Introduction: A Stark Contrast
The old houses in Slemani’s centuries-old bazaar have a distinct architecture to them. With an elegant brick design, wooden engraved pillars and a cozy courtyard, these houses are quite emblematic of the family life back in the day. They were also at some point, the houses of artists, poets, prominent nationalist figures, politicians, linguists, and journalists. But as beautiful and historical as these houses are, one can not help but see only a few of them around, raising a host of questions: Who built these houses? How were they built? How many of these houses were there originally? How many are left? How did they end up becoming so few?
Parallel to the beauty of these houses, is the flat parking lots and bland commercial buildings that are seen everywhere. Since the bazaar is a commercial center, it is quite congested and in need of larger buildings to house the flock of people who come and go. In addition, with the rise of car-ownership in Slemani, more and more parking lots are needed as well. Ask around and it does not take too long to find out that the scarcity of the old houses is due to the abundance of the new commercial buildings and parking lots. In other word, these old houses were put to ruins for the sake of new buildings and parking lots, raising another host of questions: why were most of the old houses in the Slemani bazaar, which were emblematic of the ways in which people lived a century ago as well as beautiful architecture, not preserved but rather were left free in a laissez-faire policy, to be destroyed in the name of pragmatism? How come the government did not intervene to make them into a cultural site, instead of each of them eventually being sold off and turned into new buildings and parking lots because of the congested space they occupied? How did these houses go from hopes of preservation to heaps of rubble?
The answer to these questions can be derived both from our history and our present, both from external forces and internal misgivings. By taking even a glance at Kurdish history, one knows that Kurdistan has been at the mercy of bigger empires such as the Saffavids and the Ottomans, who used its ground as a battlefield. In the past century, Kurds have also been at the mercy of the four nation states – Iraq, Iraq, Syria and Turkey – that they found themselves in. Constantly on the move and insecure about the future, an ethos to preserve documents, books, or old houses did not flourish and this left no foundation for future group efforts pertaining to culture and preservation. If forced to pick between the preservation of culture and the life of one and their family, few would pick the former although one would be surprised at how many times Kurds did choose to risk life in order to preserve. With the turn of the 21st century, the Kurds of Iraq made significant gains as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was established in 2005. However, the government neglected many basic needs of the people and it was not surprising that it sidelined the preservation of culture as well. Without the government taking preservation of cultural affairs into its own hands, this meant that these houses needed firm legal support to have a chance of surviving. But the only law that could have protected these houses was a 1974 Iraqi law that was incredibly outdated and not capable of protecting any cultural house in Iraq never mind the ones in Slemani. With a neglectful government and a lack of strong laws, a huge gap was exposed for anyone to exploit which led to the imminent ruin of almost all these cultural houses. The exploitation was made easy due to the lack of an ethos to preserve, putting these houses at the mercy of owners who themselves were at the mercy of economic and political fluctuations.
In the following eight sections, I flesh out the argument made above to fully answer the questions at hand. I first start out with a description of the houses to make their distinct and special nature clear while including a short historical development of their architecture as well. In the second section, I highlight how Kurdistan has been at the mercy of outside forces for centuries and the attitude it fostered among Kurds throughout the centuries up until today. In the third section, I highlight the years before regional governance for Kurds as they were incredibly harsh, and for this reason the inability to pay attention to cultural matters during that period may be considered excusable. My next two sections shed light on the two main culprits of creating the exploitative gap I describe. Section four deals with the first culprit which is a neglectful government that did not take into consideration the value of these houses when planning its cities. Section five deals with the second culprit, the lack of legal protection which meant that no official or organization could prevent the ruining of these houses by relying on the letter of the law. The sixth section is the crux of my argument and shows how this gap was exploited and with what means. My seventh section deals with the hopeful attempts that were made to preserve the remaining houses and show that there is still a glimmer of hope. My eight and final section deals with the reality that these houses might be gone in five years’ time if we do not take action and how much of a loss this is to Kurdish memory and consequently our identity as well.
Before I start I wanted to introduce the people I interviewed for this oral history project. The people I interviewed were all enthusiastic preservationists who relate to the field by working on it either directly or indirectly. I am deeply indebted to them and cite them quite often throughout the text. Due to that I want give a formal and brief introduction to each of them in this section below because besides being preservationists, they also hold equally important positions:
- Sideeq Salih: Historian, co-founder and co-director of Zheen Archive Center in Slemani
- Kamal Rasheed: Head of the Directorate of General Antiquites in Slemani
- Fayeq Hama Salih: Local photographer and previous lecturer of photography at the Bextyarî Institute in Slemani
- Ako Ghareeb: Director of Red Prison Museum in Slemani
- Rebaz Mohammed: Architect and Head of the Committee for the Preservation of Cultural Houses in Slemani
Furthermore, I am equally indebted to three other people whom I did not get to interview in person, but whose contributions were still as crucial to my project due to their valuable information being made available online and these are:
- Abdulraqeeb Yousif: Archivist, and pioneer in the preservation of cultural houses in all of Kurdistan including Slemani.1
- Dr. Amjad Qaradaghi: Professor of architecture at the University of Slemani and architectural supervisor of “The Project to Document the Cultural Houses of Slemani.”
