Published Sunday, August 31, 2008 in The Register-Guard.
(SULEIMANIYA, IRAQ) “I think every Iraqi needs a psychiatrist,” says Sazan Sallah. Sazan is 21, a second year medical studies student. She hopes to someday practice psychiatry in a nation that has been through enough to make anyone crazy.
“For my whole life, we have known only war,” Sazan continues. She’s right. Iraq’s war with Iran began in 1979, followed immediately by Desert Storm, then economic sanctions until the second Gulf War, and now an occupation and ample internal strife.
Yet life goes on.
Sazan’s mother is bringing to the garden huge platters of food. She and others have spent all day preparing. Tonight there will be a feast for Sazan’s sister, Shadan. Shadan is 29 today. An evening feast falls into a familiar rhythm. Abundance is offered every Friday evening, finishing their Sabbath. Everyone has a role to play.
Sazan’s mother has extra help today. Sazan can relax and chat.
Iraqi students take a comprehensive final exam when they finish high school. How they do on this one test determines their future. “It’s very, very important, because it is not only for your grade. It is for your life.” It’s how life would be in America if every job and every promotion for your entire career was based first on your S.A.T. score.
Sazan knew she wanted to go to medical school, but she also knew she wouldn’t be able to go unless she scored at least 95 percent on this single test.
“For almost a whole year, I did nothing but study. My mother wouldn’t let me help in the kitchen. She told me to go back to my books. My father was building this orchard, but they both told me the work I was doing was studying.” Sazan scored a 97.
The food is now spread before us, and more relatives and friends have shown up. Two dozen gather around the tables as the sun sets. There is more than enough food.
“When we came here, there was nothing. My father has made it all,” Sazan beams. There must be 100 fruit trees on these few acres off a busy road that leads to the airport. The fruit is harvested, but never sold. Instead, it is shared with family and friends.
“But this year, there is not much fruit. There is no water. The drought is very bad this year,” Sazan is apologizing for a lack while the table shows nothing but bounty. Shadan said she’s never seen the well and cistern so empty. Winter rains are still several months away.
Even when they come, the rains may do no good. Parched land repels water. Likewise, a war-torn psyche may resist help.
Mental illness carries a powerful stigma in this culture. It extends beyond the patient to all those around them, including the caregivers. By one count, Iraq has only 20 practicing psychiatrists to serve 26 million possible patients.
Sazan doesn’t hesitate when asked where she will practice. “Kirkuk. That is my family’s home.” When asked about her family’s roots in that area, she sounds confused. “You ask how many generations has my family lived in Kirkuk? All of them.”
Westerners forget that civilization literally began on this land. Some families never moved to get here. As long as there were recorded families, they were here. One city nearby has been continuously inhabited for 7,000 years.
In 1997, Sazan’s family moved from Kirkuk, east to Suleimaniya. “I’ll never forget that day,” she says as her eyes scan downward. Her bright smile dims. “Saddam’s men came to the door. They told us we had to leave.”
She doesn’t talk of any struggle. Saddam’s regime carried out a sustained campaign to move Kurds out of oil-rich Kirkuk, and replace them with less independent-minded Arabs. “Arabization,” it was called. Saddam offered loyal Arabs the equivalent of $30,000 to settle in Kirkuk, in addition to a free house — a house seized from a Kurdish family.
One of the friends at the table tonight is a widow. Her husband was killed by Saddam’s soldiers. She never remarried. She has worn black for twenty years. She knows she is welcome with this family, but there is no confusion between this place and her home — not for her and not for her hosts. They want to return to Kirkuk.
“I will go back,” Sazan says with no doubt in her voice. “Kirkuk is our home.”
Don Kahle (email@example.com) is sharing with readers of The Register-Guard the stories he’s gathering from people he’s met in Iraqi Kurdistan. All the stories are collected at www.dksez.com.