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The Shabak Search for Identity

Adel Kamal
The Shabak minority of Ninawa province remain a recluse and unknown group for many. Confusion reigns as to their ethnic and religious identity, as well as their political allegiances. Today, debate is growing ever…
10.06.2008  |  Mosul

The Shabak live in the northern part of Ninawa province, mainly in villages surrounding the districts of Talkeef, al-Hamadaniya, Bartalah and Ba'shiqah neighborhoods. They also have a heavy presence in a number of areas in Mosul, the city center of Ninawa province and especially in al-Quds, Karamah, al-Atshanah and al-Nabi Younis neighborhoods. Shabak are Muslims and the vast majority Shiites. While they speak their own language, some have descended from Arab and others from Kurdish tribes. Shabak men wear traditional Arab clothes and, other than the difference of language, their villages can hardly be distinguished from those of Arabs. According to the 1977 census, they numbered 80,000 people. Unofficial estimates today indicate that they exceed 400,000.

Sources on the history of Shabak are rare. The best known books are ‘al-Shabak’ by Ahmad al-Sarraf, published in the first half of last century, and ‘Lamahat ‘an al-Shabak’ (Introductions on Shabak) by Zuhair Kazem Abboud, published in 2000. This scarcity of literature has created a mystery around the origins of the group and over the years there has been much questioning of their identity and even attempts to destroy it.

According to Abd al-Zahra Bashir al Agha, spokesman of the Shabak Intellectuals Association, “historians have not been fair towards the Shabak. Some have considered them Kurds and others Arabs and some even considered them Turks or Iranians.” He added that “our association seeks to highlight the history and aspirations of the Shabak and their language. We have recently issued newspapers (Al-Yaqeen) and (Shabak Kull) and we have a number of websites.”

Shabak suffered difficulties in the 1980s, when some of them wrote in the population census form that they came from Kurdish origins. This was interpreted by the regime as an alliance between the Shabak and the Kurdish opponents of Saddam that resulted in a very severe response, with the destruction of homes and the forced deportation of inhabitants of Shabak villages in Ninawa to the northern areas of the province. Following the collapse of the former regime, the Shabak continued to be targeted with official reports confirming that more than 4500 Shabak families have been deported from Mosul city as a result of armed violence. Additionally, acts of violence have killed 653 Shabak.

A Shabak journalist said that “thousands of families left their homes, having lost many of their sons. They received threats of death from unknown persons if they stayed in Mosul.” Houses that were inhabited by Shabak families are easily spotted; gunmen wrote “not for sale, not for lease, and ready to be bombed” on their walls.

Today, the Shabak are victim of more than just violence, with other forces attempting to “strip their identity” says Hanin Mahmoud al-Qaddo, the only Shabak representative in the Iraqi parliament and the president of the Iraqi Minorities’ Council. Different groups suggest the Shabak are in reality either Kurds or Arabs.

According to al-Qaddo, "Shabak are not Kurds; they are an independent, Iraqi ethnic component. The Shabak language contains Kurdish vocabulary, but this does not mean anything; it also contains a wealth of Arabic, Turkish and Persian vocabulary.” The Shabak parliamentarian describes attempts to force the Kurdish ethnicity on the Shabaks as a "political goal," pointing out that the current Iraqi constitution has listed all Iraqi ethnic and religious minorities with the exception of the Shabak. There are clear reference to Christians, Fayli Kurds, Turkmen, Sabeans and Yazidis. Only the Shabak are not mentioned.

Al-Qaddo, also leader of the “Shabak Democratic Gathering,” stresses that there is no relation between the Shabak and the Kurds. He hopes that other Iraqi groups will support the Shabak in recognizing their distinct identity. He also hopes that his organization will be able to win a seat in Ninawa’s Provincial Council in the coming elections to work politically on the groups’ behalf.

Others however state clearly that the Shabak people are Kurds.

Khisro Goran, deputy governor of Ninawa, and a high Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) official denies the existence of any kind of conspiracy against the Shabak, emphasizing that “the majority recognizes themselves as Kurds, and they actually descend from well known Kurdish tribes in Erbil and its neighborhoods.” Speaking to Niqash Goran said that “we will not allow anyone to force any ethnicity on the Shabak. If some of them discovered that they are not Kurds, it is up to them and we cannot impose anything on them. This is the new Iraq.”

Goran expressed his surprise of allegations that the Shabak are being forced to become Kurds, especially as “90% of Shabak’s vocabulary is pure Kurdish, their dialect is one of the major Kurdish dialects, and their heritage and folklore are Kurdish.”

Other political forces within the Shabak, especially the “Consultative Board for the Shabak,” formed by a number of Shabak leaders allied with the Kurds, share Goran’s opinion. The board has called on the Iraqi Parliament to speed up the implementation of article 140 of the constitution pertaining to the incorporation of Mosul's Shabak community into Iraq's Kurdistan region. In their submitted statement they said that “80% of the Shabak people are Kurds, while the rest are Arabs and Turkmen who integrated into the Shabak community.”

Observers now expect a bitter conflict within the Shabak community between those with Arab and Kurdish political allegiances as the search for their identity continues.