- Dr. Chro Haider: Director of the City Lab Center and one of the project coordinators on “The Project to Document the Cultural Houses of Slemani.2“
1. The Houses: Old and Weary but Standing Still
The old houses in Slemani are all located in the city center where there is an old and thriving bazaar. The history of these houses date back to 1784 when the Baban Emirate moved its capital from the city of Qelaçolan to Slemani since it was further away from the Persian border and was more easily defensible. As Ako Ghareeb explained, the Babans wanted to build a city that had all the characteristics of a sophisticated civilization. With that in mind, they brought in craftsmen from the neighboring city of Sanandaj, the capital of the Kurdish Emirate of Ardalan. These craftsmen included wood workers, metal workers, and craftsmen who worked on cutting up and carving rocks to use for building. They brought in these craftsmen because they had more expertise than the ones in Slemani and also to teach the locals of Slemani the tricks of their trade. As Ako also remarked later, it is important to note here that when the Baban’s built Slemani, they wanted to make it a thriving city and so designed it in such a way as well. Elaborating a bit on the design, Ako said that the center of the city which is called Sera3, was built in such a way that all the roads led back to it. “It looks like the sun with the roads shooting out of the center like rays,” said Ako as he drew me a simple makeshift map to make the point clear. Furthermore, these houses all contained the marks and engravings of many different cultures that had found themselves, at one point or another, in Slemani – a city where Jews, craftsmen from Iran, Christians and other people from the region had found refuge in. Ako continued to say that Slemani had always been a rebellious city, hence why many rebels found refuge in it. When these people found refuge here, they brought their culture and their own architectural design with them, building houses with markings which denoted their identity or place of origin.
Originally, these houses spread over five big neighborhoods 4: Serşeqam, Dergezên, Goyje, Mełkendî, and Kanî Askan. Though most of the houses were made for residential purposes, these houses also served other purposes including: ketartîp 5, Mosques, communal baths, headquarters of local Kurdish rulers, hospitals and official government buildings made for Kurds or foreigners such as the British officials during the British mandate.
When it comes to their design, one must make the distinction between the common folk who mostly made their houses with mud and mud bricks, and the aristocratic high class of the time which used more expensive bricks, rocks and complicated designs such as arches. As Sideeq explained, the common people’s houses, for the most part, were usually a single floor with one or two rooms, and at times they had a simple porch and courtyard. While, as Kamal elaborated on the special and distinct aspects that make these houses to Slemani, the aristocratic high class had more sophisticated design. First they all had courtyards and two floors: the upper floor known as Serxan and the bottom floor known as Jêrxan. They either alternated between the floors during winter and summer because of the better suited temperatures, or because they kept cattle or sheep on the bottom floor and wanted to keep a close eye on them. In fact, houses of this sort still exist in many villages around the Slemani region to this day. Having graduated from the Department of Architecture from Baghdad university in 1982, Kamal has worked all the way from Basra to Mosul and he says that this type of two floor building is specific to the area of Slemani, and they are not even present in other Kurdish cities such as Kirkuk, Hawler or Duhok. Another great characteristic that some houses had were the balcony known as shanasheel. This is an Arabic loan word from Kurdish and Persian which breaks down to “shah – nişîn” meaning the “the dwelling-place of the Shah or King” and “is a well-known Islamic architectural element, which appears as an extruded wooden structure from the frontal façade of domestic buildings, and distinguishes the designs of traditional houses in the big cities in many Middle East and North African countries. 6“
Naturally, the development of architecture in Slemani happened through stages as the city grew and the political climate changed bringing with it new material and design. Below I showcase a rough outline of the different stages of architecture7 since Slemani’s founding and up until the 1960s where these techniques were still in use and before the advent of much more modern and cheap materials and techniques which put an end to the old designs being made. These stages are usually distinguished by the material that was used:
- Beginning of the city in 1784 – Simple houses made of rocks, mud, and sun-dried bricks
- 1820 to 1920s – More detailed designs emerge with bricks made with ovens known as “red bricks”. The facade of the houses had a nice design made with bricks when put on each other diagonally – similar to the warp and weft of a woven cloth. The base of the house and walls were made with a specific rock called “Mełkendî” because it came from a mountain near that neighborhood, although only rich people used it. The window panes were usually made with wood while the doors were either made with wood or tin metal.
- 1927 to 1960s – A new type of rock called Sherkoosh rock8, which is has a more white color, came into play and was used instead of the Mełkendî rock although both were used frequently. Instead of wooden doors and window panes, iron was now used and it was quite a good and strong type.
The number of these houses gradually started decreasing after the second world war. Speculations put the number of houses anywhere between 4,000 and 6,300 by the 1950s. However, by 1991, there were only around 400 of these houses. 9 The latest survey done in 2004 by the Directorate of Antiquities only designated 106 houses that are to be preserved for their cultural significance in all the original five neighborhoods in Slemani.
