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Dublin: 8°C Tuesday 27 October 2020

'You couldn't open your mouth about Saddam Hussein. He was the God in Iraq'

Leitrim forward Zak Moradi opens up about his incredible journey from a war-torn Iraq to inter-county hurling.

YOU PROBABLY REMEMBER Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh’s legendary commentary quip about Seán Óg Ó hAilpín that went down in hurling folklore.

“A mighty poc from the hurl of Seán Óg Ó hAilpín. His father was from Fermanagh, his mother from Fiji – neither a hurling stronghold.”

Seán Óg Ó hAilpín Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

If he were still on the airwaves today, Ó Muircheartaigh might make a similar observation about Leitrim’s Iraqi hurler Semaco ‘Zak’ Moradi.

Moradi spent the first 11 years of his life in Ramadi, a city in central Iraq located about 110km west of Baghdad. Like Fiji, the small ball code has yet to catch on in Iraq.

Moradi traces his roots to two war-torn countries in the Middle East, but these days he represents Leitrim in the Lory Meagher Cup and Thomas Davis in the Dublin intermediate hurling championship. It’s been a remarkable journey for the 25-year-old.

1478012397705 Leitrim forward Zak Moradi Source: Leitrim Observer

His family are Iranian Kurds – the third largest ethnic group in Iran who make up about 10 million of the country’s 80 million inhabitants. The Moradis were originally based in the mountainous region on the Iranian side of the border with Iraq, where half of his 10 siblings were born.

The Iraq-Iran war kicked off in 1980 and claimed the lives of over 100,000 civilians on both sides. It forced Zak’s parents and his older brothers and sisters to flee their native country and move to Ramadi in central Iraq.

“In 1980 when the war started, things were pretty bad because my family were right on the border between Iraq and Iran,” Moradi tells The42.

“My grandparents stayed put and I’ve still uncles and all over there now. They’re all farmers up 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.”

Zak, the third youngest in the family, was born in Ramadi in 1991. By that stage the first Gulf War was well underway.

ABACA. 39075-12 Saddam Hussein Saddam Hussein pictured in 1998 Source: ABACA/PA Images

In 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein orchestrated the invasion of neighbouring Kuwait. In response, United States President George H.W. Bush ordered a massive air offensive on Iraq known as Operation Desert Storm. It resulted in 42 days of relentless attacks by the allied coalition, both in the air and on the ground.

“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 the Americans coming into Iraq. My mam said 1991 was the scariest time.”

Moradi has vivid memories of growing up in Iraq under the Saddam regime. When he looks back, it’s a different world to the life he knows now.

“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 kind of the God in Iraq. It would be similar to North Korea is 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 in 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 30 million people in Iraq, there was 30 million pictures of him.

DPA - US Marines in Southern Iraq. US Marines tear down the poster of a portrait of Saddam Hussein in 2003 Source: DPA/PA Images

“You’d be trained not to say anything bad about him. There would have been five TV channels and it was 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. It’s mad. When you’re here you’re like, ‘Jesus, look at how much freedom we have compared to over there.’

“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 is. ‘He’s your God,’ basically. 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 write anything bad about Saddam or you’d be gone. You’d be wiped out, you know? You’d pick up a newspaper everyday and you wouldn’t know if the paper was from last month or was it today’s paper, because it was the same stuff about Saddam.”

Terrorist attack: The World Trade Center collapses Clouds of smoke rise as the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York crumble on 11 September 2001 Source: DPA/PA Images

Terrorist attack: The World Trade Center collapses The Statue of Liberty faces the smoke-buried skyline of Manhattan right after the 9/11 attacks Source: DPA/PA Images

The September 11 attacks in 2001, which were coordinated by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda, started a chain of events that eventually resulted in the Moradis relocating to Ireland.

“I remember 9/11. Over there, everyday 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 clear another war was coming on the horizon, and the Moradis wanted to get out.

“But the Iranian government wouldn’t take back the Kurdish people,” continues Moradi.

“They wouldn’t allow the people that had 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.”

Moradi 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.

