The Plight of Shabaks in Nineveh

Nemat Sharif
2014 / 2 / 5

The Plight of Shabaks in Nineveh

By: Nemat Sharif

Shabaks(1)are an Indo-European group of people who like other Kurdish groups-;- speak a sub-dialect of Kurdish just like Hawramani, Zazaki, and Gorani subdialects of Kurdish. A misnomer, they are at times referred to as Bajalan, which is a large Shabak clan closely affiliated to the Bajalan tribe in Khanaquin region (2). History has left its marks on this region at least since the times of Assyrians and Medes. This is evident in the Chaldo-Assyrian, Turcoman and Arab communities on the outskirts of the region. Inhabiting the fertile arable plains on trade routes, the prosperous settled communities of Shabakistan have provided for the cities and towns including Mosul since prehistoric times.

Location and Population

Shabaks populate more than 70 villages and towns. Administratively, they are spread among five districts and sub-districts-;- that are Ba shiqa, Bartilla, Hamdaniya, Talkeif, and Nimrod, all dependencies of Nineveh (Arabic: Nainawa) Province. Shabak villages form an arch to the north and north east of Mosul, the center of Nineveh Province-;- thus the Baath regime called it “the protective belt of Mosul.” (3) There are no reliable figures of Shabak population. However, Muhammad al-Shabaki, -dir-ector of Media and researcher at the Organization of Iraqi Minorities Council says:

“The Shabaks are spread across the Mosul plain in an area shaped like an inverted triangle. Their approximately 70 villages form a crescent,´-or-belt-shape that surrounds the city of Mosul from the north and northeast. Most Shabaks, around 400-450 thousand people, inhabit these villages as well as Mosul City.” (4)

In our estimate, the Shabak population is no less that 500 thousand in the villages and countryside-;- as well as the administrative centers of districts and sub-districts mentioned earlier. Shabaks are grossly and intentionally underestimated despite referring to them as neither Kurds nor Arabs. As part of a larger anti-Kurdish scheme, Shabaks, Yezidis and Faylis are not counted as Kurds to minimize the size and population of the Kurds and Kurdistan altogether. As F. Dabbagh put it:

"The percentage of Kurds is higher than (16.05%) because most of Yezidis, Gargari, Shabak and Fayli Kurds were registered as Arabs in this census [1977] (5) (Page 4)." And on page 14, "The reason for the increased Arab and decreased Kurdish populations in this census is the registration of all Yezidis of Sinjar and Shaykhan, Gargari and Shabak Kurds, in addition to Turcoman of Tala far ..etc."(6)

Shabakistan (7), the land of Shabaks, forms a contiguous region, mainly arable fertile plains of Nineveh. It stretches from the Khazir River in the east to Khawsar River, near Talkeif, in the west-;- and from Mount Maqlub in the north, through Mosul to the Tigris River in the south. It forms an arch to the north and east of Mosul, stretching along the concave side of the mountainous part of Kurdistan. Shabak villages lie on the outskirts of Mosul stretching northeastward to the foothills of mount Bashiqa, an isolated elevation behind the Bashiqa sub-district center. Shabakistan is essentially fertile agricultural plains between Mosul and the Kurdish mountains. A number of Arab, Christian and Turcoman towns and villages are scattered in and around Shabakistan. Religious minorities are also not uncommon such as Sarlis (8) and Yezidi as their areas extend into Kirkuk and Shaykhan jurisdictions respectively.

There are many historical villages and archeological sites in Shabakistan. For example:
Arpachia, one of the oldest settlements in Iraq, dates as far back as 7000 years. Archeological discoveries in 1933 date back to 5000 B.C. (9)

Sallamya: on the eastern bank of Tigris, it is about 18 miles south of Mosul, with archeological discoveries in a nearby hill dating to 3000 B.C. It was well populated in the Assyrian era. The village died out and rebuilt perhaps more than once in its long history. Yaqut al-Hamawi described it well when he wrote: "A large village of Mosul jurisdiction, 8 parasangs (about 18 miles) from it-;- on the east bank of Tigris. It is the largest of Mosul villages-;- it is most beautiful and pleasant..." (10)
There are other areas that haven’t been discovered yet because of the ongoing neglect.

Archaeologists have discovered a clay pipe stamp and a part of an engraved clay board and other cuneiform writings. Ibn Khillakan believed that the Sallamiya Wall was build by Assyrians and perhaps that this is the site of the older city of Resen mentioned in the Bible. (11)

The Struggle over Shabak Identity

The struggle has been intense over the soul of Shabaks as over their land. Land ownership is determined by the identity of its people. In Modern Iraq, Shabaks have been voiceless victims of their geography, between the Kurdish north and the central government to their south. They have been targeted by successive regimes for arabization to delimit the southern borders of Kurdistan to the north of Shabakistan, thus, shielding Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, from Kurdish demands. Arabization has been in ebb and flow matching the Kurdish ambition and struggle.