They designated these houses based on three conditions: 1) The house has local architectural elements such as special arches made in the region 2) The house was the place where a significant historical event took place such the first national election 3) The house belongs to a historical figure. If any house fits one of these three conditions they were designated on that list. However, because every year more houses get torn down, the number of houses which were estimated to be around 400 in the 1990s are now less than a 100. Since then other houses such as the houses of famous figures such as Karîm î ‘Eleke 10 and Amin Zaki Beg 11 could not be bought and now only around 30 percent of the designated 106 houses remain according to Kamal’s estimation.
2. Historical Context: Stuck Between Mountain Rocks
Kurdistan has always been at the center of conflict and battles in a geographically strategic place, from the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC near KRG’s capital of Erbil, all the way to the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire into nation states in the early 20th century. Sideeq Salih recounted that due to Kurdistan existing between the two empires of the Saffavids and Ottomans for the better part of 300 years, it became the fighting ground for these empires: “It was like being stuck between the two rough edges of mountain rocks.” As co-founder and co-director of the Zheen Archive Center, Sideeq seeks to preserve books, newspapers, journals, documents, manuscripts, and much more from Kurdish history, literature and culture. 12 He recounted a story he found relevant which occurred during the later stages of the Ottoman Empire in 1820 when a traveler by the name of Claudius James Rich visited the city of Slemani and remarked to the ruling Baban Prince of the time, Ahmed Pasha, about how there were not any grand palaces there, and how the doors and pathways were so narrow that his horse could barely get in. In response, Ahmed Pasha told him that due to countless purges and attacks from the Ottoman and Persian empires, they no longer felt secure and without feeling secure he could not embark on building grand palaces which would only be destroyed later on. As for the small pathways and doors, they delay the entry of enemies as long as possible both during the commonly occurring raids, and at the full entry of imperial armies.
Indeed, even after the fall of both empires, the Kurdish regions now started to be located in strategic places between a new form of political organization: the nation-state. With its local Kurdish population at the mercy of state policies of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, people in the region started to get displaced at will. What the Baban Prince had complained about for the 19th century was now being repeated in the 20th century as well. Although Iraqi Kurds got the better share of treatment due to the state recognizing Kurdish language and culture in 1958, it nonetheless wanted the Kurdish national movement suppressed and consequently used force to do so if things got out of hand. Sideeq told me how I might not know this due to the current prosperity in the Kurdistan region but his lifetime was filled with distress. “My mind was never at ease.” He explained how when he first opened his eyes it was the September Kurdish Revolution of 1961 and there were constant fights between the central government and the Kurdish “Peshmerga” forces with each one getting control of a city and then losing it a few months later. “Honestly, we did not experience a true childhood, adolescence, or time of youth. It was constant war and chaos.”
The story did not get better for Iraqi Kurds, as Ako recounted to me. He said that we do not need to go that far back to see that Kurdish society has always been under the threat of being crushed by larger political forces in the region. Every family in the region always kept a few necessary food staples such as rice, milk and wheat along with tools in a storage unit in their house so as to be ready if they ever needed to flee because of war or chaos in the region. With this legacy of displacement, it is not surprising cultural preservation was neglected and was eclipsed by more basic and pragmatic needs. Furthermore, the Baathist regime, which came to power in 1963 with Saddam Hussein taking full leadership in 1979, had a plan to strike at the infrastructure and foundation of Kurdish society. They first targeted villages which had a large agricultural yield and bombarded them so as to stop the production by locals. Then when these locals had to flee, they built large complexes for them inside the city and put them in there while giving them a sum of money to live off of. They turned them from producers to consumers. This changed the attitude of many people as they found out that they could earn without producing or creating. Ako said that this attitude decreased the feeling of belonging to one’s nation and consequently less and less reason to preserve it’s essential parts.
Furthermore, Saddam’s Baathist regime engaged in a campaign to eradicate Kurdish identity, culture, and traditions known as Anfal in 1984 which included within it the 1988 gas bombing of the city of Halabja. This campaign included emprisonement, torture, and the outrightkilling of many innocents. It has been described as having torn the very fabric of Kurdish society. These developments not only caused a huge collective trauma on the society but also led to creating a mentality in which Kurds put survival first and an ethos of cultural preservation, including these houses at the center of the city, did not flourish. In fact, this mentality which was inflicted upon the society due to the horror and trauma of the Baathist regime left little foundation for future generations to build upon. We shall see in the future sections how most efforts to preserve were individual because not only did Baathist bombardment leave the soil of villages barren, but it also left future generations with an infertile ground from which an ethos of preservation could flourish from.
3. Before Regional Governance: The Excusable Years
Fortunately for us, the Kurds in Iraq, in 1991 an autonomous region of Kurdistan was formed with pressure from the United States on Iraq. This was seen as a huge step for securing human and cultural rights that had up until that point been neglected and abused. In fact, it was during those years in 1997 that the first survey of these houses was done by the Directorate of Antiquities. Though lacking in funds and financial means, they designated 106 houses to be preserved for their cultural significance. Unfortunately, autonomy did not bring with it a secure and steady political climate. Iraq was under embargo from the United States and the newly formed autonomous region was under embargo from Iraq itself. Kamal recounted how in those times the economic situation of the Kurdistan region was quite bad with very little financial means to pay attention to cultural matters. “Everyone knows what the situation was like: no capabilities, no budget… I mean a harsh, difficult, and unpleasant life in this city,” said Kamal as he described the situation of that time to me. Rebaz also remembers and recounts how the situation before 2003 was not very good in the region as it had two embargos on it and during these times of incredible financial need, the people’s attitude moved towards a more materialistic mindset as it was the only way to survive.
