Graveyard Shopping: On Separation and Copping in the Informal Sector

      Kurds have been visiting their dead every week for hundreds of years. But only recently have they started graveyard shopping, reflecting the people’s learned ability to move on despite tragedy.

      Kurds respect their dead. Every Friday morning in South Kurdistan, families and friends gather around the graves of their deceased in tribute and remembrance. They make their ways up graveyard hills, dodging gravestones cramped around the slopes and turns. After tears are shed, prayers are said, and news exchanged, they hop down back to the foot of the hill where merchants of all sorts greet them with their ready-to-vend goods.

      These merchants, eager to earn meager extras in the informal sector, have discovered that where there are assemblies of people there are customers – even in cemeteries. Along the borders of the historic graveyards of Saywan Hill in Sulaimani, hundreds of stall and pushcart vendors await the Friday crowd to return downhill and buy from them.

      Some of the merchants I had conversations with had been coming to Saywan for years. Haji Ahmed who sells toys and miscellaneous items had been setting up his stall at the foot of the graveyard since 2004. Others like Sarhat and his son Aras were on their first day in Saywan. They had brought three boxes of grapes from their vineyard to sell. You could feel their excited novice spirits.

      The hawkers of Saywan Hill sell everything. Each peddler specializes in particular kinds of goods – from fantastic fabrics and potted plants, to collections of CDs and delicious dried fruits of all sorts, and everything in between. Like a pointillist painting, the overall image makes sense; peddlers in Saywan Hill organize in chaotic patterns. If EBay were not a website, it would look something like the lines of vendors in Saywan.

      Khalil and his son Miran have been selling dried goods in Saywan for 5 years. They come every Friday from 4:30 AM, but their peak hours start from 9 AM until they leave at 11. Most vendors in this sector arrive really early to set up in their regular spots. There are unspoken pacts among the hawkers; “No one takes anyone’s spot,” said Rafiq who sells pots and silverware with his son Bryar.

      A lot of families going to Saywan are less approving of this new graveyard “habit.” For them, the constant bargaining and merchant cries disturb the calmness and sanctity of the Sulaimani cemetery. But even they cannot resist graveyard shopping on Fridays.

      Despite the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s recent economic booms and the opening of multiple supermarkets, malls, and hypermarkets, the locals still prefer to buy their needs from bazaars, just like the temporary Friday one in Saywan.

      At the bottom of the Hill, men an d women shop for their households. Most of the women are lightly veiled in respect of graveyard sacraments, and the men wear plain clothes. As they dodge their way down the Saywan and stop at the foot to purchase vegetables or soccer jerseys, there is a sober demonstration of coping. As the bereaved move down from the piles of centuries of death, contemplating the impossibility of life without their loved ones, they get reminded that dinner needs to be cooked and served. That their gardens need new fertilizers and their children new shoes. And that, more urgently, they are thirsty and could do with a sip of bottled water sold at the foot of Saywan.

      Life goes on despite separations. For a separated people, this has been the somber lesson among silenced revolutions and dilapidated graves. And Saywan is an embodiment of their coping.

By: Meer Ako Ali
From: Washington DC, US

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