evening phone call. “Some areas fall by fighting,” Stephen, a Catholic priest from Karamlish, told me. “We fell by cell phone.”

“No one is prepared to receive 20,000 people in one day,” Father Douglas, a local priest, said, as he watched parcels of food aid being unloaded in the mall’s basement. The bulk of the aid came from a local Catholic diocese, with about 20 percent coming from private donors; so far, they had sufficient food and medical aid. Father Douglas was a familiar type of religious leader, as concerned about the mental well-being of his congregation as their spiritual devotion. Messages on a whiteboard in his office across town urged IDPs to “stay positive and stay strong.” He’d seen worse. “I’m from Baghdad,” he liked to say. “To me, this is a picnic.”

ERBIL, IRAQ: Mark sleeps in a cubicle room inside an abandoned building that's now inhabited by displaced Iraqi Christians. Photograph by Sebastian Meyer

ERBIL, IRAQ: Mark sleeps in a cubicle room inside an abandoned building that’s now inhabited by displaced Iraqi Christians. Photograph by Sebastian Meyer

Each plastic-wrapped parcel contained moderate portions of belly-filling staples: rice and soft cheese, cooking oil, pasta. They rolled off the back of a truck into the eager hands of the Bartella and Qaraqosh IDPs, who looked both relieved and embarrassed. Back home, most had jobs. I met electricians, nurses, famers, and pharmacists, as well as airport cooks who proudly referred to themselves as “chefs,” drivers now without cars, and grocery owners who imagined their inventory feeding the Islamic State.

Daniel, a Qaraqosh native in his twenties, with faint acne scars and spiked black hair, had worked as a janitor in a wedding hall, cleaning up after the last guests had drained their drinks and gone home. Sometimes he was there until sunrise, sweeping the floor and scrubbing the tables—but that meant the wedding had been particularly large and probably happy.

“To be honest, our life in Qaraqosh was really good,” Daniel said. “We worked. I had two laptops, an Xbox, a camera.” He missed Facebook and God of War III, a combat video game loosely based on Greek mythology. He hadn’t been to church in five months. “I don’t know why,” he said, looking at the floor. “I don’t know what to say. I just always feel bad.”

Daniel lived in a corner on the first floor of the mall, but he hadn’t met many of his neighbors. One of them, a young mother, had traveled fifteen hours in a car with her eight-day-old baby. A seat in the car cost a hundred dollars, and the trip had been slow and frightening. But it hadn’t been uncomfortable, she told me—there was air-conditioning, and they let her carry her son on her lap for no extra charge. Her husband was still in Baghdad.

The boy slept swaddled in white cloth, and each adult who touched him seemed to receive a shock of delight. But Daniel only nodded at the baby, chuckling to see the source of the crying that kept him up at night. Choosing not to interact with other people, or to bond with neighbors over a shared horror, is a right that many of the IDPs seemed determined to exercise. No comfort, not even a newborn baby, could compare to the comfort of familiarity. Even though they were out of immediate danger, suspicion colored every interaction.

Small groups of roving men monitored the flow of people between floors. A local priest, one of these informal guards told me, had advised them to keep an eye on who came and went. Their behavior mimicked what they had experienced crossing the border on their way to Erbil. Security is paramount to the success story of modern Iraqi Kurdistan, and the influx of IDPs has fueled widespread anxiety—hence the rigorous profiling of refugees at Kurdish border checkpoints. “You cannot undermine your own security just because you are doing a humanitarian job,” Safeen Dizayee, a Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.) spokesperson, told me.

Many Christians I spoke to assumed that their religion had helped them get through the checkpoints at the Kurdistan border. It was hard for them to feel guilty about the preferential treatment. Still, some Christians in the mall declared that they could no longer live among Muslims, which seemed both an acknowledgment of their homelessness and an expression of their newfound prejudice against their former neighbors back in Iraq. (The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but their strong collective identity generally derives more from ethnicity than religion.)

“At the Erbil checkpoint we had to get a taxi, but they were scared of us,” Daniel said. “I told the taxi driver, don’t be afraid, we are Christians. We are just happy to be alive. The driver relaxed. He said, ‘I’m sorry that I have to take money from you. We are peaceful, we just want to live our lives.’ But when you tell them you are Muslim, they give you a paper that lets you stay for seven days. They don’t trust Arab Muslims.”

One afternoon in early September, a crowd formed in the mall’s basement. “We are disrespected, all of us!” a man shouted, waving his arms. His audience shuddered. “I waited for three hours and all I got was this,” he said, holding up a bag of chocolate cookies and one of powered milk. “There’s no rice. When the rain starts, the basement will be full of water. They’ll throw us into the streets and kill us because of this,” he said, pointing to the cross around his neck. “Either you are Muslim, or you will die.” His voice cracked. “Our government treats us so badly. We don’t want them anymore. We want the European government. There are only 200,000 of us, Europe could take us.”

