Le Monde diplomatique — Uncle Suleiman’s ten


Le Monde diplomatique
English edition

September 2003

THEY fought on opposite sides in the 1980s. Their governments told them they were enemies. Ali fought in the Iranian army. Uncle Suleiman fought with the Iraqis. Now they were sharing shelter in a refugee camp in Greece: the joint residents of tent No 1, Uncle Suleiman’s Tent.

“He is a great boy,” Uncle Suleiman said about Ali. “He is a very good cook,” Azar said about Uncle Suleiman. “He is fat,” Porya said: Porya was Azar’s six-year-old boy. “This mister does not do anything. He sits around all day.”

Pedram joined in: he was Azar’s nine-year-old. “Uncle Suleiman, show him your paintings,” Azar interrupted. “Will you help me fill out the asylum application for Australia?” Uncle Suleiman asked me.

“My name is Porya. I am calling from Greece. Please take us to another country. Take us to England. But, if you cannot take us, give us a visa,” the boy said into my small tape recorder.
The camp had 21 tents – the residents called them kheima – and housed asylum seekers under review by the government. There were Afghans, Iraqi Kurds and a few Iranians. Some were new. Others had been there up to four years, waiting to hear the final decision. Uncle Suleiman was given notice to leave the country after three and a half years. His application was rejected. He had nowhere to go.

He had shared his tent with many people in his three and a half years. Men from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran arrived and left the camp, saved him from loneliness, and became a part of his memories. His tent remained the centre of gravity, a place that others visited for comfort, advice and good tea – Arab tea, as he called it – saturated with sugar.

It was exceptionally tidy. There were four beds, a television set, a sound system, two chairs, two cheap machine-made rugs, a desk, a paraffin lamp. Clothes hung neatly above each bed; brushes and paints and a few other objects gave the tent the appearance of a real home. The beds were always tidily made, their blankets tucked in like those in army barracks. Outside, a digital satellite dish was attached to the tent’s upper corner. Most tents had their own dishes, televisions and other entertainment – some had been donated by Greek families, others bought from personal savings.

Azar and her boys did not have a television or a sound system: the boys watched at Uncle Suleiman’s tent. He was kind, he loved her children, he enjoyed their jokes, and welcomed them with open arms. The boys frequented the tent, gave him love and, at times, irritated him to near madness.

They were clever, mischievous, funny, and more mature than their age. They spoke Farsi, Turkish, German and Greek. The only English word they knew was “deport” (although they did not know the Farsi for this word). I told them I had lived in the United States, and the older boy, Pedram said to me: “So, you were also deported to Greece.” In his world, that is the only way for an Iranian to move “backward” – north to south, west to east. That was their experience in Germany. They were deported to Greece.

The boys scavenged abandoned footballs, bicycles, anything for entertainment. Unlike many other children their age, they were fully aware of their status. They knew the meaning of life without documents and the feeling of being away from their place of birth, and their father.

I gave my tape recorder to Porya and Payam, asking them to say whatever they wanted to readers in other parts of the world. They were excited. I had done the same in a camp in Sofia. There, the children were frightened, worried about the guards and other asylum seekers; there was fear and reservation.

Azar’s boys were curious to hear their voices and eager to speak their minds. They had never talked to a tape recorder. They grabbed the machine and began talking. “My name is Porya. I am six years old. My mother is hurting. She longs to go to England. Please take us out of this country. Our wish is to go to England. We wish not to be deported.”

“Hello! My name is Pedram. I was in Germany for eight months. They came to our home and told us to leave. I was having breakfast. I left without finishing my milk. I could only take one sip. The police took us to the airport and put us on the plane. We flew for three hours. I was vomiting the whole time. We got to Greece. I did not know the language. My mother started speaking English at the airport in Athens. We cried a lot. They brought us here. We would like to go to England because my mother’s English is good.”

“I am Porya who spoke before. I have not seen my father for a long time. Take me to him.”