However, in 2003 everything seemed to change for the better. Saddam’s regime was toppled and the KRG was formed with huge promises of revival in all aspects of Kurdish life including cultural affairs. Oil served as a huge revenue stream with Iraq being the 5th largest importer of oil and the KRG getting 17 percent of the more than twenty billion dollar national budget depending on the agreements made at the time and with the national budget constantly increasing by tens of billions as the years went on.13 All this laid the scene and looked to be a promising start. Sideeq stated that if we, the Kurds, had an excuse to push aside cultural matters such as the preservation of these houses, then we might honestly have had that excuse at the time. “But after the uprising, [and] since we gained our own local government, we do not have that excuse anymore.”
4. The Neglectful Party: Government
It is worthy to note that at the start of Kurdish self-rule, as Ako emphasized, we were facing a huge problem in our society and that was the broken psychological state that our citizens found themselves in. Ako continued and elaborated on this matter, saying that when Kurdish leadership came back from the mountains after 1991 to form a government, it was facing a broken community filled with broken individuals. Its main task should have been to rebuild such a society and pay attention to these psychological needs. However, we paid attention to building better paved roads and “we started to build tall buildings but who have we put inside these tall and luxurious buildings?” Ako said and took a small pause. “We have put broken human beings inside of them.” He further continued by saying that we could not rebuild the community because we, both the leadership and citizens, were broken and need fixing. He stated how the issues of preserving these houses related to this because the value of these houses could not be seen when these psychological aspects were at play.
What the government did pay attention to was the building of new commercial buildings such as malls and the formation of large companies from concrete to telecommunication. To make matters more frustrating, these companies received plots of land inside the bazaar that contained these houses, and yet they were not encouraged or forced to pay attention to these neighboring old houses. Ako expressed his frustration about how all of these companies of oil, services, and international corporations enjoyed these privileges yet paid no tax for cultural matters which could have been made use of by providing a budget for cultural rejuvenation. Parallel to this, the city center, which has historically been the place for commercial activity, also started to grow and needed a renovation but there was not enough expertise among the architects of Sulaimani to take the cultural heritage of the city into consideration when making these renovation plans. As Rebaz mentioned among many examples, there were many architects vying to have wider roads because of the increase in cars. But these wide roads meant that you had to actually knock down the old houses or part of these houses to achieve this result.
Then on the part of the municipality a temporary and faulty guideline was passed as Rebaz later said with considerable irritation. The guideline was actually intended to de-incentivise people from selling their house and stated that if the owner of these old houses wished to tear them down, they must turn their house into a parking lot for a period of two years. This was to help provide space for the high number of cars that now existed in the city center. During this two-year period, the property owner could not build anything on this plot of land and had to wait till the period was over to turn their land into a residential house once again. At first, the residents were upset and angry at the fact that they could not just rebuild their houses straightaway, but then they started to realize that this was actually a good venture. The capital needed to start a parking lot is virtually zero and the profit made from it on a monthly basis is quite good and consistent – with up to two thousand dollars a month at times – since the space is so tight in the city center’s bazaar. After this realization the residents themselves were asking the government to renew their parking lot licenses after two years instead of rebuilding their houses as they saw how good of a profit it made. “This phenomenon spread like an influenza”, said Rebaz. He elaborated on how there were businessmen ogling at a few houses which were side-by-side and waiting for the residents who were in dire financial straits to sell them off. Then they combined all the properties, at times including the roads in between the houses, and turned the whole vast plot of land into a parking lot.
In an effort to slow the spread of this phenomenon and save these houses, the Directorate of Antiquities had recommended an idea about loans to the governorate. Kamal explained how in 2013-2014, there were housing loan programs initiated by the government to help the people buy houses and the loan amount was about 16,800 dollars. This loan program was in an effort to help the middle class to build homes and secure a place of living. The directorate’s suggestion was to give twice that sum of money as a loan to the people who owned the old houses so that they get to restore or renovate them in a proper manner. In this way, the owners would be given an incentive to keep the house and they would not be cornered into selling them. Unfortunately, the suggestion was not taken up by the governorate and the owners of these houses were left without a helping hand.
As Rebaz later explained, the municipality’s guidelines on this issue also did not take into account the city’s master plan that had distinguished residential areas marked in yellow from commercial ones marked in orange. So, when these residential areas, which were side by side, were torn down, many families now had large plots of lands next to them and it destroyed the community environment. Now they had drunkards, dogs and a large dark field for neighbours, and it destroyed the fabric of that community. “Even the birds have emigrated from those areas,” said Rebaz as he puffed his cigarette in dismay. Many people had no choice but to accept this dire circumstance and others are probably facing the same future.