ERBIL, IRAQ: A young boy plays with burning garbage in an abandoned lot across the street from a camp for displaced Christians where he lives with his family. Photograph by Sebastian Meyer

ERBIL, IRAQ: A young boy plays with burning garbage in an abandoned lot across the street from a camp for displaced Christians where he lives with his family. Photograph by Sebastian Meyer

Among the IDPs on all floors the desire to leave Iraq was unmistakable. The project of securing a visa to America or Europe was a distraction from the empty days, one that replaced the jobs and social lives they had left at home in Nineveh. Many people clutched applications and new passports like trophies, which they displayed to each other or to visitors as proof of their determination. It was clear to them that Kurdistan, in spite of its autonomy, was very much a part of Iraq. They had themselves blurred the borders when they crossed them.

One large family was trying to nurse their four-year-old son back to health, but in the dank atmosphere of the basement they were pessimistic. A doctor, the mother told me, had said that the child could die if they didn’t move in one month. He needed treatment abroad. “The only solution is to leave this place,” she said. The woman also needed to see a specialist; she had been hit by a car, and her foot was twisted and deformed, the outer toes folded toward the middle.

Absorbing the influx of refugees and IDPs has given Kurdistan the chance to prove that its reputation for progress and open-mindedness is more than just rhetoric. In many important ways it has succeeded. There have been very few reports of harassment by locals, and the government has worked quickly to set up camps and to offer as much assistance as possible, even when foreign aid has been slow to materialize. The humanitarian burden shouldn’t be underestimated. “Can you imagine if 560,000 people in one month went to France or to the U.K?” Dizayee, the K.R.G. spokesperson, asked me. “Do you think even they could manage?”

But in other ways, the crisis has amplified some of the region’s difficulties. Budget disputes with Baghdad, which have gone unresolved since January, make it difficult to pay for the humanitarian efforts, and not all of the blame for these disputes can be pinned on an intractable central government. Profiling at checkpoints may be justified by officials for security measures, but it hampers the image of Kurdistan as an ecumenical refuge.

There are also limits to how comfortable IDPs feel in Kurdistan. Many in the shopping mall were upset by the Christians in Ankawa, who hadn’t opened their homes to refugees. No one in Bartella would ever let another Christian sleep on the street, they said. One Karamlish man complained about being rebuffed by the peshmerga back in Iraq, which, he said, showed the limits of Kurdistan’s inclusivity. “I said, ‘We are here, we have 1,800 people. Give us guns and we will fight,’” he told me. “They said, No, we will fight for you. Go sit.”

The crisis has also exposed some of the ways in which Kurdistan’s economic growth has made it a more difficult place to live. Finding affordable housing in Erbil is daunting, and the price of groceries has soared. The cost of living is untenable for IDPs with limited resources. And Kurdistan’s medical infrastructure, which has long been underdeveloped and stymied by government inefficiency, has buckled under the weight of ailing refugees. The Christians in the Ankawa shopping mall were grateful for the security, but had no desire to stay.

Meanwhile, Father Douglas treated his congregation as though they were in hospice care. It was his job, he said, to make them feel comfortable and cared for, and to reinforce their connection to their religion. But even amid his feel-good rhetoric, he did not urge the displaced Christians to stay in Iraq. He expected that within a year, 50 percent of Iraq’s Christians would be gone, whether physically relocated or, as he somberly predicted, psychologically out of reach. “During the service, I say, ‘Think about your kids,’ ” he told me. “Only the parents can make this decision. Not the government, only the parents.”

The family with the sick four-year-old built their lives in the mall basement around their determination to leave. They stacked their children’s passports next to their mattresses, brandishing them whenever an aid worker or journalist visited, and snuck onto neighborhood wireless networks when they could, to connect with friends and family on Facebook who had already made it out. They sent query after query to U.N.H.C.R., and they checked and rechecked pending visa applications as though they were overturned hourglasses. Each small action was another step out of the country. “The only thing we can do is find a good place for our children,” the father said. “These children don’t love Iraq.”

Single Page
is a writer based in Istanbul and is the recipient of a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

More from Jenna Krajeski:

Postcard August 19, 2014, 11:17 am

Iraq in Therapy

The talking cure comes to Kurdistan

From the August 2014 issue

What the Camera Saw

Investigating a Turkish protester’s death

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Acres of crossword puzzles Americans fill in each day:


In Burma, a newly discovered noseless monkey was assumed to be critically endangered because—despite its efforts to keep its head tucked between its legs on rainy days—it sneezes whenever rain falls into its nasal cavity and thereby alerts hunters to its presence.

Paul Manafort accepts a plea deal; Brett Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault; Jeff Bezos gets into the kindergarten racketon the clock

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today