Azar and her boys were new in the camp. They had been there for nearly five months after their deportation from Germany. They shared tent No 4 with a family from Northern Iraq. A piece of cloth separated the tent into two halves: Azar and the boys one side, Iraqi Kurds – a man, a woman, and a three-year-old -on the other. There was usually peace between them. But Azar complained about a lack of consideration. “They watch television and leave the lights on until early morning.”

In Germany Azar had had an apartment, worked and earned money. Her life changed when the immigration officers put her and her boys on a plane to Athens. She was not given a chance to pack and take her valuables.

The camp had a large public kitchen, a laundry room, and private and public bathrooms. I asked Azar if I could visit the kitchen, but that made her uncomfortable: “Single men keep out of the kitchen.” They cooked in their tents on a paraffin heater provided by the Red Cross. Looking at my confused expression, she said: “Muslims!” Men stayed out of the places where the women spent many hours each day. The women did not wear the burka or long veils, although Afghan women wore scarves. Parvin, an Iranian woman in tent No 10 also wore a scarf. Azar did not cover her head and roamed freely, spoke to men and visited Uncle Suleiman’s tent.

It was a traditional community. Women could not avoid the constant gossip of other women. Azar was the only woman without a husband, or male head of household, and was always watched by the other women, who talked behind her back, and made up stories about her and those who visited her. She was defiant.

I visited her with a male friend, a voyager like the rest in the camp. The boys were in school. The weather was fine, a clear blue sky on the first warm day in weeks. We decided to stroll on the beach, only a few minutes’ walk from the camp. I had brought a bottle of good red wine. Azar toured the camp, looking for a corkscrew (She did not believe in taboos). Puzzled by her request, women passed by us and stared at us. A corkscrew could not be found. As always, Uncle Suleiman came to our rescue with a screwdriver. I pushed in the cork and the wine splashed over my clothes. It was splendid wine and the Mediterranean was awesome as ever. Azar forgot her life for a moment.

On the beach, she told me about the pain of living in a camp, away from her husband in England, waiting to hear about his asylum application. I did not ask why they left Iran. She did not explain why they were not together in London. The boys loved their father. Azar longed for her husband. She hoped to live with him, in peace, away from the camp. We returned to the camp and drank tea in Uncle Suleiman’s Tent.

There were four men in the tent: two fighters from the Iran-Iraq war, a veteran of the Afghan civil war, and a Serb who had fought Muslims in Bosnia. They all lived in peace. The Serbian was deported to Greece from France. No one knew why. He was alone. No one spoke his language. He lay down on his bed with a sheet over his head, woke up and greeted the others with a smile, sat on the bed and smiled continuously. This was his routine, day in, and day out.

The others believed he had lost his sanity. “He became crazy when they sent him here,” Ali told me. “He does not understand anything,” Pedram added, saying “hello” to him in Greek. The man replied in Greek, and smiled again.

Facing the television screen, he was lost in his thoughts; he stared at the faraway images. The scene on the screen changed. Moments of joy were replaced by sorrows. Guns fired. Cars raced. But his expression remained unchanged. I wondered if he ever was in the tent with the rest of us. Perhaps he had never left the battlefields in Bosnia.

I saw the Afghan once. The others called him Mohammad. He worked hard and long hours to save money for the next stage of his journey away from Afghanistan. Having arrived from work, he changed, sat silently with the rest of us and then left to play football with others from Afghanistan and Iran. I did not have a conversation with Mohammad. “He is good,” I remember Uncle Suleiman saying about him.

Ali was talkative and engaging. He played football too, and friends came to take him to the pitch. He stayed behind, made tea, and talked about his dreams. Gentle, kind, hospitable, and friendly, he welcomed me to the tent, and hoped to share its meager rations with me. He too worked long hours to save for the journey to Italy. He was a construction worker and handyman at a nearby church. The money was reasonable. He had no complaints. The work kept him busy, kept him away from the tent, gave him a purpose to carry on as normal a life as possible. Ali liked Uncle Suleiman like a father, or anyway, like a real uncle. The good uncle himself had a memorable persona: he was in his early 50s, of average height, heavyset with a chubby face, a big belly, and long silver hair. He was not shy before the camera. He sat behind his desk and spoke about his life. He was humble and loving, and aware of his charm.