As one can see, the issue here is that taking care of these houses is an arduous job since they are made of materials that need repair, and the people who are supposed to do this sort of repair are slowly dying off and not being replaced. The professions that kept these houses alive in the past including woodwork, mud work14, and metalwork are all slowly going extinct as well and the new generation does not know these professions since they are choosing more modern jobs. Special rocks such as the previously mentioned mełkendî rock which formed the bedrock and walls of so many houses are now no longer in use. What is more concerning is that even the quarries containing these rocks are being neglected. In a recent apartment complex project, the quarries of these rocks have been dug up in order to lay the foundation for the project. But as Rebaz sadly recounts, they are not planning on moving the location of the project or making use of the rocks in new projects meaning that this rock which is so special to the city might suffer the same fate as so many of the houses.
In contrast with this arduous work to maintain the condition of these houses, all you need to do in order to destroy these houses is to leave the house as it will fall on itself. These are old and weary houses that need a good amount of maintenance. In other words, it would take a huge budget to restore and maintain while bringing less revenue than the abundant parking lots or commercial buildings. This issue became quite apparent when, as Rebaz mentioned, some houses were bought by the government but were not provided with a budget which meant they were, for all intents and purposes, deserted. This eventually led into wearing the house down and it crumbling on itself, further proving the detailed attention these houses need.
5. The Lacking Element: Law
With a neglectful government managing the cities, the only hope preservationists had was to fall back on the law. Unfortunately, as Kamal and Rebaz stated, since 1992 and up until this day no single law has been passed to preserve cultural and heritage sites in the KRG so as to make sure preservation does not get sidelined. Due to that, activists were stuck with a 1974 law of heritage passed by Iraq. Though technically it could preserve the houses, these laws were not fully implemented and these houses were sold afterwards. Kamal was clear about this problem: “When there is no law you lose everything.” Because of this they could not treat the selling and demolition of these houses under the letter of the law and it made their work much harder.
In fact, even the government was quite weak and helpless to stop these violations because there were no laws against them. If a person destroyed these houses on purpose or sold off one of the houses that were on the designated list the directorate had made, they just could not treat them with any reference to the law. “All this is organized through the law, but if you do not have it, then this is what happens to them,” said Kamal . As mentioned the only relevant law is a 1974 law from Iraq that applies to all of Iraq including the KRG but it is desperately in need of a redraft. Since the law was made in 1974, the penalty for destroying a cultural or heritage sight is 100 dinars which was equivalent to 300 US dollars at the time and is worth over 1,500 US dollars today if adjusted for inflation. Today, one US dollar is 1,200 Iraqi dinars and even though there has been some effort to bring the penalties up, they only manage to bring these fines up to 50,000 Iraqi dinars or about 42 dollars. The law is simply obsolete and needs to be rewritten in the light of the current social and economic context.
6. An Exposable Gap
Between a government that did not give out a lending hand and non-existing laws to protect these houses as cultural sites, there was an exposed gap that could be easily exploited by anyone who cared to do so – i.e. anyone who wants to sell and buy these houses. Unfortunately since the owners were not given a lending hand, they were left to their own devices and a lot of them looked to sell these houses or turn them into parking lots. After all, these houses are private property and if even the government is not willing to pay them for the house or give them compensation, then it is not surprising that the owners would take matters into their own hands. In simple economical terms, it requires very little capital to make a parking lot and gives a profit of at least one to two thousand dollars a month. When obstacles were put in their way by the municipality to not sell their private property because it was deemed cultural, people got creative. Rebaz recounted some stories of this sort to me: some took advantage of the natural make-up of these houses since many of the houses were made of mud. If one just leaves them for a few months, then the weather pretty much makes sure that the building gets knocked down or batters it just enough for the owner to make the argument that this building cannot be restored or preserved anymore. Other owners shut off all taps and water pipes leading to the house making the water spill to the bottom of the house and no longer available for restoration. Other people who owned commercial operations such as selling food staples like flour, milk or rice said that these houses, which were used as storage, were old and rat-infested which made it a health hazard for them since they sell these food staples to the public. They would not put the option of renovating their houses on the table, but rather wanted to build new buildings with new material which they find more suitable. “They highlight the points that only serve their interest,” said Rebaz as he explained the attitude of lots of the commercial and business men.
… a plot of land across from the Great Mosque of Slemani … had the ruins of a city which according to some archaeologists dated back to 4,000 years and was the city upon which Slemani was built. But instead of the land being preserved, it was actually sold to a large businessman who turned it into a mall that exists to this day and the businessman did not even have to pay a fine.
