Kurdish rebel cooks up Big Mac’s little brother

  • The Australian - By Nicolas Rothwell
  • 23/07/2004 00:00:00

Nicolas Rothwell meets a former Kurdish resistance fighter inspired by wielding a skillet, rather than a deadly weapon

THERE’S something rather familiar about the trendy restaurant on the main drag of Suleimaniyah, the fast-modernising capital of Iraqi east Kurdistan. That red logo, those golden arches, even the "Big Mack" menu, along with free gifts and super-salty fries.

But behind the glitzy facade of MaDonal, as it is known, lurks an extraordinary story of politics and warfare, of idealism and enterprise.

You could say it all began in the mid-70s, when the restaurant’s owner, a Kurdish resistance fighter named Suleiman Qassab, was a short-order cook at a McDonald’s in Vienna.

"Those days inspired me," Qassab remembers, as he strides through his gleaming premises on Salem Boulevard.

"I was in exile from Kurdistan for many years. I lived all round the world - in Europe, in Asia, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines. But I always remembered that McDonald’s. It symbolised the West for me."

As it does today for the teenage boys who throng to its bright-lit terrace each evening, while the muezzin’s call to prayer rings out from the large mosque opposite.

There they sit, surrounded by enormous fronds of yellow-flowered shrubs, and gaze longingly at the girls with tressed hair and heavy make-up who perch at their separate tables nearby.

Qassab’s nephew and main manager, Diler Rasul, is clear about MaDonal’s appeal to the young of the eastern Kurdish capital.

"Our customers think it’s switched on here - they feel they’re in Europe, where they dream of being - and this was exactly our aim."

Qassab came back to Suleimaniyah in 1991, after the first Gulf War, when the revival of Kurdistan was beginning. Where others saw devastation, he saw opportunity.

After all, he knew how to survive, walk new roads, create something out of nothing. He had been a TV personality, and had led a mountain fighting troop near Haji Omran, where he was shot clean through the skull by a sniper, with no long-term ill-effects.

As a founder of the Kurdish Socialist Party, and a hero of the Peshmerga guerrilla movement, he had good connections with the political leaders of the new Kurdistan.

He bought a large derelict block of land in the ruined city centre, designed a modern building, and began construction. He approached McDonald’s, asking the US fast food giant for a franchise.

But Iraq was well off the US corporate radar in those days, and there was no reply.

Qassab wasn’t going to let a tiresome detail like that stand in his way. He had the blueprint: he tweaked the name, and pressed ahead.

Two years ago, the grand opening of MaDonal was held, and since then the party has never really stopped.

You might see the singing stars of Kurdish TV, such as Muhammad Rauf and Kamaran Umer, eating on the veranda, or celebrity actors like Mustapha Ahmed.

You might see ministers and writers, even the odd puzzled-looking foreign businessman.

There are some malcontents, though. The Islamist strain in eastern Kurdish life is less than enthusiastic about MaDonal and activists have repeatedly threatened to blow up the restaurant.

"In fact," Qassab says, leaning forwards, with a whisper, "we have to have protection. There are secret police here now, among us, armed and standing guard.

"I don’t know what’s in the heads of those Islamists. They’re treating us as an American embassy - but food’s international, isn’t it? Everybody eats."

The flags flying from the twin poles outside the diner may not help: alongside the Kurdish emblem is the US stars and stripes.

Qassab is unashamedly pro-American, like the majority of Iraqi Kurds. When the US-led coalition stormed into northern Iraq in April 2003, MaDonal gave the troops free meals for three months.

Nicolas Rothwell is The Australian’s Middle East correspondent

  • The Australian - By Nicolas Rothwell
  • 23/07/2004 00:00:00