Yazidi Iraqi Keeps Tradition Alive of Arak-making From Dates

Just outside Mosul, and six years after the Islamic State slaughtered and drove out Christian and Yazidi Iraqis, Saad Hussein is one of the last making arak from dates – not grapes – a regional specialty, now almost extinct

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Saad Hussein pours liquid into a fermentation vat, a step in the process of producing arak from dates, October 14, 2020.
Saad Hussein pours liquid into a fermentation vat, a step in the process of producing arak from dates, October 14, 2020.Credit: Kawa Omar / Reuters

Saad Hussein, a 42-year-old Yazidi Iraqi, is one of the last in the northern region of Nineveh producing arak, the anise-flavored spirit typically produced from grapes and aniseed, from local dates instead. 

Forced to flee his home town of Bashiqa, close to Mosul, when it fell to  in 2014, he returned after the defeat and expulsion of the Islamic militants to reopen his small distillery.

"This is part of our heritage, but it's almost extinct. There is almost no one here in the area that does it," he said. "I have always loved the craft, and used to work in it previously. So I wanted to revive this craft."

He hopes to introduce the drink to a new generation, after most of the Christian and Yazidi Iraqis with whom it was popular fled the area.

Saad Hussein, an Iraqi Yazidi, drinks Arak that he produces from dates, on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq, October 14, 2020.
A glass of arak produced from dates by Saad Hussein, an Iraqi Yazidi, is pictured on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq, October 14, 2020.
Hussein pours a date pulp mixture into a large vat, Mosul, Iraq, October 14, 2020.
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Saad Hussein, an Iraqi Yazidi, drinks Arak that he produces from dates, on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq, October 14, 2020.Credit: Kawa Omar / Reuters
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A glass of arak produced from dates by Saad Hussein, an Iraqi Yazidi, is pictured on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq, October 14, 2020.Credit: Kawa Omar / Reuters
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Hussein pours a date pulp mixture into a large vat, Mosul, Iraq, October 14, 2020.Credit: Kawa Omar / Reuters

The Yazidis are an ancient religious minority who combine Zoroastrian, Christian, Manichean, Jewish and Muslim beliefs. The group was brutally persecuted by Islamic State who viewed the Yazidis as devil worshippers.

It , enslaved 7,000 women and girls and displaced most of the 550,000-strong community from its traditional home in northern Iraq.

Hussein fills vast blue vats with dates, adds water and pulps the sweet fruit. He then places the mixture in a sealed pot and heats it to distil the alcohol.

This is an old method that has been used exclusively in the city for decades, he explained.

"Our Christian brothers were our main clients for this product. But immigration is part of the reason [our business suffered]," he said.

Imported spirits also crushed the market, which was once so large it sustained numerous small local distilleries.

As he departed Hussein's workshop with a bottle, Ghazwan Khairi, a customer of Hussein's, said "I know that work is great, I know what materials he uses and where he gets them. Also the flavour is great." 

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