Photographs and narratives by ROBERT LEUTHEUSER from and of his travels through Kurdistan and the greater Middle East. Published in conjunction with his photographic website

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23 October 2010

"My Heart Did It"

Saturday, 16 October 2010

“ 'My Heart Did It,' thats what Kar Belaktus means” Linda said,explaining to me the name of the church. Linda? What a jolt of a name to hear on the high bluffs above the Tigris River. “We are Chaldeans.” She was short and plump with the eyes of an angel, and though her face should have been weathered, it was not.

After a planned visit to a Shabak community (a syncretic religion followed by a hyper-minority of Kurds) failed to materialize, I found myself racing across the tired autumnal landscape of upper Mesopotamia in northern Iraq to visit the village of Derabûn. Nazim, a young Yezidian, was at the wheel dodging the large transport trucks hauling goods and construction material from Turkey under a luminescent mid-day sky polished by the dust blowing from the south of Iraq. Eight-foot tall phragmites grasses huddled around the infrequent seeps and struggled to appear green in the hot wind. Gratefully Nazim kept the windows up and the air conditioning on as a radio station from Zahko serenaded us with class B American rap and hip-hop. We passed through a half dozen small settlements before reaching Derabûn, each of which was defined by religion – Muslim and not-Muslim. Christians and Yezidis found kinship with one another, both suffering from Islamic persecution intermittently throughout their histories, and intimately since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Derabûn is half Christian and half Yezidi, segregated only by the road.

Nazim and I first drove a kilometer past Derabûn to the ruins of what he said was an old fortress. It was an unremarkable collection of tall crumbling walls; the view of the Tigris on the other hand was anything but. Even now so late in the season, and in spite of Turkey's manic construction of a system of dams upstream, it flowed wide and shallow around intermittent islands. Soon the fall rains would come and briefly swell the Tigris with silt-laden water. Nazim came up behind me. It was not a fortress, he corrected himself after reading the bent roadside sign painted in white Arabic script, it was an old church – Mariam Adra. I suspected that during its history it had been both. As I walked back to the car against the wind, I picked the spikey burrs out of the socks that should have stayed home, while taking care not to step on broken glass.

Kar Belakrus' fresh white paint was as startling as Linda's name. It did more than reflect the filtered sunlight. Atop was a modest sized cross with clear light bulbs within its frame, and below it a sign colors yet faded with a literal image of Christ, his heart in flames on his chest. His skin was not weathered either.

Linda, in her blue flowered cotton shift, was sweeping under the portico when we arrived with her uncle, Zachary. She fetched the key and opened the side door. It was cool inside the simple church. The church had undergone a major restoration in the last 3 years Linda explained first in hesitant English then in soft song. She and Zachary showed us the improvements with quiet pride – the new ceiling 16 feet above, and the new rectory with the priests' and deacons' black cassocks with gold cuffs hung primly in the open armoire. (I couldn't help but think of their contrast to the thread-worn and dusty gray cassocks with red braiding that that I saw hanging on pegs in the bunker of the Armenian chapel in Diyarbakir, Turkey 9 years ago.)

Linda and her husband, the church's deacon, returned to Derabûn 5 years ago. It became too dangerous for Christians in Baghdad where some of her extended family had lived for some number of years. Her grandfather's house is right there, she pointed behind the church, next to which is the house that her brother now a Canadian citizen is rebuilding for occasional visits. And those olive trees next to the church, she told me, were planted by her grandfather and father. They will begin the modest harvest soon. And the six houses that lined the dirt lane next to the church were her family's.

We retreated to Zachary's garden, a small plot of grass that wasn't struggling to be green. His wife brought tall glasses of cold water, and then small cups of Turkish coffee that tasted so good that I almost suffered the dregs trying to get the last sip.

The wind wasn't blowing in the garden, but the sky was still burnished.

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