The extraordinary story of Youra Eshaya, the first great Assyrian footballer
The story of the Assyrian people during the 20th century is defined by deracination. The Assyrian Genocide (1914-23) saw around 300,000 Assyrians from today’s southern Turkey and north-western Iran massacred. After years of wandering in privation, and subject to further massacres, the surviving Assyrians – now reduced by half from their original population size – finally entered life as subjects of the states that emerged from the Great War and the unravelling of the Ottoman Empire. The end of genocide marked the beginning of new complications: of families and tribes separated and lives begun or violently transformed in alien conditions.
Youra Eshaya was a product of this period of torment. He would emerge from it to become one of the great legends of Assyrian and Iraqi football.
Like most Assyrians in the 20th century, Youra’s life entailed moving farther away from the places of his ancestors. His parents had fled Urmia, an ancestral Assyrian stronghold in north-west Iran, during the massacres, passing through Russia and back into Iran, where Youra was born in 1933. It was the same year that the Iraqi army massacred thousands of Assyrians in Simele, putting a permanent end to the prospects of Assyrian autonomy. Yet his family, needing to escape further instability and violence in Iran, moved to Iraq in 1935. They would settle, like tens of thousands of other Assyrians uprooted mainly from Hakkâri in today’s south-east Turkey, at the British military base in Habbaniya [or Dhibban as it was called until 1935].
The British established the base in Habbaniya, 89km west of Baghdad on the banks of the Euphrates, in 1936. The new camp there was intended to serve as a nexus of transition for British operations in Iraq: a holding station between Empire and an independent Iraq. It was the largest RAF station in the world: the perimeter fence, excluding the airfield, was almost 15km long. It contained everything from dining halls and barracks to a polo field, race course, swimming pools, cinemas and pig farm. An internal taxi service provided transportation.
British RAF veterans recount the vision it provided in the Habbaniya documentary Jewel of the Desert: “outside the wall, there was barren desert; inside the wall, green lawns, tinkling fountains. There were trees all over the place: tree-lined roads and botanical gardens [irrigated with] masses of water diverted from the Euphrates.” The camp was a sight rich with “opulent buildings, shaded avenues of eucalyptus trees, hibiscus and oleander shrubs, fountains, ornamental gardens, green lawns and songbirds.”
For the British, Habbaniya was a way of taking care of their own interests in Iraq as they prepared gradually to withdraw from it. In exchange for serving in British military operations in Iraq – most notably through the Assyrian Levies and the RAF – the British provided the Assyrians with a respite from the nightmare of their recent history. For Assyrians, who soon became the majority of Iraqis in the camp, the remove of life in Habbaniya most immediately provided an artificial sojourn from the violence of their neighbours. In a video tribute to Youra made in 1992, the year he died, one of his peers recounts: “I remember the period, in a way, with deep sadness: we were servants of the British. But our nation succeeded there: our habits were strong and well-formed, and we were able to take good care of ourselves.”
Having been violently persecuted by their Kurdish and Turkish neighbours in Hakkâri, Assyrian culture was given a lease of life in the micro-society of the camp. The Assyrian language, which elsewhere was set for long periods of state marginalisation, was taught and written freely in the camp. Assyrians from different Hakkâri tribes, previously separated geographically and socially, mingled enough to further the development of a standard Assyrian vernacular. Assyrians joined bands, playing both western music at the officers’ club and Assyrian music at their own frequent parties. Careers in administration and teaching were incubated. Even football journalism in English emerged: Mikhael Pius, an Assyrian from Habbaniya, covered the exploits of Youra and his peers for the Iraq Times, the English-language newspaper in Iraq.
The cultivation of an Assyrian community fundamentally separate from Iraq was useful to the British. But the cultural freedom granted to Assyrians in the camp was not without threat from the Iraqi state. In the early 1950s, the communities of Habbaniya obtained permission for a two-hour slot on the Habbaniya Broadcasting Station in which the Assyrian, Armenian, Arab and Indian components of the base could use their own languages for half an hour each. The Iraqi government pressured the station commander of the Habbaniya Broadcasting Station to cease the broadcasting of Assyrian music and the program continued, but without the Assyrian language.
Nor did Habbaniya, whose presence grew increasingly conspicuous with the advancement of Iraqi nationalism, go unthreatened physically. In May 1941, a pro-Nazi coup brought to power Rashid Ali, who sought to establish strong ties with Italy and Germany in order to dispel the British presence in Iraq. With Axis backing, Iraqi forces besieged Habbaniya, but were repelled by British forces including the Assyrian Levies.
