People in Kerkuk are woken up for the predawn meal (sahur) by mobile teams touring the city with tambourines in their hands, but they are no longer informed of the fast-breaking time with a booming cannon, an Ottoman tradition, for security reasons.
A bleeding wound ever-present on Turkey’s agenda, Kerkuk is trying to get the most from the month of fasting amidst security concerns that plague the entire country. Kerkuk is known as “little Iraq” as all the ethnic elements of the country can be found there as well as oil, both of which make it a city of strategic importance. However, the existence of a multi-ethnic structure in the society and oil have been presenting a life-and-death situation since the US occupation began four years ago. An anxious day in the city usually ends with kidnappings and killings.
However, despite all this, people are trying to focus away from the daily tension of life in Iraq during Ramadan as much as possible, but it seems that blood and tears will not stop being spilled despite the holiest month.
A Kerkuki Turkmen, Semir Abdullah, 43, sighs when we ask him if the bloodshed would temporarily stop for the sake of Ramadan. “I wish it would,” he says, “but the violence, strangely enough, has escalated in recent weeks, to say nothing of diminishing or ending. These people have nothing to do with the religion or the religious.”
Tambourine instead of drum
Waking up for sahur to the sound of drumbeats is a centuries-old Ottoman tradition, but this has been replaced with tambourine playing in Kerkuk. Latif Najeem has been waking up his fellow townsmen with his tambourine for years, without expecting anything in return. While doing this, Najeem seems to be a citizen of a very peaceful country, not plagued with war, although there are many things he passes by that can remind him of the fact that he is actually a citizen of war-torn Iraq. Three of his nephews accompany him in this materially non-profit business.
The electricity usually goes out in the town -- particularly after sunset, and therefore people have to rise for sahur in their pitch-dark residences. Piercing the dark with their joyful melodies, Najeem and his nephews say that they are very happy to wake up the people of the Priyadi neighborhood, which stretches over a very large area. The residents of the neighbourhood are also very happy to be woken up by tambourines. Some run to the windows to see them, while some even open their door to sing along. Badriya Ahmad, 52, says that they like the band very much, and adds: “May God be pleased with them. Thanks to them, we don’t even have to set our alarm clocks to wake up for sahur.”
Osman Kayacı, 39, a Turkmen, draws attention to the difficulty of waking up for sahur due to the blackouts and says the band is more instrumental in fulfilling an important function rather than only carrying on the tradition.
Previous Ramadans arrived amidst cannon shots
Kerkuk residents used to start preparing for the month of fasting a week in advance. The only thing they can do to observe this tradition is to do the food shopping a week before. We visited Şekibe Hancı, 57, another Turkmen, and asked what she thought about Ramadan. She said she misses old Ramadans very much as they were able to observe the month with a greater joy and zeal in the past. “Like in the past, we did our shopping a week ahead of the month; however things are not like before. The bazaars and all crowded places are not as secure as before. We shy away from going out to the street, particularly while alone,” she complains.
The days when women would frequent the open bazaars, visiting all the stalls with all sorts of things piled high are long gone now. The US occupation that began in 2003 with the support of alliance forces changed everything for good. Now men do the shopping in the town because women, as Mrs. Hancı pointed out, are afraid to go out. Serdar Hancı, 62, goes out only when he has to, and buys the items on a list his wife gives him.
Despite all their troubles, they temporarily leave this world of affliction at the moment of breaking their fast with their beloved ones. Mr. Hancı tells us that before the occupation, a cannon used to be fired to mark the time for iftar. There is an old cannon, dating back to the Ottoman period, on one of the towers of the Kerkuk fort; however, many youngsters don’t know that it belongs to the Ottoman period. A group of youths tell us that the cannon would be fired in the Saddam era. Serdar Hancı bitterly recounts that it is no longer fired for security reasons. “Real cannons are fired nowadays in Kerkuk along with all sorts of other guns, except for our lovely old cannon. Whenever this iftar cannon would be fired, we would know that our fellow Muslims all over the town were breaking their fast. However, now whenever we hear real gunshots and cannon shots, we know that some people are being killed. How can we not miss those days?”
Before breaking their fast, they pray that peace and serenity once again reign in the town as in the past. They invoke and ask their prayers to be accepted for the sake of the blessed month of Ramadan.
Despite the blackouts in the evening and at night, Kerkukis are not willing to renounce one more Ramadan tradition. Ignoring the tense atmosphere of the town, they flock to the mosques in the town after the iftar dinner to perform the terawih prayer. Terawih is a great joy for the children here also because they participate in the first units of the prayer and then play games in the back of the mosques. Although some elders get angry at them, they manage to combine the prayer with play and undoubtedly enjoy the night more than anybody else.
Kerkuk’s Ramadan entertainment: sinizerf
The only entertainment Kerkukis can find in currently black Ramadan nights is a game called sinizerf, played by everyone in the town. Played by two teams each consisting of four players, the game involves cups called “zerf” placed on a round brass tray called “sini.” The players are supposed to find the stone hidden under one of the cups. Before the occupation, northern Iraqis used to even hold intercity sinizerf tournaments. Nowadays, they can play it only in their homes.
The tournaments used to be held in Kerkuk, Arbil and Sulaimaniya and the sinizerf would travel between the three cities. Now people still play it in Arbil and Sulaimaniya where it is still possible to securely go out at night. However, it is impossible to say the same of Kerkuk in terms of security.
People retire into their houses before sunset to avoid getting wounded and killed, although roadside and other kinds of bombs are not as common in Kerkuk as in other parts of Iraq. When people clear the streets, soldiers in vehicles equipped with heavy weapons start patrolling the town. Apart from their homes, some people hold minor tournaments in coffeehouses but have to stop playing before 11:00 p.m. and speedily go back home, missing the good old days when sinizerf games would continue late into the night.