By: Ashna Sharif –
Almost a year has passed since their wedding day, and the couple remain as devoted to each as ever. “They were both so in love,” says Bayan, the assistant director of the nursing home in Erbil where Gulizar and her husband Jamal first met. “Every day mamJamal would come to me and ask after pla Gulizar. He was mad about her.”
The nursing home, which first opened its doors back in the 1970s, is the only one of its kind in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Over the past four decades, it has become a home for those who can no longer cope on their own, and who have no family to support them. Mam Jamal and pla Gulizar – mam and pla are Kurdish honorifics for an older man and woman – are two such residents, and their story is one of overcoming loneliness to find love, companionship and contentment.
Gulizar was born in 1940 in the small village of Biragh, not far from Erbil. Once a married mother of three, Gulizar lost her husband in 1991 when he tried to flee to Iran in the aftermath of the Gulf War, and found herself alone when her only surviving son emigrated abroad, cutting all contact with her.
“Pla Gulizar is a very outgoing person,” says Payam, one of the staff at the nursing home. “She enjoys music, and always likes to be well dressed.” After an operation on her right leg several years ago, Gulizar’s mobility is restricted, and recurrent illnesses have seen her go in and out of hospital in recent months. But despite her ailing health, Gulizar remains determined to make the most of life. “She enjoys music, especially Kurdish music,” notes Payam fondly, “she loves dancing and going on picnics with husband mamJamal.”
Born in 1945 in the village of Khazna, some 12 miles northeast of the city of Mosul, Gulizar’s husband Jamal has a very different background. With an impoverished family to support, he spent his entire working life as a shepherd, and never had the opportunity to marry before meeting Gulizar. The couple married in autumn 2012, with a small ceremony and reception held at the nursing home.
In contrast to his wife, Jamal is shy and retiring. “He is very much isolated from the rest of the men here,” says Payam, “he enjoys spending time alone, and the only two people he talks to are his wife, Gulizar, and his friend Ibrahim.” Nevertheless, Jamal is just as happy with married life as Gulizar. He enjoys taking long walks down to the city’s bazaar, and will often return home with a kebab or pastry to give to his wife. “He has his own special place”, Payam explains. “Every day he brings his radio, takes a seat in the corner, and listens to what is going on in the outside world.”
Ebullient and outgoing, Gulizar is unsurprisingly the centre of attention in the nursing home. But it is Jamal who increasingly finds himself in the middle of a tug-of-war for his affections, caught between the demands of his wife, and his friendship with Ibrahim. Just like any other husband at any stage of life, Jamal now has added responsibilities and commitments, something that does not necessarily please his old friend. “I love spending time with Ibrahim,” Jamal explains, “but Gulizar doesn’t like me being with him. I think she’s jealous of him,” he adds, grinning at his wife.
The nursing home, where so many of Erbil’s elderly men and women spend their later years, is filled with happy memories – as well as happy endings, like that of Jamal and Gulizar. But it is not without its problems. Like many other institutions in Kurdistan, the nursing home suffers from a chronic shortage of staff, and average salaries are only 151,000 Iraqi dinars ($130).
The residents too have their problems. Few receive visits from friends or family, and government officials rarely come to listen to their needs, or ensure that they are provided with adequate medical attention and healthcare. As a result, the nursing home has become something of a self-contained world for its residents, where one’s companions become one’s entire family.
“Jamal is my husband, father, brother and friend,” explains Gulizar, gripping her husband’s hand. “Long ago, all the people I knew in my life abandoned me. I wouldn’t trade Jamal for anyone or anything in the world.”