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Traditional carpet weaving in central Iraq unravels
By Sarah Benhaida
Al-Hamza, Iraq (AFP) Nov 5, 2017

Iraq dispute kicks off crisis for Kurdish sports
Baghdad (AFP) Nov 5, 2017 - Sports clubs and players in Iraqi Kurdistan are facing the threat of a spell on the sidelines as the crisis between the region and Baghdad sees matches suspended and away trips cancelled.

For the first time ever, two basketball teams from the region will miss the start of the Iraqi league season, after Kurdish authorities and the central government went from a war of words about a vote for independence in September to armed clashes over disputed territories.

Because of security fears, Iraq's basketball federation suspended matches for a team from the town of Zakho, in a volatile border area with Turkey, and another from the Kirkuk province, which was recently retaken by Baghdad.

Secretary General Khaled Najm told AFP that the games had been called off indefinitely as "it isn't in the interest of the teams or players to travel outside Kurdistan".

"We're following how things play out and the teams will return if the situation gets better," he said.

To avoid any potential combustible clashes, Iraq's volleyball federation has come up with a novel solution -- putting all the Kurdish clubs in the league in a sub-division of their own.

"The players won't need to go to other towns in Iraq," said sports boss Manaf Fadel.

How that pans out in the longer term remains to be seen.

Last year Kurdish team Peshmerga -- named after the region's famed security force -- won the league. Just a week ago, their namesake fighters were exchanging mortar fire with Iraqi troops.

- 'Ready for all outcomes' -

Football coach Sakfan Said is currently gearing up for a crack at the Iraqi championship with his team Zakho, but now he fears that he may not get the chance.

In 2015, the Iraqi national team inaugurated his club's new stadium in their home town near the frontier with Turkey. After the latest tensions that seems like a long time ago.

"We don't know if we will take part in the championship," the manager said.

"It is very important for us to play in the league, but we are ready for all outcomes."

Club president Abdullah Majid's beloved Arbil -- the team from the Kurdish capital city -- are no strangers to the antagonisms that still run deep in Iraq.

Last season, the squad withdrew after facing anti-Kurdish chants in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

This time the fallout seems like it might be more serious -- although he hopes the situation can be resolved by the time the season starts later this month.

"We want to take part and we have prepared our players, but I cannot guarantee anything," he said.

Ironically, the team's stadium is one of only three across Iraq where world governing body FIFA says the country's national team can play owing to security worries in the conflict-wracked country.

For Arbil's goalkeeper Serhank Mohsen, whatever happens he is determined that the feud between the central authorities and Kurdistan will not keep him out of action.

"We want to play in the Iraqi league," he said.

"But if we are not allowed to then we will just play in Kurdistan."

In the shadow of the Imam Hamza mosque in the region of the ancient kingdom of Babylon, a carpet market that was once bustling is now almost empty.

The only visitor to Hamad al-Soltani's small shop in the city of Al-Hamza in central Iraq, some 175 kilometres (110 miles) south of Baghdad, is a local tribal chief.

Nothing in the world can convince Sheikh Hazem al-Hiyali -- a Bedouin scarf on his head, hooded cloak over his shoulders and shawl on his neck -- to replace the traditional carpets he receives his guests on for imported versions.

Over the past few years, Iraq has been flooded with carpets from abroad -- but although they may well be much cheaper they are of a far lower quality, he insists.

Hiyali says he cannot bear to even imagine his "diwan", the traditional reception room where visitors sip tea and chat, without the long rectangular carpets adorned with geometric patterns.

"It is by the beauty of its carpets that one can judge a room," he tells AFP, running ring-covered fingers across the merchandise hanging on the walls of the shop.

"Our mothers and our grandmothers worked at home to weave" these carpets, says the tribal leader, his beard speckled with grey.

- Lost language -

Soltani, 32, inherited his carpet shop from his father.

He says older generations of women also embroidered saddles for camels and wove covers for their harnesses, but such items are sold nowadays only as decorations.

Mehdi Saheb spent 50 years working at a loom and can speak for hours about the rich history and intricacies of carpet manufacturing in Iraq.

As he talks, Saheb, 70, weaves in long-forgotten words from the past that are now unfamiliar to younger Iraqis.

Inherited from the Turkish used during Ottoman domination more than a century ago, they describe the different colours and types of wool used in this agricultural area where keeping livestock is widespread.

"Before, people came from abroad to place orders," he says, wearing a beige robe as he sits in his small house on the verge of a dusty road.

By "before", Saheb means before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that sparked chaos and bloodshed which still roils the country.

"Every day, some twenty groups of tourists would come to visit the ancient sites" of Babylonia and other archaeological treasures, recalls former antiquities official Fallah al-Jabbawi.

Now no tourists come to see this millennia-old heritage.

"There are only Iraqis left," laments Saheb, who throughout his working life embroidered patterns passed down from the different civilisations that once ruled this region.

- Age-old symbols -

Circles, squares, and stylised animals or flowers: the symbols woven into Iraq's carpets can be traced back to the Babylonians who ruled there some 2,000 years before Christ was born, or the Assyrians who followed.

Meanwhile, certain motifs represent the Jewish Star of David or Christian crosses, and others, found in mosques, are said to be Islamic.

In many houses families jealously guard carpets passed down from their ancestors, while the offices of senior government officials or foyers of luxury hotels are often decorated with the traditional goods.

But on the markets, the majority of new models being purchased are now mass-produced in neighbouring Iran, Turkey or Syria.

About half as cheap as their Iraqi equivalents, the imports have slowly but surely made their way onto the stalls.

Shopkeeper Soltani still has carpets on display that are more than 50 years old, but he struggles to sell many of his wares.

An item that he once could have got more than $100 (85 euros) for, he now has to let go for just $20, he says.

In the rutted streets of the old neighbourhood nearby, the impact of the industry's decline can be seen.

Some 30 or 40 families who once made their living from weaving now struggle to scratch together $100 each month.

Once a source of pride, this testament to Iraq's varied heritage is now neglected and shunned, bemoans former carpet maker Saheb.

"Neither the state nor the private sector support the weavers," he says.

Iraq to hold parliamentary election in May: PM
Baghdad (AFP) Nov 1, 2017
The Iraqi government has decided to hold a parliamentary election on May 15 next year, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Wednesday. The decision needs to be approved by parliament and the president at least 90 days in advance of that date before it can be confirmed, according to the electoral commission. The commission had previously proposed the election be held on May 12. Iraq ... read more

Related Links
Iraq: The first technology war of the 21st century

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