With the advent of the first Baathist rule in 1963 after their infamous February 7 coup d état, the regime laid out a plan to keep Shabaks under control. Proponents of the "Protective Belt of Mosul"´-or-the Mosul Shield pressed to deport the so called Iranian descendants to Iran. Real´-or-not, psychological warfare instilled fear to keep Shabaks checked from affiliating with the Kurdish revolution in the 1960 s and 1970 s. Shabaks were seen as Iranian no less than Fayli Kurds, another oppressed Kurdish group, as many as two hundred fifty thousand of them were deported in the seventies and eighties. For fear of deportation, many Shabak families did leave the area to blend into big city populations. As the first Baath rule came to a bloody end, Shabaks were left alone briefly. But the battle for their soul continues to this day.

In the 1980 s and in a systematic thrust, the government census officials asked Shabaks to register as Arabs. Those who registered as Kurds, their forms were returned with changes made to specific Arabic tribal affiliations. In a second census correction/confirmation round, indoctrinated Baathist census takers presented forms that were marked Kurdish in person. Only those who accepted the changes to Arab affiliations escaped reprisals. They were asked to encourage others to do the same, and many were hand picked to become informants for the Mosul Security -dir-ectorate/Mu-dir-iyat Amn al-Mosul. Others were given the title of an Arab Sheikh, paid to head a village´-or-tribe. Security and Baath Party chapters and affiliates in the region were instrumental in coercing Shabaks to arabize.

Since Kurdish ethnicity was not acceptable, most Shabaks marked their forms Shabaks . This also did not save them since Shabaks were already seen as Kurds, thus rejecting arabization. Being Shabak was not acceptable by census officials as neutral to escape retribution. They did not. Some thirty thousand Shabaks were deported to makeshift camps (in effect, concentration camps) in Kurdish areas recognized by the government as being within the Kurdish autonomous territory then. From 1988 until 1991 at least two makeshift camps existed where Shabaks were housed in the areas of Harir in Erbil province. In the aftermath of the Kurdish uprising of spring 1991, residents of both camps were let loose and people dispersed as the government lost control over the area. Most of them quietly returned to lowlands and cities.

The Baath government policy prohibited all Kurds including Shabaks from purchasing real state (land plots and houses) within the city-limit-s of Mosul. This policy did not apply to those Kurds and Shabaks who accepted arabization and possessed census registration cards as Arabs. The name of a trusted Arab´-or-arabized Kurd was usually used to conduct legal purchases. In the city of Mosul, there were an estimated 50 thousand Shabaks, mainly in as-Sahil al-Ayser/’left bank’, that is the Eastern half of Mosul which includes the quarters of Nabi Younis, Nu maniya, Dargazlia, Atshana, Zuhur City, and the areas stretching from Mosul-Gwer to Mosul-Arbil and Mosul-Duhok Highways.

Cultural Activities and Future Prospects:

On the one hand, many Shabaks supported the Kurdish revolution especially by providing logistical support, accommodating waves of people displaced by the fighting, famine and other natural and manmade disasters. Many shared their houses and other possessions and assisted in their resettlement. On the other hand, being on the crossroads between their Kurdish brethren in the mountainous north and Arab neighbors to their south, Shabaks often suffered atrocities from tribal raids and waves of tribal revenge activities for no reason other than their location between the Arabs in the south and their Kurdish brethren in the north.

The topography of Shabakistan is not conducive to any revolutionary activity for its easy accessibility by government forces. Even tribal conflicts were easily subdued by police, never requiring military intervention. However, historically, this region has been at the crossroads of military campaigns. From the times of Assyria and Medes, Islamic and later Ottoman and Persia, conflicts have often left the area devastated. A power that controlled Shabakistan and the foothills to the north would usually control Mosul.

Despite that Shabaks lack the political organization to voice their concerns, they have demonstrated a strong collective will to preserve their identity, culture and language. Beyond their mere existence on the margins of the national life, Shabaks were discouraged from any form of expression. All education has been in Arabic. No Kurdish schools were allowed in the region. Still there is no publication in their dialect, and no other Kurdish publications were allowed in the region under Saddam Hussein, despite the fact that the first Kurdish school to teach in Shabaki was founded by the British Mandate in 1919 in the village of Gogjeli (12).