ABACA  Strikes on Baghdad Baghdad after the first night of bombing led by the United States in 2003 Source: ABACA/PA Images

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. The Moradis were some of 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 hardest things, because you don’t have your family around you. They’re all over the place. It’s not the same.”

A general view of Pairc Sean MacDiarmada Pairc Sean MacDiarmada in Leitrim, where Moradi would line out for the county Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

The Moradis arrived in Leitrim to being a new phase of their lives and it was a long way from where they started. Uprooting and moving halfway across the world was bad enough, but Zak had to learn a whole new language at 11-years-old.

“Even though it was terrible in Iraq, we didn’t 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 12 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 15 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.”

Kids in Iraq didn’t have the opportunity to play much sport, but the allure of an unfamilar game in Ireland quickly fascinated Moradi.

“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.

Clement Cunniffe Leitrim hurler Clement Cunniffe in action for Ireland during a 2006 Shinty international Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“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, ‘Jesus Christ, how am I going to do this?’ I was even holding the hurl arseways!

“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 as well. I was playing both but I got more into the hurling as I got older.

“I remember playing midfield at U14 in Leitrim and I couldn’t feckin’ hit the ball! But I always had my speed and could always hook and make sure my man didn’t win the ball.”

A small Iraqi kid without much English, Moradi didn’t scream elite athlete, but by the time he was 18 he was hurling alongside Cunniffe on the Leitrim senior team. It was a dream come true for Moradi, who idolised Cunniffe as a youngster.

“I remember when Clement came into the school he gave me a hurl and a sliotar and said, ‘You take that home with you. You can play any sport you want.’

“Clement gave me the hurl to keep. I took it home and started practising. I just practised and practised. A few years after I started, I was able to hit the ball off left and right. I went to the hurling wall everyday, trying to strike the ball off left and right. That’s how I learned.

“Clement got his hurling because his family were from Galway. I would have looked up to him because everyone talked about how good at hurling he was. Six or seven years later, I ended up playing with him.”

When Moradi was 15, the family upped sticks and moved to Dublin where work was more plentiful. Despite living in Leitrim for less than four years, Moradi retained huge affection for the county.

Shamrock Rovers New ground in Tallaght Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He developed greatly as a hurler at his new Dublin club Thomas Davis, where he also picked up the nickname ’Zak.’ When he arrived in Tallaght he was still going by his first name Semaco, but Con Deasy, who trained the Thomas Davis U16s, had trouble pronouncing it.

“I can’t pronounce your name at all,” Deasy told him. “I don’t know what to call you. I keep forgetting your name. It’s too long. I’ll call you Zak, is that fair enough?’”

“So he called me Zak,” laughs Moradi. “Then everybody started calling me Zak. Even my family at home call me Zak now.”

Leitrim stayed in his heart and when the opportunity presented itself to hurl with the Connacht side, he jumped at it.

“I still had loads of friends in Leitrim and I used to go down every second or third weekend when I didn’t have a match. It kept me in contact with all the lads I played with.”

The Leitrim management extended an invitation for an 18-year-old Moradi to play in a few trial games.

“Come up and see how good you are,” they told him. “We’ll see if you’re up to the standard.”

Moradi continues: “I played a few challenge matches. I was only 18 or 19 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.”

He continued to improve and enjoyed his best year in the Leitrim colours in 2016. Moradi was one of just two Leitrim players to be named on the Lory Meagher Cup Champions 15 selection – their version of the All-Stars - after scoring in every one of the county’s championship games last year.

For Moradi, life is good at the moment. He lives in Tallaght and is due to start a new job with a local pharmaceutical company next week. The GAA played a role in that too. A team-mate on the Thomas Davis hurling team helped set it up.

In recent years, the city Moradi grew up in has been reduced to rubble. ISIS occupied Ramadi for eight months before Iraqi government forces and US-led warplanes used airstrikes to claim the city back from the Islamic State militants.

Source: Wall Street Journal/YouTube

Iraqi forces took back control of the the city, but over 3,000 buildings were destroyed in the process. Ramadi was once a city of 375,000 people, now it’s a ghost town.

Moradi, meanwhile, is over 5,000km away chasing glory on the hurling field with club and county.

“It’s just a different world,” he says. “There’s no comparison.”

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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