Football had a brief history in Iraq prior to Habbaniya. From 1917 onwards – having taken Baghdad from the Ottomans and secured sovereignty over the Iraqi mandate – the British began implementing football into the national PE curriculum. The 1920s and early 30s saw the establishment of the Casual’s Cup (1927-36), which featured Brits and Iraqis, and the formation of new clubs in the south of Iraq. But Habbaniya was the site of the most successful and focused transmission of football into Iraq.
On the sandy roads of the camp, one of the great classes of Iraqi footballers was learning how to play the game. Youra’s most notable sporting peers included Ammo Baba, arguably the most lionised Iraqi player of all time and a future national team coach, and the fiercely talented Aram Karam, both Assyrians. While Youra’s father served the British military, working for commercial supply companies in the canteen, Youra excelled at every sport he was taught in the camp – especially hockey, table tennis and boxing – and became a boy scout.
At the RAF School run by the Assyrian Rabi Yacoub, football was played on a field without grass, initially with a tennis ball. After the equivalent of secondary school started, one of two grounds – one near the Assyrian Levies station and the other by Civil Cantonment – was used and proper footballs adopted. Official league and cup games took place in one of several pitches nearer the English section of the camp. Much of the instruction for the Assyrian players was done by other Assyrians – in Assyrian – who had learned tactics from the English in a special class..
Youra’s ascent through the football ranks began early. Aged 15 and 16, Youra played for the Civilian Levies in the RAF Football League in Habbaniya and captained the RAF Assyrian Employees Club juniors to victory in the Youth Cup. He won the league and cup with the seniors next year. He soon began to play for both the RAF Habbaniya team, squaring off against rival RAF sides across the region, as well as the Civil Cantonment team, which represented the section of the Habbaniya camp that housed employees and their families, where Eshaya and his adolescent sporting peers were among around 10,000 inhabitants.
Youra was 5’4” with powerful thighs, a playmaker who possessed great guile, intelligence and skill. Images from the 1951 Christmas issue of the Iraq Times show him shifting the ball with the outside of his foot, at the very point that his shoulders are about to slant in a new direction: the heft and drive of his body are immediately apparent. Another sees him baiting a defender with the ball a short distance from his feet, in that etheric space just beyond the immediate dribbling proximity of his feet: far enough away to incite a tackle, but close enough for Eshaya to flick it into a different path as soon as his opponent tried one. Eshaya was most comfortable around the edge of the box, but frequently dropped deep to assist in his own half and was a strong tackler and converter of possession into attacking momentum. In conversations with people who had either seen or played alongside Youra, one Assyrian word came up repeatedly: marqidana (one who makes others dance), a tribute to his capacity to dazzle defenders and the crowd. As Sargis Shallou, one of the Habbaniya generation who played alongside Eshaya in many of the key fixtures described in this piece, told me: “he was a clean player: despite constantly being fouled, there was a total absence of anger in his heart.”
Playing in England had been a dream for all the Assyrian boys in Habbaniya, enticed by listening to games on the radio and seeing pictures in the papers. Youra would be the only one of them to do it. While playing for a combined RAF Iraq and Civil Cantonment Habbaniya side against a team representing the Canal Zone of Egypt, Eshaya was spotted by RK Weston, a Flight Lieutenant acting as a scout for Bristol Rovers. A week later he accepted a trial offer from the club.
Eshaya travelled to London by boat and train, via Marseille, his fare partly paid by RAF officers. He arrived on 25 August 1954. At Victoria, Eshaya ghosted past his travel agency minder and found his own route to Bristol. Press reports described “his exact whereabouts not being known in the morning”. The fluent English he had acquired in the camp got him through. It also meant he could do administrative work – he had learned typing and shorthand skills – for Rovers alongside his training, similar to the civilian clerk work he did in Habbaniya. His English would always remain superior to his Arabic, which then remained a language beyond the world the British had made for the Assyrians.
He played his first game the day after he arrived in England, for Bristol Rovers Colts, Rovers’ third team, against Portland in the Western League. Youra’s reputation had preceded him and he was double marked when he came on as a substitute at inside-right. Despite local reports describing him as “the fastest forward” (“dark-skinned Eshaya, as slippery as an eel”), Bristol lost. Eshaya was influential (“a live wire on the right wing”) in securing a win in his next match, this time playing a level higher for Bristol Reserves in a 4-3 victory against Watford Reserves. Eshaya became, at the age of 20, the first Iraqi player ever to play abroad.
Aside from local coverage, Mikhael Pius covered him for the Iraq Times. In a footnote to a 1992 newsletter commemorating Youra’s death, Pius subtly points out that he had originally described Eshaya as “Iraqi” (already a compromise, in Pius’ heart, from “Assyrian”), but the editor opted for “desert Arab”. The contemporary British press was more wide-ranging in its depictions of Youra phenotypically: “boy from the desert”, “handsome tan”, “Persian”, “dark-skinned”, “Iraqi”, “young Arab”, “charming native customs and habits”, “Iranian”, “swarthy, quiet lad”, “little brown Arab” and occasionally, and only then fully accurately, “Assyrian”. Al-Akhbar, the main Iraqi daily, began to cover Eshaya, expressing regret that his talents would be on display outside of Iraq.
