Friday, May 23, 2003

A Christian enclave in Iraq

Tucked in a corner of this ancient, somber Muslim city is a neighborhood that wears skimpy clothing, eats cheeseburgers and drinks beer.It is called Ankawa and it is home to a small but lively community of Assyro-Chaldeans, or Assyrian Christians, one of Iraq's smallest — and proudest — ethnic groups. They number 1.3 million in Iraq and are descendants of the indigenous people of Mesopotamia, with a language that dates back to 3000 B.C.

An equal number of the Assyrian Christians have settled outside the region, mostly in Chicago and Detroit."We are the remains of the original Iraqis," said Yonan Hozaya, a senior official in the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a political party. "You must take care not to lose us."The neighborhood here is in no danger of disappearing. It is the main meeting spot for many in this city. A steady stream of slowly cruising cars flows past on the main thoroughfare, referred to by locals as Champs Élysée for its lively shops. Young men sit low behind the steering wheel of their cars. Women walk arm in arm. Liquor stores abound.

Ankawa stands in contrast to the rest of Erbil, a Kurdish Muslim city where alcohol is not for sale and most women wear a hijab head covering. Young people are not allowed inside the city park at night without being accompanied by a family member.