He had a wife and children in Iraq. Yet here he was, far away from home, the respected elder of tent No 1 in a Greek refugee camp. From Northern Iraq he had made a long journey of pain, hardship, torture, betrayal, friendship and loneliness. He knew he would soon be on the road again, still alone, searching for another tent in another camp in another land that would believe his tale. The Greeks did not believe his tale. This is his tale.

He was born in Irbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, and drafted by Saddam Hussein to fight in the war with Iran in 1982. Many Kurds deserted and chose not to fight. Uncle Suleiman was sent to the front, fought the Iranians, and was captured in a battle in Ahwaz, in Iran’s southern province of Khouzestan. He became a prisoner of war.

The Iran-Iraq war lasted eight years. He was a a PoW for nine years, and was tortured and brutalised. Three of his teeth were missing: in Iran’s jails he had often been hit in the face with metal bars. Worse happened. They broke his back, an injury that still caused pain.
Many died in the Iran-Iraq war. Others were emotionally scarred or physically impaired. There were betrayals and changing alliances. Shia Arabs and Kurds came to the Iranian side; an Iranian opposition group sided with Iraq and fought Iran from Iraqi soil. The Iranians used their Shia allies to torture Iraqi PoWs. The men who broke Uncle Suleiman’s limbs spoke his language; they were his countrymen, helping the Iranians to win the war against Saddam Hussein. The Iranians perhaps thought this an effective way of breaking PoW morale, making them confess or forcing information from them. The strategy sometimes worked. I did not ask Uncle Suleiman if he cooperated. The strongest people break down under torture.

After nine years, he was released as a part of a PoW exchange programme. He returned home looking much older; he was disillusioned and defeated. In celebration of his freedom, wanting to have a normal life, he married in Baghdad. But normality was unattainable. The suffering was far from over. Iraq’s ministry of intelligence, its interrogators and spies, haunted him in his own country. He was accused of having cooperated with the Iranian government. Spies followed him, paid him unexpected visits, took him in for interrogation. Life was hell. It was not the reception he had expected. Unable to cope, he left his wife in Baghdad and moved to Northern Iraq, then under the Kurdish rule.

In the post-Gulf war years, Iraqi Kurdistan was divided between two competing armed parties. Freed from Saddam Hussein’s rule, the Kurds fought each other for the control of Northern Iraq and its riches. A civil war broke out in Kurdistan in 1996. One party had help from the Iranians; the other approached their old enemy, Saddam Hussein, to help defeat the new enemy.

Uncle Suleiman could not escape the rivalry. Working for the television station in Kurdistan, he was pressured to take sides, to become politically involved. Tired of war and politics, and longing for a life in peace, he left Kurdistan and began his migration. He left Northern Iraq for Turkey, crossed the Turkish border with Greece, moved to Athens, applied for asylum, and hoped to bring his family to live with him.

I met him nearly four years later, after he had been asked to return to his land of conflict. How was life in the camp? “Lonely.” No work or activity, only the thought of a better future as the people came and went, said hello, then goodbye. He was a fixture in that tent.

Early in 2002, a new man arrived to share the living space in the tent. The young newcomer revived memories that Suleiman wanted to forget. He was Ali, an Iranian in his late 20s, also a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War. Ali hoped to forget the bullets, the howling of the wounded, and everything that reminded him of his lost youth. Uncle Suleiman fought in Ahwaz and captured the city for the Iraqi army. Ali was from Ahwaz and, at the age of 17, had fought to liberate his town and province from the Iraqi army. Neither wanted to talk about their shared past – but suddenly they were sharing the same space. And the two enemy soldiers grew to be brothers, because they shared the same dream about another place set in the future – about reaching their Eden in the West.

Together, they watched television, smoked cigarettes, drank tea, and perhaps they shared war stories in Arabic, a language no one else in the tent understood. They became close friends, each the other’s support.

“He is a great boy,” Uncle Suleiman always said about Ali.