In parallel to this, as stated by Sideeq, Ako, and Rebaz, a greedy and insatiable rich class started to buy off these houses from those who inherited them, knocking them down to build new commercial buildings or turning them into parking lots. Though this class was active since the midst of the emerging “material mindset” of the 1990s, they did not have a full opportunity to exploit this gap because of political and economic instability. By the time the KRG was formed in 2003, these attitudes were well set in place and the same “greedy and insatiable” class that was doing their work in the 1990s, continued to do so in the 2000s as well. With the huge influx of money that came to the region due to oil revenues, the materialistic mindset that might have existed in the ‘90s due to scarcity was now exacerbated since there was so much money flowing in the region and everyone was looking for their share aggressively. The avenues were wide open now for this class and their excuse was that along with commercial activity, they are bringing a new and modern architecture to the city. The only problem was that it had no inkling or semblance of the old Kurdish architecture it was replacing. All this showed how fragile the state structure was and how little foundation it had left for people to work on preserving old houses or any cultural relic for that matter. Ako recounted a famous example of such exploitation of this gap regarding a plot of land across from the Great Mosque of Slemani. This plot of land had the ruins of a city which according to some archaeologists dated back to 4,000 years and was the city upon which Slemani was built. But instead of the land being preserved, it was actually sold to a large businessman who turned it into a mall that exists to this day and the businessman did not even have to pay a fine.
Another big issue is the “special orders” that come out of the municipality which gives permission for business-developers to build huge buildings in the middle of an already congested bazaar. The basis of such orders is political and is done by the parties to extend the patronage networks they already have through making good contact with local businessmen. This is not to mention the potential profit that these business endeavours can make. A case and point is in the neighborhood of Dergezên, where there are two huge 2,000 square meter parking lots which are being built currently. They each have seven floors and are a mere ten meters away from each. Additionally, there is one other similar parking lot that is about to be built, though the municipality is trying to make the businessman stop. All this is occurring in a neighborhood that was designed for transportation with horses and carriages where the road is three to four meters wide and can fit one car at max. “All this will cause an internal bleeding in and of itself…an urban explosion in and of itself,” said Rebaz. Furthermore, these large projects destroy the urban fabric of the neighborhoods. “We can not say one house is cultural while the other is not,” Rebaz continued. “What we ultimately have is seven cultural neighborhoods and anything within them is cultural.”
7. Glimmer of Hope
Despite the neglect, lack of law and consequent exploitation, there has been quite a good effort to preserve these houses and make a plea for their survival. Most of these efforts have been on an individual level. “They are like a bag of flour in a thornbush: scattered and dispersed,” said Ako Ghareeb in a dejected manner when describing the individual efforts. Of these efforts, the person who was mentioned in all my interviews and who Fayeq called the “spiritual father” of preservation in Kurdistan, is a man by the name of Abdulraqeeb Yousif who started recording the locations and history of these houses along with pictures from the late 1970s onwards. Sideeq also commended him highly on his pioneering work and mentioned his famous book “A Call to Kurdish Intellectuals”, published in 1985. In this book he calls on all Kurdish intellectuals and cultural activists to start preservational work and to begin with the preservation of old houses of their regions. He also encouraged many to start recording the oral history of their region and family. Sideeq talked further about how Abdulraqeeb paved the way for others to follow in his footsteps, and his name is on the lips of anyone who works in this field, as my own experience showed. Abdulraqeeb continues his individual efforts to this day but due to lack of funds and staff, he has not been able to widen his efforts. Sideeq himself had worked on the preservation of a house as well. It was the house that used to be the main headquarters of Sheikh Mahmood15 and it was in that house that he declared his government. He had the opportunity to pitch the idea to a committee that was formed when there was a ceremony celebrating the anniversary of Sheikh Mahmoud’s government. Due to this anniversary, a budget had been set to publish books, pamphlets and arrange other activities on the matter. In the light of these facts, he suggested the idea of preserving that historical house since the moment was ripe and to make sure that significant historical location does not perish like the many others which did.
After 2004 and the steady arrival of a national budget and an active directorate, the first step of the Directorate of General Antiquities in Slemani was to do a survey of the cultural houses from the neighborhoods of Slemani and to also expropriate a number of the old houses. Though the first survey was done in 1997, this one was more proper because it was better funded. And from the years 2005 to 2014 they were able to expropriate 17 houses that included houses as well as a bazaar. In other words, the government provided a budget so that the directorate could buy these houses and put it under their name. During that time they also dedicated a budget towards preserving and restoring these houses. From 2012 onwards, a plan was laid out so that every year about three or four houses would be expropriated by the directorate. Afterwards, the plan was to turn these houses into shops, cafes, museums, and other artistic or commercial avenues for the benefit of the community.
In the first stage, the directorate restored five of these houses16, but unfortunately from 2014 onwards, the KRG saw the rise of ISIS and the start of a prolonged economic recession. “Ever since, not a single dinar has entered this directorate for this purpose,” said Kamal while shrugging his shoulders. The directorate has urged the government to hurry up and save what is left of these houses by issuing its own law on the matter because waiting for the Iraqi parliament may take a long time and by then it would be too late. The directorate is now drafting a policy paper to present to parliament concerning the matter of protecting heritage and culture, which includes these houses, and they will be sending it soon to parliament for it to be voted on and then ratified. There are also efforts by the directorate to get businessmen involved by buying these houses and turning them either into coffee shops, cafes, a museum or a tourist attraction center. However, according to Kamal, “our businessmen seem [to have their minds] far off from such endeavours and do not have faith in them.”