Bert Tann, who served as Bristol manager from 1950-68, had led Bristol to the Second Division for the first time in 1953, the season prior to Youra’s arrival. Tann applied successfully to secure a one-month extension for Youra to see how he would fare in the winter months.
But Youra’s status soon became imperilled. The FA rule was that foreigners could only become professional players if they had been domiciled for at least two years. This restriction had imposed a ceiling on Eshaya’s progress and led to the need to find employment while he continued to play as an amateur. Several other foreign players – including Bert Trautmann, the German goalkeeper who served two years in a POW camp at the end of World War Two – were permitted into the professional English game at the time under this regulation. But Youra was unable to marshal his and his family’s long-term service to the British in his favour. A passionate op-ed by Pat Kavanagh in the Bristol Evening World proclaimed that “to everyone except Whitehall he is classed as a British subject”, and decried the “unwritten agreement between the Government and the Football Association that foreigners should not be employed in this country”. Bert Tann, who had never used a foreign player before Youra, had a clear position: “Youra has not failed. We would very much like to keep him but the Government will not allow us.”
Mining was the solution. Youra trained, along with other mainly European foreigners, for a few weeks at the Old Mills Mining and Technical Institute, established in 1948 near Bath, before he was ready for the pit at Pensford Colliery. During the day, Youra would descend over a thousand feet into the earth, only to resurface and spend his evenings on the field. 16 months passed in this arrangement. Once he had fulfilled his employment requirements, Eshaya would have been eligible to play for the Rovers first team.
A Daily Express article noted that Eshaya had appealed to the Iranian, rather than Iraqi, embassy for support in his case when there was an impasse. This revealed a significant fact: Eshaya still had Iranian, not Iraqi, papers. His scout, RK Weston, also felt the need to assert that Youra “had never been near the Iraq embassy”, including a photograph of Eshaya with Weston’s family on a day out at the end of his letter to the paper.
Eshaya wanted to stay and fight for a place in the first team. But Kadhim Abbadi, Commander of the Iraqi Air Force team, invited him back to Iraq, promising citizenship for him and his family, an officer rank and an Air Force salary as part of the deal. The Air Force Club was the oldest in Iraq: it had been founded by Iraqi policemen on the predecessor to Habbaniya, the RAF base at Hinaidi, in 1931. Early victories over British sides had energised a broad base of support among Iraqis for the Club, leading to some wariness among the British. Youra extending his stay in England now meant limiting the prospects of his family, who technically, like him, remained Iranian subjects. At a time when Habbaniya was in the final stage of being dismantled and handed over to the Iraqis, the uncertainties were too great for Eshaya to pursue his own dreams.
Youra Eshaya returned to Iraq on 17 December 1955 on a Royal Iraqi Air Force plane. A month later, the Rovers first team beat Manchester United 4-0 in a famous victory.
In Youra’s absence, Habbaniya had continued to downsize. He returned to Iraq: his peers had moved to Baghdad (and sometimes other cities) with their families and were playing for Iraqi clubs such as the Public Transport Service or the Police. Youra had been brought back to play for the Air Force XI, but he also participated in Iraqi select and Assyrian Sports Club games.
Youra returned a more honed player. (He praised the particular excellence he had observed in the superior “distribution of long passes” of the English compared to their European counterparts.) His return game was a 6-0 victory for the Iraqi Army Select over Mersin İdmanyurdu of Turkey, in which he scored and made several assists. Pius writes that his “clever dribbling and intelligent distribution were the roots of most of the goals scored… Playing in midfield, he delighted the spectators with his improved skill. Prompting his fellow forwards on, he often changed a defensive move into an offense.” It was followed by a 5-3 defeat of a Tehran Select side in front of a crowd of 20,000, in which, Pius writes, “Youra’s fast moves kept his fellow players on their toes and Ammo [Baba]’s repeated attacks had the crowd in constant excitement.”
An all-Assyrian team, sponsored by the Assyrian Sports Club of Baghdad, defeated the Taj Sports Club of Tehran 5-3 on 20 May 1956. They fielded four Assyrians, including Eshaya, who had participated in the previous de facto Iraqi international games and the Taj Club fielded six Iran internationals. Jadi Kar, who scored a hat-trick for Taj, told Pius that the Assyrian team “had one of the best forward lines I have ever played against,” insisting that they “can challenge the best teams in the Middle East and can even stand up against European teams if they have a little more training.” The significance of being able to play as Assyrians was profound: with the later descent of Iraq into fascism, all external markers of Assyrian culture would be prohibited, punishable by torture and death. This was a window of time in which a combination of the extraordinary gifts of a generation of footballers, their incubation by the British and relative freedom – defined by the absence of tyranny or war, both of which arrived in the coming decades – allowed Assyrians to not only represent themselves truthfully as individuals, but to possess something approximating a national team of their own.