I WENT back to visit one last time. Ali and Azar prepared a feast: two tables put together; many chairs, borrowed from other tents; and magnificent Iranian food, courtesy of Azar. At lunch, Uncle Suleiman raised his glass of Coca-Cola and toasted his wife. Azar toasted her husband in England, and the boys drank to the father they have seen so briefly. The children were happy. Uncle Suleiman entertained us with Iranian and Kurdish music. Long before being a PoW in Iran, he had been a fan of the Iranian singer Googoosh and had a poster of the diva on his wall in Baghdad.

It was a mild, windy day. I asked Uncle Suleiman to stroll on the beach with me to find out more about his past, present and future. “Always ready for a good walk,” he said. In the narrow streets on the way to the sea, I asked about his treatment in Iran. I wanted to know more but he didn’t want to tell. “Why do you want to know that?” I wanted to tell the world, I explained, but he smiled, and politely refused: “No, I do not want to.”

I changed the subject. The experience was too painful. The turbulent past was behind him and he was worried about a potentially turbulent and unknown future. Uncle Suleiman was frightened after the expulsion order, with nowhere to go, and no money to pay the smugglers for a boat ride to Italy. He had run out of possibilities, and now he was trapped.

On the beach, he told me he could not go back to Iraq. He was worried about the US invasion of that country, worried about Saddam’s retaliation, worried that the same would happen again as had happened in 1991. “The bombs came at 2.30 in the morning. They attacked neighbourhoods. Many died,” he said about the US bombing of Baghdad. He told me painfully of the Kurds and their betrayal by the allied forces; how they had fled to the mountains and died in their thousands. He feared that it would all happen again.

He told me too about the women who had given birth to children with deformed faces in the post-Gulf war years: children who were victims of malnutrition, who drank contaminated water, and ate vegetables grown in poisoned soil, children punished for being born in Iraq.
“I will not have any more children,” he said.

Escaping from the freshening wind, Uncle Suleiman took me to an abandoned small villa by the sea, rundown and deserted, dirty and eerie, squatted by three young Kurds, who toiled on nearby farms and gardens, saving, hoping to leave for Italy when they had enough to pay the Kurdish smugglers.

We knocked. Many times. A minute or two later, a sleepy boy appeared at the door. It was minutes past noon. Polite and hospitable, the boy, 17 or maybe younger, treated us like invited guests, smiled, greeted us with kindness and took us to a room with two broken beds covered with old blankets. There was a hallway to the bathroom and the kitchen. Dirty walls, broken doors, the appearance of a place damaged by war or years of neglect.

A door in the wall opened to a space where a young Kurd, no older than 20, was asleep under a blanket on the floor. Hearing our voices, he got up, folded his blanket, greeted us, laid blankets on the floor, and started to talk to Uncle Suleiman.

There was no furniture in the room. The Kurds owned many blankets, an old television set, a VCR, and a DVD player, which were public property used by all those in the villa. A month earlier, more than 15 young Iraqi Kurds had shared the two rooms, but 12 of them had already left for Italy, or moved to Patras en route, bequeathing the blankets and the electronics to their successors. This was a true commune, shared by the dispossessed voyagers from Northern Iraq. Kurds are known for their hospitality. Even these penniless migrants caught between borders shared with their guests all they had, all they could offer. The first Kurd collected glasses from around the room and later returned with large glasses of sweetened tea. The entertainment followed.

For an hour and half, we watched Iranian, Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkish music shows on DVD. The Kurds’ favourite music was made by Iranian expatriate singers in Los Angeles. They sang along with them, drank tea, and moved between different songs and dance tracks, made every effort to please their guests. I was asked to choose the music. Uncle Suleiman looked pleased.

That was the last time I saw him. I left Greece and returned to Istanbul. The Americans and the British forces attacked and occupied Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein. Iraq was declared safe. Western states closed their gates to its citizens and encouraged them to return home and rebuild their country. Reconstruction had to begin.
I do not know if Uncle Suleiman stayed in Greece or moved “forward”. I do not know if he went home to rebuild Iraq.

Azar, though, promised to contact me when she got to London, and the boys pleaded with me to visit them, somewhere, anywhere in the world. I do know, though, that Ali is still working, and still saving his money to buy a chance for a way out through Italy.

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