Unseen Iraq

In Kurdistan, Wishes and Laughter

(Andrea Bruce - Twp)
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By Andrea Bruce
Washington Post Staff Photographer
Monday, September 22, 2008

This is the place women come to make wishes.

It is a holy shrine in Irbil province, in the mountains of Kurdistan. Muslims call it Sheik Wsu Rahman, while Christians know it as Raban Buya. Once a hiding place for people fleeing religious persecution, it now has a picnic area at the bottom and a steep, zigzagging path to a high cave where four women who have just made the ascent are trying to catch their breath before beginning a series of tasks.

They all have wishes to make, but Ajeen Isamel, 15, is the main reason they are here.

"She was married four months ago," says Hasiba Siad, 43, Ajeen's mother-in-law. "We want a baby boy." Fertility is the wish of most of the shrine's pilgrims.

Nazinine Hassan, 44, slides her sheer white scarf from her head and crumples it into a ball, which quickly loosens as she tosses it into the air. The first task required at the shrine is to throw a head scarf through a natural archway in the cave. Nazinine, whose husband was killed five years ago while he was fighting for the pesh merga, the Kurdish army, wishes for money and a way to support herself. After two tries, the scarf catches briefly on a rock, then drops down on the other side. Success.

Next, the women duck into a smaller cave, slipping on the wax-covered ground. They light tall, thin candles and stick them onto a rock ledge with melting wax, then carefully leave the cave backward -- the key to this second task. Niaz Muhammed, 27, leads the way, teaching Ajeen the ritual. Also a war widow, Niaz wishes to be married again.

The third step is completed only by Ajeen and is the most important one for luck in conceiving a child. She climbs to the top of an angled rock, worn smooth by decades of childless women, and lies on her stomach. Head and hands first, she slides down the rock into the arms of the three older women, who cackle and fall back under her weight. Ajeen slides down twice more without saying a word.

As their laughter dies down, all four women search for small stones on the floor of the cave. Hasiba is the most focused, almost competitive, as she looks for the 14 stones needed for the final task. Seven are thrown to a high, man-made hole on one side of the cave and seven into a hole on the opposite side, facing the entrance.

Hasiba, yet another war widow, has breast cancer. Her wish is for good health, she says, before throwing a stone.

And for a car.

Washington Post photographer Andrea Bruce is documenting the lives of people in Iraq in a feature, Unseen Iraq, appearing regularly in the World pages. For a photo gallery and previous columns, visit http://blog.washpost.com/unseen-iraq.

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