In other similar efforts, the municipality formed a committee on the matter under the name of “The Committee for the Protection of the Cultural Houses in Slemani” and it worked on tightening and solidifying the rules and regulations regarding these houses and stopping, as best as they can, any efforts to destroy them. The head of the committee, Rebaz, displayed his irritation at how difficult it is to undertake this endeavour. They have to keep a close eye on the houses or else they get destroyed by either the owners or businessmen who are looking to build large projects often encompassing many old houses at the same time. He was quite realistic and said in a dispirited manner that even if the houses do not remain as specific units, the design of the neighborhoods can still be deemed cultural and these large projects completely erase such cultural design. For example, a unique and special design that is rare in Slemani are the cul de sacs which made the city recognizable but can easily be erased tomorrow if similar huge projects take place again.
Outside of government directorates there was also a recent collective effort to take part in the preservation of these houses. In 2017 with the joint cooperation of two companies, a local architectural consulting firm, Saxion University in Holland and Slemani University in Slemani, a project was formed under the name “City Lab.” The project worked at the broader goals of building an intimate connection between the university and the community in Slemani. Amongst its six main projects, there was one project which aimed to map out the old neighborhoods of Slemani and also survey the houses one-by-one in order to collect details about them. The project had many volunteers from the Department of Architecture in Slemani and within two years they documented 100 to 150 houses from the old neighborhoods of Slemani, recorded the data of these houses with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology in a database, and built a new, accurate map of the old neighborhoods.
“We do not have the financial ability to restore the houses or to stop them from being torn down, but we can at least document them for the ones who come after us…,” said Dr. Amjad Qaradaghi in an interview on Kurdsat, a local TV channel. He elaborated on how the least they could do is record the architectural characteristics of these houses along with designating some to be restored. Dr. Chro Haider mentioned the possibility of making these houses into sources of revenue for the government like many other cities who have kept the older architecture and narrow streets. “We can make these houses one of the chief sources for tourist attraction … creating jobs for many and a great financial source for the city of Slemani,” said Dr. Chro Haider in the same interview. They both emphasized how they want businessmen and investors to buy these houses and turn them into cultural attractions and the data they have collected can now help such individuals locate any type of house and in any neighborhood should they seek to take part in this endeavour.
8. A Final Call to Preserve
These houses, whether any person or government cares to admit or not, are a part of our Kurdish identity. Their history is wrapped up in our history and with every brick that is torn down into rubble, we erase the hopes of preserving a memory that is at true risk of amnesia. “We are currently a nation with no memory,” said Sideeq as he shook his head at the dire situation. He emphasized how important this work of preservation is because it creates a valuable and worthy repository for our nation to look back on and be proud of. Furthermore, he noted how we are still at the beginning of our nation-building process and these efforts will help solidify our identity. With what means, we the Kurds, laid out our bricks and designed our buildings is not simply a question for architects, but rather a question that shapes our identity as a nation as well, and a question we might not be able to answer in five years’ time if “all these houses will be gone” by that point as Rebaz, who heads the committee on this matter, suggests.
Perhaps this ailment comes from a top down government and education which did not deem cultural preservation as part of the political struggle for liberation. As Fayeq stated, Kurdish leadership has often seen guns and rifles as the only way to achieve freedom for the nation, but he states how history and culture could serve those purposes just as easily. He states how these acts of cultural rejuvenation and preservation are often put to the side with the argument that “we will pay attention to them after the stage where we have completed national liberation,” or in other words, after we have an independent state. But he states that that should not be the case because these aspects of our culture are present now but might be gone by the time we have reached the desired stage. That is why amongst all of this neglectful discourse, Fayeq – who continues to photograph these houses to this day – sees his job as “transforming the written into the visual.” He states how if a foreigner or even a young person from Slemani wants to learn more about the history of Kurdistan including Slemani, he would have to pick up many books which might feel overwhelming. But if one was presented with a visual history that had portraits of famous people, events, and locations such as the neighborhoods that contain these houses, then that process of learning about one’s history becomes more engaging and natural at once. He was also kind enough to show me through the alleys of the city center and I felt like a tourist because in all my years of walking through the bazaar, I had not noticed these beautiful feats of architectural design.
These wonderful alleys, narrow and picturesque, made me yearn for the older architecture that is much hidden amid the bustle of the new. I was not alone in this feeling as Ako explained how we should have preserved the old architecture so that everyone could go see it on a daily basis because in all countries there is a distinction between old and new architecture when lay down a masterplan for their cities. He elaborated and said that If we had a part of our city designated to this old heritage then we would even have tourists come from outside to visit. But since the government gives more priority to a new mall or commercial center, then you have much more people going to these new places rather than visiting the mostly torn down or highly neglected old houses in the city center. What you end up with is a citizenry who has no clue about their history because they are quite far away from it. He stated how it was the hope of many, after things got better, for us to collect and preserve. After all, this is what increases a sense of belonging which needs to be in place for these ambitions to come to fruition. But the attitude we have right now which is manifested in visiting malls and the newly built buildings “is not the answer to our ambitions”.