The re-match took place in Tehran in October, when the Assyrian team from Iraq was greeted by a fleet of fifty cars crammed with their fellow Assyrians from Iran, welcomed with parties and presented with vases, picture albums, a statue, a collection of parables in Assyrian and a painted image of the legendary Assyrian queen Shamiram. Taj won the match 4-1. Pius blames the loss on the Assyrians agreeing to face another side, Shaheen, two days prior to the game, which caused several injuries, as well as “the heavy social engagements in Tehran”.
The first official football match played by the Iraqi national team took place at the October 1957 Pan Arab Games in Beirut, Lebanon, where the Assyrian Sports Club had previously defeated Racing Club Beirut 5-0 in front of 30,000 people in July. Five of the starting eleven facing Morocco were Habbaniya Assyrians. The game ended 3-3, with Ammo Baba scoring Iraq’s first ever goal, assisted by Youra, who scored the second. In the next game in the tournament, Habbaniya Assyrians also laid claim to the first Iraqi footballer to get sent off: Ammo Baba, who refused to hand over the ball to the referee in protest at an earlier goal by Tunisia being allowed to stand. Youra won a penalty in that game, but Iraq lost despite its successful conversion. Youra and Baba again scored in the last game of the group and Iraq’s final game of the tournament, a 3-1 victory against Libya.
Eshaya won three league titles and several other trophies during his time with the Air Force Club, including a treble in 1964. He represented Iraq nearly 80 times, including as part of the first Iraqi Olympic team in 1960 (and again in 1964), though the potential scope of his participation in international football was truncated by Iraq’s refusal to play in tournaments involving Israel.
In late 1969, Youra was detained in the now fully Iraqi-operated military base in Habbaniya on the basis that his mother’s name, Batishwa, was ‘Jewish’, as well as concerns over his relationship with a Swedish woman, Elisabeth Österlin. The Ba’ath Party had come to power in 1968, bringing further anti-Semitism and paranoia with them. Mikhael Pius had to change his name from Minashi for its perceived Jewishness. Youra was held for nearly a month, and was only released after his father Eshaya Pera discovered that he had been abducted by the state, had a heart attack and died. He had been kept ignorant as to Youra’s situation for fear over his reaction. Youra was sent home, with condolences, so he could be present for the funeral.
Youra married Elisabeth in 1972. He had met her while he was recovering from nose surgery for a football injury in England: she had been following Eshaya’s career closely and was introduced to him in his recovery ward, where she accompanied Eshaya’s cousin, who was married to Elisabeth’s sister. The marriage meant that he had to retire, as a law stated that men in the employ of the Iraqi state were forbidden from marrying non-Arabs.
He moved to Sweden, where he settled and coached at youth level for several clubs, including BK Häcken. A close friend of his during this period described Youra as being fundamentally restless in Swedish society – unable truly to adjust and still obsessed with football. He continued to receive a pension from the Iraqi state and in a 1987 interview with Uday Hussein’s Al-Rasheed Sports Magazine, proclaimed that “his heart and soul will always be in Iraq” and that he believed in “serving my country and working for it, even if I am away.”
Yet Iraq had itself transformed darkly since Youra’s departure, upon the dual anvils of Ba’ath tyranny and the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). Eshaya resisted entreaties, from both Ammo Baba and the Iraqi FA, to become the national team coach after Baba’s repeated sackings. He observed how shambolic and corrupt the Iraqi game had become, telling friends that if Baba was unable to succeed with the national team, he stood no chance. As Sargis Shallou told me regarding the Habbaniya generation: “leaving was difficult for all of us, but we left.”
Habbaniya is still used as a gathering point for Iraqi militias. At the site of the old camp, a headstone in Assyrian and English stands at the entrance of the burial ground, though many of the graves in the adjacent Assyrian and British cemeteries lie desecrated. A 2004 match between Iraq and Bristol Rovers at the Memorial Stadium in Bristol, scheduled to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Youra’s time there, was cancelled owing to security concerns.
Youra died of a heart attack on the morning of 21 July 1992 while on his habitual morning run, wearing the kit of Assyriska , a diaspora Assyrian club founded around the time he arrived in Sweden. He was on his way to teach young Assyrian footballers how to find space in a land that was not their own.
1 For more on Assyriska see Ann Tornkvist’s piece “The Turf War” in Issue Eighteen of The Blizzard.