Exile on Love Street

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Newsha Tavakolian / Polaris for TIME

A Christian wedding in the town of Ankawa, near Arbil in northern Iraq.

In the sacred annals of crazy young love, Atheer Lokus may have opened a whole new chapter of recklessness. The 20-year-old restaurant manager was living safely in Ankawa, a Christian town in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, until April 2006, when he began chatting over the Internet with Miriam Eliasan, an 18-year-old Christian girl from Dora, one of Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods. After six months of trading photographs and sweet nothings, he decided that he could no longer live without her. So he drove all the way to Baghdad, where, after getting caught in a firefight between militants and American soldiers, he met Miriam for the first time in the back of a church. Not long afterwards he moved Miriam, her mother and father, and what possessions they could pack in a small truck back to northern Iraq. He rented them all a house in Ankawa, and married her last spring. "It was like living in a cage in Baghdad," said Miriam. "Now I have a husband, a home, and safety."

Though Atheer and Miriam may sound impulsive, there are many such stories of love and danger in Ankawa, which is both a beacon of refuge for the country's endangered Christians, and, perhaps, the romance capital of Iraq. The main street leading into town is lined with bridal shops, and there are weddings almost every night during the high season in summer. Every Thursday and Sunday evening, teenagers and young adults used to promenade along a road nicknamed "Love Street" because of all the heavy flirting going on in between stops at ice cream parlors. Nowadays, the action has shifted to a nearby amusement park, where boys and girls walk in concentric circles moving in opposite directions around a Ferris wheel, flashing messages with their eyes faster than the speed of SMS.

Part of what makes Ankawa a target-rich environment for Cupid's arrows is the relative openness and sophistication of the Christian town, compared to conservative Erbil, the nearby capital of the Kurdish region. Alcohol, mixed company and marriages of choice are all much more socially acceptable among Christians than their Kurdish neighbors, most of whom are Muslims. And Ankawans have strong ties to Lebanon, which has a large Christian population and a reputation as the fashion capital of the Middle East, so they think they know how to throw a wedding in style. ("Our dresses show a little skin," said the owner of bridal shop called "Lebanon.") Kurds are starting agree: many now get married in Ankawa wedding halls, where among other things that would be taboo in Erbil, men and women are allowed to dance together.

Another reason for the town's wedding boom is that matchmaking is a serious business for a minority group trying to preserves its identity in an overwhelmingly Muslim region. Christians have lived in Iraq almost since the beginning of Christianity itself, and though they presumably fell in love and married just like everyone else for centuries, love became something of a cottage industry in Ankawa after the first Gulf war. When the Kurdistan broke away from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the town became a hub for single Christian men living abroad who could now return in search of a mate just like Mom.

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, however, the stakes have gotten higher. As a conspicuous (and prosperous) minority group, Christians have made easy targets for all sides of Iraq's sectarian civil war. Because Ankawa is situated in the relative safety of Kurdistan, the town of 20,000 has seen its population jump by a half in just a matter of years as refugees have poured in from violence further south. Osama Thomas, the owner of Love Vision, a store in Ankawa that makes wedding videos, said about 80 percent of his clients were from Baghdad (which he left in 1995), and everyone had suffered some kind of tragedy. Indeed, half of his own family has been kidnapped or killed since 2003. "That's normal in Iraq," he said.

Besides distributing aid and building homes, local leaders and priests have tried to help find husbands and wives for young newcomers, among other ways by turning the town Internet home page into a dating forum. Many are concerned the very existence of Christians in Iraq is at risk. "There's no light at the end of the tunnel," said a spokesman for the Assyrian Democratic Party, a Christian group. But not all single young exiles appreciate the local efforts at hospitality. "Ankawa is such a small town," said one young woman from Baghdad sitting at the local amusement park with friends. "If you get into a love situation, everyone gossips."