Several Shabak song writers and vocalists have emerged in the 1980 s. In alliance with Kurmanji Kurdish recording studios, several cassettes were produced. However, in one case, the singer was pursued and eventually fled to Kurdistan, and another s cassettes were confiscated in Mosul. They are available freely in Duhok and Arbil music shops.

Shabaks: Between the hammer of Arabization and the rock of terrorism

The 1970-1974 years of Kurdish negotiation and openness with the central government was particularly significant in the struggle for the Shabak identity. As the relatively political openness of early seventies took root, the Kurdish-Shabak embrace was unparalleled. Despite that the official Kurdish policy and negotiation never mentioned Shabaks by name, the natural move south and intermingle and the warm reception by the lowland Shabaks alarmed the government that Mosul was at risk. Obvious as it was, money, Baath Party cadre, privileges and security/Amn personnel including arabized Kurmanji speaking Kurds, poured into the region. Almost in every Shabak village, a Baath Party cell´-or-organization was set up. Baath members were given privileges, cars and weapons to tour the region, coerce and organize Shabaks and their youth in Baath front organizations such as the Youth and Student organizations, agricultural cooperatives and labor -union-s.

“Over the past decades, Shabak individuals were not allowed to continue their studies, and banned from important government posts. Even those among them who were Baath Party members were not given what they deserved since their loyalties were always in question. The former regime was not all happy with this-;- it went beyond to the level of identity erasure through implementing a policy of Arabizing the region, and forcing an Arab identity upon them. Hence, the government forcibly deported more than 3,000 Shabak families from their homes after demolishing them as they watched their houses leveled off. As a result 30 Shabak villages were destroyed and their land and possessions were confiscated” (13).

The terrorist attacks on the Shabaks are no less ferocious than attacks on the Yezidis and Christians in the Nineveh Province, perhaps worse because of the proximity of their villages to the city of Mosul, and for their lack of military and political defense. Furthermore, the official and media silence vis a vie the attacks on Shabak village is at minimum disappointing and frustrating, not only in the new Iraq and the failure of the federal government of Iraq in protecting minorities but also the Kurdish response´-or-lack of it to the repeated attacks on Shabaks and forcing them out of Mosul. As Ghazwan Hamid explained:

“The number of families left the city of Mosul, according to figures we have been compiling since the holy Eid of Ramadan August 9, 2013, has reached (800) families scattered in the villages of Gha-dir-, Mahabba, Tiba, Zahra’….what worries us most is the official and media silence regarding this major issue.” (14)

Terrorist attacks on Shabaks are almost a daily occurrence. The worst attacks hit the villages of Khazna Teppa (50 killed and 160 injured on 11 August 2008), Ortekharab (36 killed and 57 injured on 14 September 2013), and Muwaffaqia (13 killed and 35 injured on 17 October 2013) and other attacks on villages near the center of Nineveh Province.

From the 1970’s, Kurdish organizations including Kurdistan Democratic Party which led the Kurdish struggle and autonomy negotiations with the central government, paid little if any attention to this strategic region. Slow, too little, however, a number of Shabaks whom on their own initiative contacted the Kurdish leadership and established some ties. No Kurdish political organization was geared to work with the Shabaks. Eventually in late 1973 and 1974, Fadhil Agha, chief of the Bajalan tribe, gathered enough clout and men to form and command a Peshmerga unit in the Kurdish Revolutionary Army, as the Peshmerga Forces were called then. Unhappy, he was often ignored and poorly armed. As hostilities broke out and government pressure mounted on his tribe and relatives in 1974-75, he changed sides. However, he never succumbed to bear arms against the Kurdish revolution as many other Kurdish tribes did.

No Kurdish organization has really been interested in Shabaks and their issues. A number of Shabak individuals are among KDP and PUK affiliates who work selflessly to serve the Kurdish cause and promote Shabak issues. Kurdish interest in the Shabaks remained low as the region is part of the designated article 140 of the Iraqi constitution until recently, and at the academic level as they speak a sub-dialect of Kurdish. Today as the struggle of the areas included in Article 140, and the targeting of Shabaks in Mosul and surrounding villages and towns continue, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has stepped up its efforts and plays a significant role in defending the region and protecting the Shabaks from terrorist attacks on their villages and towns. This represents a decisive phase in growing national feelings and Kurdish affiliation for the Shabaks.

