At the North Gate

Patrick Cockburn

Apart from witches, who come here to bury spells, few people visit the British North Gate cemetery in Baghdad. The witches believe that words written on paper and placed in the ground between the graves of non-Muslims, particularly old graves, have enhanced magical powers. North Gate, in the Waziriyah district, is a large quadrilateral of burned grass fringed by palm trees. There are 511 graves with tombstones, almost all of them dating from the calamitous British campaign in 1914-18, when 40,620 soldiers from the British and Indian armies died fighting the Ottoman Turks. British military cemeteries, looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, are dotted around Iraq. Looking for somebody to let me into North Gate this summer, I asked a group of women standing outside their house by the cemetery if they shared the superstition, common in Iraq, that it was unlucky to live near such a place. They said they didn’t mind the cemetery but didn’t like ‘the witches who climb over the fence in the middle of the night so they can carry on their works among the dead’. One of them said that whenever she saw witches she would phone the cemetery’s caretaker, Sayid Jassim, and he would come and drive them away.

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