That answer might lie in preserving what remains of an otherwise neglected and forgotten architectural heritage. These houses which are hidden from view in those narrow alleys, still remain even if only about fifty of them are left. This number might seem insignificant when one begins to think about how there were four hundred still remaining at the start of the 2000s. And in all honesty, these efforts are indeed too late. “It is like wearing an overcoat after it rains,” said Sideeq as he referenced a Kurdish proverb17 to describe the situation. But of these fifty houses, only five might remain over the next decade and that would be an even more tragic loss. We do not have the luxury of ruminating over late efforts and need to see that these houses do not need to tumble down into ruins necessarily. The most effective route of action is to try and fill the gap I have described in the previous sections. In terms of law, as mentioned, the Directorate of General Antiquity is drafting a policy to introduce to parliament concerning this matter and that is a good first step. Until laws get passed though, there has to be an effort from either wealthy businessmen or big companies to help out in this matter as they can expropriate a single or few houses themselves and take up the cost of restoring a few of these houses properly. The restoration of these houses or the simple preservation of these houses might only bring small financial capital to any single businessman or company compared to other ventures, but it adds hugely to the cultural capital of a city known as the Cultural Capital of the KRG and which has just recently designated as part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network.18 As for ordinary people, the best route is to raise awareness and pitch the idea of saving a house or two to businessmen, entrepreneurs or any interested individual inside one’s personal network. Any person, businessman, or company embarking on this task would not only be contributing to this cultural endeavour, but would also save the memory of this city and consequently strengthen our Kurdish identity as well. However, if this task is not taken up, we will end up with a boundless string of new houses that lack the history and stories we need to freshen our memory and nourish our hearts.
- Abdulraqeeb Yousif’s website is available to use for anyone interested in more information about the topic. ↩
- I got my insights from both Dr. Amjad and Dr. Chro in this interview at Kurdsat TV. ↩
- Loan Kurdish word from Ottoman Turkish and Persian, meaning: mansion, palace, or government offices. ↩
- This number is from the book, “The City of Slemani – Part Two” written and collected by Akremi Mahmood Salih Reşe and revised by Dr. Izedin Mustafa Rasool. However, as the city grew there were other neighborhoods that emerged such as Çiwarbax, Şexan, and Culekan (the Jewish Neighborhood). This is why more recent sources at times put the number of houses at seven, eight or even nine. For example, the municipality has put the official number at seven. The cited number of neighborhoods is often different because firstly, the neighborhoods are at times quite intertwined with another, for example Çiwarbax and Serşeqam’s borders are so close that they are often cited together. Secondly, it is due to the fact that bigger neighborhoods contain sub-neighborhoods which got quite famous and hence were thought of as whole neighborhoods. This was explained to me by Fayeq as he said that the Goyje neighborhood has within it the three sub-neighborhoods of Sabûnkeran, Qawexaney Serçîmen, and Qezazekan which are often mistaken to be whole neighborhoods in and of themselves. ↩
- Learning houses where general education of mathematics, writing and reading were taught. One early one was also dedicated to education for women. ↩
- Saad, Qassim. (2019). Country: Iraq Shanasheel (balcony). ↩
- In my interviews, many referred to the different stages of architecture but there was not a consensus of the exact number of stages or the exact dates of when the shifts would happen. This is because we have a small archive and these houses are scarce. Due to this, the outline presented here is a rough outline at best. ↩
- Goudsouzian, Tanya. Sulaimania: Saving the dream city of a Kurdish prince. Al-Jazeera. ↩
- There was little information on this huge decrease from 6,300 ~ 4,000 houses in the 1950s to a mere 400 houses by the 1990s. ↩
- Former Minister of Finance in the 1920s Government of Sheikh Mahmoud, who was proclaimed the first King of Kurdistan. ↩
- Famous Historian who wrote the first book on Kurdish history in Kurdish under the name: A Short History of the Kurds and Kurdistan. Also served as a Minister in the Iraqi Parliament in the 1920s and 1930s, serving several different ministries including Transport, Education, Defense, and Economics and finance. ↩
- Shook, David. (2018) Iraq Dispatch: The Guardians of Culture. ↩
- Glanz, James; Robertson, Campbell, As Iraq Surplus Rises, Little Goes Into Rebuilding. ↩
- This involved making mud bricks but also knowing how to take care of mud houses as they need work to be sustained by making sure the mud is not cracked through and the roof is straight and not leaking. ↩
- Kurdish political leader who formed a Kurdish Government under the British mandate of Iraq in the early 1920s and was proclaimed the “King of Kurdistan”. ↩
- Though the restoration of these houses were useful by making them into cafes and restaurants where people can regularly visit, since architectural restoration is not my expertise, the degree to which the old design and materials were restored in a proper manner in these attempts could not be determined and can be an excellent topic of research on its own. ↩
- Note that in the original Kurdish, the word I have translated as overcoat is “Kepenik” which is a traditional Kurdish overcoat made of felt. ↩
- NRT Digital Media. (2019) Sulaimani, Sanandaj Designated as UNESCO Creative Cities. ↩