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2016 Has Been A Very Bad Year, Says Bartender In Northern Iraq

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. You might know this from your own time traveling. If you want to learn about a place, find the local bar and talk to the bartender. NPR international correspondents are doing just that all this week as we head toward New Year's Eve. We start today in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. Not far from the Iranian border is the only jazz club around for thousands of miles. Kurdish entrepreneur Chalak Salar opened Uptown Jazz last year in the Kurdish region's second-biggest city, Sulaymaniyah. NPR's Jane Arraf paid a visit.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: There's a cool blue light behind the glass shelves of bottles over the granite bar. A candle drips wax on a grand piano. There are more than a dozen booths and tables set with gleaming white tablecloths, framed posters of John Coltrane and other jazz greats. But there are only five or six customers here, and this is a typical night.

CHALAK SALAR: The worst year ever I have experienced in my life can say. All what happens around here in Kurdistan, in Iraq, in Syria and - yeah, the worst year ever.

ARRAF: There's a saying in Kurdish and Arabic that basically says if you think yesterday was bad, wait until you see how much worse tomorrow will be. ISIS entered Iraq two years ago. So when Salar says that this was the worst year ever, that's saying a lot.

SALAR: The reason I stayed in Kurdistan and I didn't go back to London - because I lived in London for 13 years - I felt it's cowardly, you know, to go back, to leave my people, I know this. I have - I said I have to stay open and to work with my staff and just - let's hope for better.

ARRAF: Even in this Muslim country, there are quite a lot of people who drink, but most people can't afford to go out these days. And much worse, it's a country at war. And while they're driving out ISIS, Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers are dying on the front. It's going to be a subdued New Years. You're more likely in this region to see a bottle of whiskey or vodka on the table than a round of cocktails, but Salar mixes one up.

SALAR: I like blue margarita. That's one of my favorites.

ARRAF: This is Salar's New Year's wish.

SALAR: I wish that every single person on this planet Earth to have peace, to have a good life. And I can say especially for my people we're really tired.

ARRAF: Not just for the Kurds, he says, but for the Iraqis and the Syrians and the Turks, an end to the bad years. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.

Oh, that's so good.

SALAR: Really?

ARRAF: It's fantastic.

SALAR: Great, good to hear that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROYA'S "NEAMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.