Even before speaking with Mam Khalil, it is clear he loves photographs — they cover almost every inch of his cafe in northern Iraq, providing windows into the country’s history.
The pictures on the walls go all the way to the ceiling, overlooking patrons as they sip tea, smoke cigarettes or fill their spoons with mastaw, a yogurt-like dish served in bowls with ice.
Though small and located on a sidestreet in the city’s covered market, the cafe is well-known in Arbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, attracting everyone from ordinary citizens to senior politicians.
“I don’t love money, but I love photos,” says its owner, an ageing man with a thin grey moustache who is known by the affectionate title of “Mam”, meaning “uncle” in Kurdish.
Mam Khalil’s love affair with pictures began when he was still a young man.
He began collecting them, turning the cafe into a gallery awash with photos that portray Iraq as it moved through monarchy, dictatorship and into its current fragile democracy.
Arbil has also changed significantly since Mam Khalil first began his career — when he was a youth, there was only the citadel, which still towers over the market, and four neighbourhoods, he says.
But oil money has since transformed it into a sprawling city of gleaming new buildings and modern infrastructure.
Now, there are “better houses, better living conditions, better cars, better streets, better wives,” he says with a grin.
Carpet-covered bench seating is built into the walls of the cafe, but it is impossible to sit back in most places without leaning on a photo frame.
And the pictures continue all the way up to the cafe’s curved plaster ceiling.
One shows Faisal II, Iraq’s last king, who was overthrown in a 1958 coup, inspecting the royal guards.
Another pictures Mulla Mustafa Barzani, a famed Kurdish guerrilla and the father of the current president of Iraqi Kurdistan, standing with a rifle at his side.
And another black-and-white shot shows a smiling, moustachioed Saddam Hussein raising Barzani’s hand aloft, a photo likely taken sometime between the conclusion and collapse of a 1970 peace deal between the two sides.
– Providing for his family –
More recent snapshots show Kurdish and Arab politicians who now hold sway in Iraq, some of them photographed during visits to the cafe.
Some photos bear captions, but the people shown in others are known only to Mam Khalil, or lost to history.
Mam Khalil has also collected and framed currency used in Iraq over the years “as a record,” the oldest of which he says dates to the Ottoman Empire.
There are also pictures of Mam Khalil himself, including a colour photo taken more than 60 years ago when he was just a boy, his hair black instead of grey, a hint of a smile on his face.
Mam Khalil, dressed in black with a black and white scarf on his head, says he started work at the cafe some seven decades ago.
“My father died in September 1948,” he says.
He was a student at the time, but his mother told him that: “Your father has passed away and we have no one to provide a living.”
He began working in 1948 before moving to his current cafe a few years later.
He would hang photos on its walls, much to the chagrin of his boss, who “hated it” but let him continue because he worked hard.
But after buying the cafe in 1967, he was free to hang as many photos as the walls could hold.
While he has four children, they will not follow him in running the cafe, Mam Khalil says, though someone else may seek to keep the tradition alive after his death.
When he tires of answering questions, Mam Khalil asks that he be given a print of a photo taken in his cafe that day, another addition to his collection. He then slowly shuffles off to greet newly arrived guests.