There is a sign on the door of the barbershop in the centre of the northern Iraqi city of Halabja: It says “first shave free on the first day of Ramadan. Then pay only IQD2,000 for shaving during the whole month of Ramadan”.
The shop belongs to Halo Nader, 47, a member of the Kakai ethno-religious group – generally the Kakais associate ethnically with the Kurdish people but also have their own distinctive, and secretive, religion, similar to the Yazidis in northern Iraq. They are most certainly not Muslims.
Nader is an employee of the local department of telecommunications in the city but he spends much of his time at his shop now, because the government of the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan is dealing with a financial crisis and cannot afford to pay civil servants regularly.
The sign on Nader’s shop has been getting a lot of attention. And not just because it’s a good deal, but because Nader is not a Muslim – unlike most of the people in Halabja. Yet he is doing a special deal during one of the most important Muslim holidays. Ramadan is a month long religious commemoration during which believers abstain from eating, drinking and other activities like sex, during the day, breaking their fast every night.
June 6 was the first day of Ramadan this year and during the day Nader shaved around 300 customers for free in his small store. This is tradition of his – he has been giving free shaves on the first day of Ramadan for the past nine years, and then offering half-price shaves for the rest of the religious holiday.
It is an interesting contrast to what usually happens at Ramadan, locals say, because usually prices go up. As one local man, also a customer of Nader’s, points out, before Ramadan he paid IQD17,000 (around US$14) for a 25 kilogram bag of rice. After Ramadan started, the price for the same bag went up to IQD35,000.
“People who come here often comment on this,” Nader told NIQASH. “They praise my initiative and say more people, especially Muslims, should do similar things. The phenomenon of increasing prices during Ramadan really needs to stop” the barber argues. “People shouldn’t be forced to worry that prices will increase during this holiday month. In fact, a lot of clerics have also complimented me on this iniative, saying it’s a good example for others.”
There is also the sectarian aspect to Nader’s Ramadan shaving deal. His customers include both Muslims and Kakais.
“Although I am Muslim, I always go to Halo’s shop for a shave because he shows respect to my religion,” says Fahmi Ali, one of Nader’s customers, who comes here together with his son. “There’s no one else in the market making a similar offer to Muslims. In fact, it’s the opposite. A lot of Muslims take advantage of Ramadan to increase their prices,” Ali says, “I always mention Nader as a better example . I tell people that a Kakai has reduced his prices yet you have increased yours, on an occasion that is important to your own people.”
Local businessman Abed Othman owns a supermarket near Nader’s barber shop. “As a Muslim I feel pleased when I see Halo’s discount sign,” Othman notes. “It respects our traditions. So I always go to his shop rather than any other.”
Some locals have suggested that it’s actually just a clever marketing strategy. But Nader is also well known for giving free shaves at New Year’s and for shaving the needy and the intellectually handicapped for nothing.
One of the people Nader has helped is Najmuddin Hama Rashid, who has been bed ridden since his leg was amputated around a year ago. “Halo used to come and shave me for free for one full year. This year I managed to get to his shop on the first day of Ramadan,” Rashid told NIQASH. “I think Muslims should do more charitable work like this. Most of the people who increase their prices are good Muslims. They go to the mosque to pray and they fast during Ramadan. But they don’t think about the poor or needy.”
Nader’s example is by no means unusual among the Kakai. It is part of their religion to respect other belief systems and they have been living peacefully alongside Halabja’s Muslims for decades; there are an estimated 600 Kakai families living in Halabja at the moment.
Of course there are some locals who do not like the different religious minority in their midst. But as Ako Shawais, the Kakai political representative on Halabja’s provincial council, says, “there are extremists among every group. We don’t care about these people though because most Muslims here accept our presence.”
“In Kurdistan there are many religions and this diversity should be reflected in government policies,” Shawais continues, arguing that it would be positive to have more opportunities to hold Kakai cultural events, once the security and financial situation in Iraqi Kurdistan has improved.
For now, Nader’s barber shop remains a shining example of co-existence in the region during Ramadan.
“Every person should try and live peacefully and coexist,” Nader concludes. “Because if there are disputes between the different religions, then any kind of Kurdish nation will not succeed.”