Expensive ceremonies: A wedding in Iraq. (photo: ماركو دي لورو)
Once upon a time it would have been frowned upon but, thanks to displacement caused by the security crisis, more Kurdish and Arab families are intermarrying in northern Iraq. Because marriage in Iraq and in Iraqi Kurdistan still tends to be a conservative tradition, where couples are arranged through families or matchmakers, and men have far more choice than women, it seems that it is usually Kurdish men marrying Arab women.
The increasing number of inter-ethnic marriages are happening for a number of reasons, not all of them savoury.
Ibrahim al-Obaidi, 53, was displaced from southern Iraq and ended up living in a camp with his family in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“I was always opposed to marrying girls off too young but this hard life in the camps and our economic situation has changed my mind,” he admits. “I have seen my daughters growing up in the camp and I got so worried about them, because of harassment from others in the camp and the way they mix with others here, that I decided to let them marry and not worry how old they were,” al-Obaidi explained.
It is the high cost of getting married in Kurdistan, that encourage us to marry into an Arab family instead.
There are many advantages to marrying a daughter into the Iraqi Kurdish community, al-Obaidi continued. “I guarantee my family a foothold in this region through intermarriage with the Kurdish people, who have similar traditions to ours anyway,” the father explained. “During the time we have been here, we have become more accustomed to their culture and they to ours,” he notes.
Ahmed al-Marsouni, 61, has already returned to Anbar's Karmah district after having spent some time in Iraqi Kurdistan, after he took his family there, due to fears about the security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State. But when he came back south, he left his 18-year-old daughter behind in the semi-autonomous northern region, the interior of which has remained comparatively safe over the past three years.
When he arrived back home, he says he saw his daughter’s schoolbooks in the house and recalls how he was reluctant to let her marry a young Kurdish man. It was not just because of her age – she was 16 at the time - but also because he feared the couple, who did not speak the same language, might not be able to understand one another and therefore would not get along. The whole family was opposed to the union but al-Marsouni cast a deciding vote and the pair married.
But that was two years ago and now the two families have started learning one another’s language. The couple is far ahead of their in-laws.
“In the next few days our son-in-law will come to visit us for the first time since we returned last year,” al-Marsouni says. “Our daughter will come with him and we are all waiting for her eagerly. I am proud of this decision even though at the time I forced everyone to accept it,” he adds.
Abdul Rahman Hewa is a young Iraqi Kurdish man who recently married an Arab girl. He says it was the high cost of marriage to a Kurdish girl that led him to his bride – that, and the fact that he decided that Arab women were “wiser and better looking than Kurdish girls. They take care of their husbands better.”
“These marriages have become much more acceptable recently,” Hewa explains. “It is the high cost of getting married in Kurdistan and the customs imposed on young men like me, that encourage us to marry into an Arab family instead. Then the couple can start married life free of the financial burdens that Kurdish society imposes on you, if you marry a Kurdish girl.”
Hewa says his wedding cost him around US$5,000 – that was for the ceremony and party and for language lessons so he and his new wife can understand one another better.
“I would have needed triple that amount – at least – to buy the gold that Kurdish families usually ask for, when their daughters marry,” Hewa says; gold jewellery and gifts are an important part of Kurdish weddings as families and the bride and groom gift each other the precious metal – it’s often seen as a kind of dowry.
The displaced Arab brides-to-be meet their potential husbands in different ways. Sometimes it is due to immersion in the host community where couples’ families come to an arrangement, other times it is due to random meetings in markets.
Hazem Razkar, 35, first spotted his Arab wife at the markets with her family, in the Iraqi Kurdish tourist town of Shaqlawa where he lives. “I was lucky because I speak pretty good Arabic and I was able to find out where she lives – that’s not difficult for us because we tend to know where people are living in our small community – and speak to her family,” Razkar says.
His wife’s family was actually renting an apartment from Razkar’s family friends so he was able to meet the girl briefly. After that he proposed formally, asking her family for their daughter’s hand.
“We’re very happy now,” Razkar says. In fact, he and his wife often work as mediators, even as marriage brokers, for other Kurdish-Arab couples. “We try to bridge the gap between the two groups and arrange for the families to meet. We also translate and help the families understand one another.”
“What I really noticed about the Arab women was that they never asked for money, the same way the Kurdish girls did,” says Assad Obaid, who owns a small jewellery store in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan and who recently married an Arab woman himself. “I noticed this after dealing with so many people in my shop, both Kurdish and Arab.”
Obaid admits that he had heard about the growing number of successful Kurdish-Arab marriages but that he wed his wife simply because he fell in love.
She had come to his store with her family to buy gold jewellery for her sister’s wedding. “I was able to communicate with her family through a young Kurdish man who speaks Arabic,” the 36-year-old store owner explains. “And I didn’t have to pay a huge amount of money for gold for her. But to me, she is the ultimate treasure anyway.”