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In Iraq’s Kurdish capital, all’s fair in love and walls

A view of graffiti text sprayed on a blank wall in Arbil, the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region, reading in Arabic (from right to left) “as age progresses and passes, he found no happiness nor solace”; “when you do not find whomever you tell that you are not well, know that ‘Suwar Pics’ (Facebook page) is beside you and you can inform them”; “it’s been one year and everything is perfect, my heart, Ala Ziad”.

“Nero set Rome on fire and Nermin set my heart on fire.” Iraqi Kurds in Arbil are declaring their love on the city’s walls, their only refuge in a conservative society. The confessions are scrawled in bright reds and blues, in Arabic and Kurdish, bringing life to otherwise bland alleyways, quiet cul-de-sacs and abandoned homes. Some are accompanied by dates and initials instead of full names, others by awkwardly drawn hearts or flowers. “M + M = life,” reads one slanted message in a dark corner.  Cracks in the walls or water stains from leaky pipes streak through the passionate declarations.  “I hope you will stay my love for many more years, Ala Ziad.” 

This message, scribbled under a bridge, includes the name of its recipient—a bold move in a society stuck between religious tradition and modern romance. Dotted with skyscrapers and bars, Arbil is the capital of northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, widely seen as more open-minded than the federal south. Still, the region maintains many of the usual taboos: public displays of affection are looked down on, women complain of workplace discrimination and harassment, while activists say they have a long way to go to uproot the practices of female genital mutilation and forced marriage.  But all’s fair in love and walls—and Arbil is no exception.

One declaration even dares to flip religious expressions on their head: “If I loved God as much as I love you, he would have sent me as a prophet.” Others take a more political tone, hailing the struggle for an independent state or lamenting the war in neighbouring Syria that forced thousands of Kurds to flee across the border into northern Iraq.  “I see the whole world in your eyes—are you related to Damascus?” reads a message in deep blue.  Another salutes Kobane, the Kurdish-majority town in northern Syria that fought back Islamic State group jihadists in 2015.  In their own ways, these too are love letters.—AFP

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