By John Scally
It is not what you would expect. His father was from Ramadi, Iraq. So was his mother. Neither were from hurling strongholds. Yet he is a Leitrim hurler.
Semaco ‘Zak’ Moradi spent the first eleven years of his life in Ramadi, a city in central Iraq, located about 110km west of Baghdad. His family are Iranian Kurds, the third largest ethnic group in Iran, who constitute ten million of the country’s eighty million inhabitants. Their early days were spent in the mountainous region on the Iranian side of the border with Iraq, where half of his ten siblings were born.
The Iraq-Iran war, which began in 1980, took the lives of over 100,000 civilians on both sides. Consequently Zak’s parents and his older brothers and sisters fled their native country and set up home in Ramadi in central Iraq.
“In 1980, when the war started, things were really tough because my family were right on the border between Iraq and Iran. My grandparents stayed put, and I’ve still uncles and all over there now. They’re all farmers up in the mountains. Every time a war kicked in, they were in the middle of it. There was about 20,000 people that left their homes and had to move into Iraq. I am the third youngest in the family. I was born in Ramadi in 1991. By then the first Gulf War was well underway.”
For Zak Moradi there was not exhaustive detail but significant clues.
“My parents and my brother remember all that violence. They say the Gulf War in 1991 was the toughest because you had the F60s and all these fighter planes going over and bombing us. At the time, you had Americans coming into Iraq. My mam said 1991 was the scariest time.”
Moradi looks back at his time growing up in Iraq under Saddam’s regime as if he was living in a time warp.
“The time we were there was under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Over there, people weren’t able to say anything about the government or you couldn’t open your mouth about Saddam Hussein. He was a kind of God in Iraq. It would be similar to North Korea now, but Iraq was twice as bad.
“You’d go into school and there would always be pictures of Saddam. You opened your history book and you’d have a big picture of him on the front of it. The second page you opened, there was a little picture of him. The way they had it, he was looking at us the whole time. If there was thirty million people in Iraq, there was 30 million pictures of him.
“You’d be trained not to say anything bad about him. There would have been five TV channels and they were all about Saddam Hussein. The whole day long was all him. If you were listening to music, the Iraqi singers had to sing about Saddam and how great he was. It was a completely different experience altogether.
“People would be brainwashed that way on television. It was propaganda the whole time. It was the same thing in school. All the teachers had to say how great Saddam Hussein was. Their family ran the country with an iron fist and that was it. There was no real media over there. If you were a journalist over there, you wouldn’t be allowed to write anything bad about Saddam or you’d be gone. You’d be wiped out, you know? You’d pick up a newspaper and you wouldn’t know if the paper was from last month or if it was today’s paper, because it was the same stuff about Saddam.”
The memory of September 11, 2001, still has the power to chill the blood. For Zak Moradi, though, these events had a special significance.
“I remember 9/11. Over there, every day it was about war. Iraq is going to war, how great Iraq is. We took over Kuwait. We won the war against Iran.”
In the wake of 9/11, conflict started simmering once again between Iraq and the US. It was as plain as the nose on his face to Zak that another war was coming on the horizon, and the family opted to get out. There was, though, a serious fly in the ointment.
“The Iranian government wouldn’t take back the Kurdish people. They wouldn’t allow the people that left in the 1980s go back to the country. And the Iraqi government didn’t want you staying there either, because you weren’t from there. So you were kind of stuck between the two of them.”
Zak remembers how his older brother, who worked for the United Nations, helped engineer a move out of the troubled region. In 2002, the family made the move to Ireland. A year later, the Americans invaded Iraq, starting a war that lasted almost nine years. A study in 2011 estimated that half a million Iraqis died as a result of the conflict from the invasion. Zak’s family were the lucky ones.
“My older brother used to work for the United Nations over there. He spoke perfect English, as well as fluent Kurdish, Persian and Arabic. He spoke four languages. He was always a very intelligent man. His job with the UN was to take a lot of people out of the country.
“When he got his job with the UN, a lot of countries around Europe started taking all these people in, because they were going through terrible times. I have aunties that are living in Sweden since the 90s. I have uncles in England. I’ve got family everywhere around the world. That’s one of the hardest things, because you don’t have your family around you. They’re all over the place. It’s not the same.”
Zak’s family came to Leitrim to start a new phase of their lives and it was a long way from where they started. Uprooting and moving halfway across the world was tough, but the problems for Zak were exacerbated because he had to learn a whole new language at eleven years old.
“Even though it was terrible in Iraq, we didn’t want to leave because we were used to the system over there. The lads you went to school with were all over there. I was close to twelve by the time we left, so you’d miss the people you grew up with.
“Coming to a different country was weird – a real green one! The weather, everything was different about it. When I started school, I couldn’t speak a word of English. That was a nightmare. But I have to say fair play to the school; we had an English teacher in primary school who gave us extra lessons, so that helped. It took maybe fifteen months to pick it up fluently and get to know everything.
“The people were actually very friendly. I’d say because we went over to Leitrim and we were the first foreigners a lot of lads had seen over there, it was something different for them to look at and you’ve a different skin colour. You didn’t speak English and they all wanted to help you.”
Zak fell under the spell of a new game.
“Running would have been the only sport we played in Iraq. When we were kids, we’d always be racing each other. In Iraq back then, it was very hard to play any sports, because there was an embargo on them. You weren’t even able to buy a football. If you were going to buy a football, you had to be from a wealthy family.
“I remember Clement Cunniffe, who would have been the main hurler in Leitrim. He came into our school shortly after we arrived in Ireland. He was doing some sort of coaching at the time. He used to come in and teach us how to play hurling and Gaelic. I didn’t know what type of sport this was. Some lads were well able to strike the ball and I was going, ‘How am I going to do this?”
“It took a while to get into it, but I made friends quicker when I started to play GAA. When you’re a kid, you’ll play any sport. If you’re given a ball, you’ll hit a ball. If you’re given a cricket ball, you’ll play cricket. I was interested in sport, but Gaelic was obviously easier to pick up.
“I always liked hurling. When you drive the ball 40 or 50 yards, you get a bit of craic out of it. I got more enjoyment out of the hurling, but I loved Gaelic football as well. I was playing both, but I got more into hurling as I got older. I remember playing midfield at Under-14 in Leitrim and I couldn’t strike the ball! But I always had my speed and could always hook and make sure my man didn’t win the ball.”
When Zak was 15, the family upped sticks and moved to Dublin, where work was more plentiful. Despite living in Leitrim for less than four years, Zak retained his love affair with the county. He developed greatly as a hurler at his new Dublin club, Thomas Davis, where he also picked up the nickname ‘Zak’.
The Leitrim management offered eighteen-year-old Moradi the opportunity to play in a few trial games.
“I played a few challenge matches. I was only eighteen or nineteen and scored a few goals and points, and they kept me in there. Once I came out of minor, I got mad into the hurling. We won the intermediate hurling championship in Dublin in 2011, and I was good that year.”
It’s a long way from Ramadi to Carrick-on-Shannon.