The Role of the Kurdistan Regional Government

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step as the Chinese quote says. .The KRG has stepped forward to provide protection for the Shabaks and minorities in Nineveh from Terrorism as part of the ‘Kurdistan territories outside the region’ (13). Undoubtedly this is the single most important factor to ensure security and stability in the area. In regards to raising political and national awareness, despite the importance of the few radio programs, Shabaks remain in need of a TV station broadcasting in their dialect to play catch up with others in the area. .Furthermore, Shabakistan is in -dir-e need for economic development. Shabak villages suffer from chronic neglect by the federal and local governments in Nineveh. By all indications, the Shabak population is 400 – 500 thousands, thus, constitutionally they should have at least 4 representatives in the Iraqi Parliament. Both Yezidis and Christians with perhaps less population but enjoy 5 representatives to voice their concerns. Still they want more. Shabaks have one representative in the parliament within the Kurdistan block. Therefore, the KRG can take a few steps to improve conditions in the area. The area needs water and electricity, roads and hospitals, and more. A sub-district center like Bashiqa (16) still lacks even a small 5-bed hospital´-or-clinic. Another step can be taken is to open an office´-or-appoint a Shabak advisor to officially represent and voice Shabak concerns to KRG since they have no representative in the Kurdistan Parliament (because they are outside the Kurdistan Region. Party organizations and the Shabak Consultative Committee do not necessarily negate the founding of a Shabak Affairs Office´-or-appointing a Shabak Affairs Advisor.

Shabak s struggle to preserve their identity has been difficult and quiet passive resistance , more acculturation, and intermingling with their northern brethren in the face of systematic governmental policy to arabize them. Despite the heavy ghost of arabization astride Shabakistan, efforts are underway for cultural development, becoming more vocal, and raising political awareness to preserve their own identity.

Notes and References:

(1) Although the word Shabak has a religious origin that predates Islam and rooted in Mithraism, it now refers to all who speak the dialect as their mother tongue. The vast majority of Shabaks today are Moslems of either Sunni´-or-Shiite sects approximately 35% and 65% respectively.
(2) Bajalan, Ibrahim “Historian: Shaykh Mahmud al-Hafid had previously demanded to elevate Khanaquin to a province in 1930”, Voice of Iraq [], 28 January 2014. The historian says “In his 1930 negotiations with the Iraqi Government, Shaykh Mahmud al-Hafid demanded to form two provinces [Arabic: Liwa’], the first one was to include all the Kurdish areas that were then under the jurisdiction of Mosul Province with its center in Duhok, in addition to moving Khanaquin up to a province called the Province of Bajalan [Arabic: Liwa’ Bajalan] which was to include Mandali, Jalawla’, and Sa’diyah.”
(3) A report of the Mosul Security -dir-ectorate/Mu-dir-iat al-Amn al-Amma, quoted figures form the 1977 government census totaling the Shabak population as 27,551.
(4) Muhammad al-Shabaki, ‘Shabaks: A Brief Overview’, Niqash, 6 June, 2007.

(5) Dabbagh, Faysal, The Kurds and Other Ethnic Minorities in the 1977 Census, Part I, Parwarda Press, 1933, in Kurdish.
(6) Ibid, p. 14.
(7) This is the name Shabaks call their region. The government did not favor the use of this term for it signifies non-Arab/Kurdish identity.
(8) Sarlis are the Kakai’s of Shabaks, as their 4 Shabak villages are Kabarli, Bisatliya, Tel al-Laban, and Kharabat Sultan. They speak Shabaki, but they are Kakai’s in their beliefs, just like the rest of Kakai’s in the province of Kirkuk.
(9) Baban, Jamal, Origins of Iraqi City and Toponyms, Kurdish Scientific Society Press, Baghdad, 1976 and 1989, Part I, p. 15.
(10) Ibid, p. 204.
(11) Ibid.
(12) Botani, Abd al-Fattah, ‘Separating Shabaks from Kurds for Political Aims Contradicts Reality and History’, 23 November (?)

(13) Muhammad al-Shabaki, ‘Shabaks: A Brief Overview’, Niqash, 6 June, 2007.

(14) Salman, Ali ‘Abd, Bratha News website, ‘Shabaks Continue to Leave Mosul, and the Concerned ask about the Official Silence’, 02 October 2013.

(15) Abd al-Hamid, Safa’ and Shafiq, Mohammed, al-Sumaria, “The Peshmerga Raises Alert Status in the Disputed Areas to Prevent Da’ish [Al-Qa’dia Affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] from Sneaking in”, 4 January 2014.

(16) Izzi, al-, ‘Atif ‘Prsident Usama al-Nujayfi and the Founding of Mosul Vilayat, Voice of Iraq, 31 October 2013.
“Exxon Company angered Baghdad for signing oil exploration deals in six areas in Kurdistan in 2011, among them the areas of Bashiqa and Alqosh, both are disputed areas between Nineveh and Kurdistan.”

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