Picture purr-fect: Rare glimpse into fluffy friendships in northern Iraq

Picture purr-fect: Rare glimpse into fluffy friendships in northern Iraq
Photographer Seivan Salim is challenging people's perceptions and taboos in the Middle East about pets in her new picture exhibition.
7 min read
08 October, 2018
Seivan Salim grew up in Iran after escaping from Iraq with her family
Iraqi Kurdistan is a region with a long history of war and conflict. In such a context animal rights are often neglected or forgotten. 

In such an environment it may seem unusual that there is a growing community of people who are very concerned about the treatment of animals, but this is exactly what is happening in the capital city of Erbil.

One such woman showcasing the changing relationship is photographer Seivan Salim who is challenging people's perceptions in a new photography exhibition.

Salim is a Kurdish woman who grew up in Iran after escaping Iraq with her family when she was just a one-year-old child. She returned to Erbil seven years ago and has been working here since. 

In Erbil's bustling Naz Naz street, the Pet Lover's Photo Exhibition opened at the Tango Bar and Cafe on Sunday night, a popular hangout for expats of different nationalities.

The cafe is the perfect space to hold an exhibition like this, known for its eclectic decor it was decked out with recycled pallet wood furniture when it opened earlier in the year.

It's the first time an exhibition has been held in a cafe in Erbil and attracts a mixed crowd of the socially conscious, expats and locals alike. 

The exhibition promotes the relationships between humans and animals and the connections that exist between them. Around 20 people were photographed with their pets, which included cats, dogs and even a man with a lion cub.

See the picture gallery of Seivan Salim's exhibition here

Salim first had the idea to start photographing people with their pets after a trip to Hollywood with her Kurdish filmmaker husband last year when she was asked to photograph an actress with her pet.

Her sister, who has had a hard life in Iran but still has kept many pets would send her photos of her with her cats. Inspired by the beauty of her sister's relationships with her pets Salim decided she wanted to do something for animals here in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The exhibition promotes the relationships between humans and animals and the connections that exist between them. Around 20 people were photographed with their pets, which included cats, dogs and even a man with a lion cub

"The relations were so beautiful," she says.

"I heard here people are taking care of their pets, so I decided to do something, and photography is my area".

The first night of the exhibition was for the participants to come and see their relations.

"For me, it's about showing the beauty of the relationship between people and their pets, especially dogs." 

"I just want people to come and see that dogs are not dirty or not something dangerous they can be kind with the dog and with animals in general."

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Growing up her mother always told her told her stories of her mother's cat and how she couldn't sleep without it. Her mother was against the idea of keeping pets in the home. As a family living as refugees in Iran their life was quite unsettled, and she was never able to own a pet as a child.

In Kurdish culture keeping pets inside the home has traditionally been frowned upon.

"In Islam, we do not really have pets, but here you can see a woman with the hijab," says Kanny Ahmadi pointing to a photo of a woman posing with her dog. 

"To be honest, I don't have any pets myself," says Munther Adoo from Baghdad who has come to support the exhibition. 

"But strengthening the bonds between human beings and animals is a must just as it is important to strengthen the bond between humans themselves," he says. 

While Iraqi Kurds have always shown care towards animals, keeping pets is a relatively new phenomenon.

A blossoming pet industry is emerging with veterinary practices popping up in all cities across Iraqi Kurdistan.

Yunis Anwar Ahmad is a veterinarian who has his own practice and runs AREEN Organisation to Preserve Animal Nature, which supports both wild and domestic animals including stray dogs and cats. I visit him at his practice on a Friday afternoon in Razgari suburb in Erbil. As I arrive he's busy treating a sick cat that was rescued by a couple. It has been receiving treatment for 10 days.

"Feline Infectious Peritonitis," he says. "It was a fatal case. The treatment was supportive."

As the cat's body is placed in a blanket and carried away by its owners for burial.

"Before the year 2000 there was no concept of animal rights," Ahmad says, but with an influx of foreigner's education has developed and the advent of the internet made more information more readily available. 

A changing system is seeing people spend more money
on domestic dogs and cats [Seivan Salim]

Ahmad has encountered many forms of mistreatment in his practice including a cat shot by a bullet, wire tied around the neck of a dog which took him five days to take out, car accidents where animals are left to die without any assistance and shootings to kill. 

One of the most pressing issues of animal cruelty is the use of poisonous baiting in areas with stray dog and cat populations.

Stray dogs are cats are problematic across Iraqi Kurdistan, but the use of poison baits is a cruel method to manage animal populations.

Dogs die a slow, nasty death experiencing convulsions and vomiting. Ahmad has written to the government advocating for a more humane spaying and neutering campaign to be adopted as an alternative but feels he was not listened too.

Traditionally Kurds have not kept pets. 

"It's not to do with Islam, its tradition," says Ahmad. "The culture is to not keep a dog inside your home." 

He tells me about the story of Seven Sleepers, a story from both Christian and Muslim traditions about a group of youths who went into a cave to hide from persecution and slept for 300 solar years. The Islamic version includes a dog who followed the group in and stands guard keeping watch over them.

But if Kurds had an affinity with any animal it would be with the horse. The legendary Kurdish nationalist leader Mustafa Barzani used to ride a horse in the mountains as he led an armed rebellion. There is a famous image of him riding on a white horse along with his rifle.  

Sulaiman Tameer is a veterinarian from Duhok and founder of the animal rights group Kurdistan Organisation for Animal Rights Protection. He believes that slowly people's attitudes towards animals are changing. 

"When we started with our organisation in 2009 people said they hated us and they told us you are stupid, crazy. They told us there are no human rights, but now after 10 years you can see more than 100 groups on Facebook, rescue animal groups, organisations, volunteers related to the issue," he says.

Iraqi Kurds have always cared for animals respecting and being kind with all animals especially farm animals like sheep, goat, cattle, poultry and the donkey. Dogs have been used in agricultural and in villages to keep guard animal stock, although they do not come inside the house, according to Tameer. 

But a changing system is seeing people spend more money on domestic dogs and cats including preventative measures because they live with them inside the home and have access to household furniture. 

He pinpoints a gradual opening up of the region since the invasion of Iraq as the catalyst for change.

"If we return to 2003 after the occupation of Iraq and end of Iraqi Baath regime we saw the appearance of security companies like Mine Detection Dogs, explosive detection and security guard agencies which all used dogs. They brought many dogs from western countries like the USA and South Africa," Sulaiman says. 

"From 2010 until 2014 the breeding and adopting of pets was not commonplace, but we can find to this date more than this present person breeding captive animals such as wild birds, lovebirds, and fish."

After 2014 the number of families adopting pets increased especially in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, but less in Duhok. 

"The requests for sale and buying increase and opened markets, pet shop and Friday markets same with pet veterinary clinic, imported all vaccination, instrument, toys, and equipment. 

"Now there are a huge business, trade, import and export between Kurdistan and western countries especially Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, and some countries like the UK, Germany, Italy."

Gradually as the idea of taking greater care for animals is entered into the culture through exhibitions like Salim's or through educational programmes teaching children about animals in schools. By encouraging people to take greater care for animals it also encourages a more compassionate humane society where not only animal rights can be respected but people's too.

Vanessa Powell is a freelance journalist who lives in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.

Follow her on Twitter: @VanessaInErbil