He lives like a hermit, by a waterfall in the mountains, nursing a heart broken decades ago. But his story is spreading and well-wishers want not only to bring him food, but to make him a symbol of love for Iraqi Kurdistan.
He rejoices when the young sit around him. He has some life lessons to pass on and a story to tell, particularly to boys who are madly in love or whose hearts have been broken.
People call him Ali Ashq – “Ali the Lover” -- but Ali Abdullah Sheikh calls himself “the minister of loneliness,” and compares himself to a butterfly flying free in the mountains, a member of no real society.
Sheikh is 75 years old. More than 40 years ago, a girl broke his heart and he isolated himself from the rest of society, choosing to live alone in the mountains.
Of course, this seems a little strange. But Sheikh is not the first person in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan to head for the hills and try to live like a hermit in a cave. There are other tales in the area of one man who lived in a cave in the mountainous border area with Iran who also became very well known.
Sheikh’s story is becoming well known. This reporter heard about it while in Sohrab city where we met a man who told us he was going to take some food to a loner who lives in the hills.
Sheikh himself lives around the Gali Ali Beg waterfall, near Mount Korek, which is 50 kilometres from the Iranian border. He left home many years ago; he recalls that it was “the third night after Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr became President”. That would have been in mid-July in 1968 then, which is when al-Bakr became Iraq’s President.
The reason for his departure? "I was a shepherd and I was in love with my cousin. But her parents did not let her get married to me. Their excuse was that my brain was not OK," he explains, full of sadness. But, Sheikh continues, “it was not true. There was nothing wrong with my brain. They just did not want to give their daughter to me."
And Sheikh never went back to his village. He has not seen his parents either and refuses to speak about them: “I have forgotten about them.”
And all he knows about his cousin, the girl he was in love with, is that she married somebody else after he abandoned society.
"I have no feelings toward her anymore,” Sheikh says now. “It’s over."
When he first left his home, he started sleeping in caves and under trees. But since the 1980s he has resided in a small room overlooking the waterfall. His home was originally built to be a bathroom for tourists visiting the falls but it was never used so Sheikh took it over.
His room is dark, full of old blankets, dirty dishes and other detritus. But he doesn’t seem to mind: “no president in the world has what I have,” he says.
There are many shops around the waterfalls and they and the traffic police in the area are generous to Sheikh, providing him with water and food, and even fuel during the colder months.
A professor from the nearby University of Sulaymaniyah even wanted to build Sheikh a proper house overlooking the waterfall. Apparently the educator thought it would be a charitable thing to do, to help Sheikh, and he was also moved by Sheikh’s sad love story. There would also have been a statue of Sheikh out the front – the professor thought he could well become a symbol of love in Iraqi Kurdistan, as his story is widely known.
It is uncertain whether Sheikh would actually have liked this. Mostly, he says he is annoyed by all the tourists who come to the waterfalls. “They behave as if they have never seen nature," he says.
Sheikh mostly, adding that he prefers the night time to daylight hours because in the evening its clam and he can think straight. During the day, he sleeps a lot.
His final words of advice as his visitors leave: “Don't go mad for anyone. Because they don't deserve it.”
This story was originally published in the Iraqi Kurdish newspaper, Rudaw. http://www.rudaw.net/english/kurds/5115.html