Photo by Kevin Smith
Iraq is more than just exploding bodies, bloodthirsty zealots, and confused American soldiers. It’s also got spicy meat soups and raisin-juice, verdant rose bushes, and centuries of culture and tradition. Here’s our guide to Iraq from Alif to Yaa’.
ALIF IS FOR AHWAR
Ahwar is the name of the marshlands in the southern part of Iraq. The people there have lived the same way for thousands of years and are among the few remaining ancient cultures on earth. To this day they live in huts made of braided reeds surrounded by water buffalo. Saddam made life hell for them by building a dam that dried up their territory. Now that Saddam’s gone and the water’s back they have sectarian death squads, cancer, and jumpy military folk to keep them busy.
BAA’ IS FOR BAGHDAD HIGH SCHOOL FOR GIRLS
If you are a teenager, have a car, and are looking for a girl to go out with on a date, Baghdad High School for Girls is the place to go. Placed in a very fancy neighborhood, this school teaches the daughters of some of the richest families in Baghdad. This should be obvious from the luxury cars with drivers waiting in the parking lot outside the front door at any time of the school day. Unfortunately, there are policemen protecting the girls from being harassed. You have to be very charming and have a very fancy car to outsmart the police—pretend to be a sibling and pick up the girl as quickly as you can before they notice, or you’ll be in trouble.
TAA’ IS FOR TEA TIME
Undecided about where to go out for the weekend with friends? There is always the old standby Tea Time. Established in the mid-90s in the rich Harthiya neighborhood, this fast-food restaurant serves enormous sandwiches. Their burgers are so huge that they make the Big Mac look like a White Castle slider. Tea Time has been slowly extending its property for the past few years and now owns the entire two-story building in which it was once-upon-a-time renting a small shop. Iraq is still free from all the American junk-food restaurants at this point—most Iraqis believe that if a Burger King were to open in Baghdad, it’d still lose business against the local fast-food chains.
THAA’ IS FOR THIREED
Thireed was originally a Bedouin meal but flourished and became very popular in Iraq. It consists mainly of bread dipped in meat soup and huge chunks of meat. Iraqis are so into meat they even eat kebabs at breakfast, and this is like the Iraqi Rib-Eye Steak Dish.
JEEM IS FOR JADIRIYA CLUB (NADI AL-JADIRIYA)
Jadiriya Club is the top social club of high-aristocratic families in Iraq. Uday Hussein originally founded it in the early 90s as a horseback-riding club for his fellow equestrians, but the beautiful gardens, brilliant scenery, and nice settings began to attract all the rich families in Iraq. These families tend to have a very Westernized lifestyle, and it became normal to see daughters and sons of different families dating, partying, or going on boat rides in the river Dijlah. After the war, the Jadiriya club was taken over and now serves as a military base.
HAA’ IS FOR HAJJI ZBALA (OLD MAN GARBAGE)
A small cafeteria in Baghdad that opened in 1901 and is named for its owner, Mr. Zbala (that’s the Arabic word for “garbage”). His parents named him “Garbage” at a time when some superstitious Iraqis would also give their kids names like “Donkey” or “Piss” to ward off the evil eye. This obviously worked for little Zbala, as it sealed his destiny as the most popular raisin-juice-shop owner in Iraq. It was the photo-op place of choice for Iraqi political figures over the past century.
KHAA’ IS FOR KHANDAQ
A khandaq is what you dig to hide in in hope of saving your life during bombing. It’s a shelter. When the war was close, people started to prepare themselves and their houses. They stored food, first aid, and all sorts of fuel and money for emergencies. A lot of people dug wells in their houses, but some people dug a khandaq too. A lot of stories of the older men that participated in the Iran-Iraq War are about things they did in their khandaq during the war. Iraqis, living through long years and having experienced many wars, consider the khandaq an essential part of their lives
DAAL IS FOR DIJLAH
Dijlah, or what you know as the Tigris, is the river that runs through Iraq, north to south coming from Turkey. It meets up with the Euphrates River right by Basra. Iraqis have romanticized this river in poems, songs, paintings, and books for its beauty. Nowadays it’s just a good place to dump dead bodies.
THAAL IS FOR THIBEEHA
Iraq is well known for the hospitality of its people. When an important guest visits, you have to give them a thibeeha, or an offering. You slaughter some of the sheep you have if you are in a tribal area or a village, or just get them from a restaurant if you are in a city. Thibeeha is also given at weddings and funerals. If an important figure dies, like a head of a tribe, literally hundreds and even thousands of sheep are slaughtered to make food for the visitors coming from all over the country to pay their respects and express their condolences.
Photo by ReutersRAA’ IS FOR RASHEED STREET
This posh street is located in one of the affluent areas of Baghdad. It used to be frequented by young college students who would hang out at famous restaurants serving different types of food. Rasheed was also teeming with fashion shops, which drew a considerable number of women shoppers. No one goes here anymore. There’s no point.
ZAAI IS FOR ZARQAWI
The name that has literally shaken the streets of Iraq with car bombs and drenched it with innocent blood. He was to blame for terrorizing the whole country, driving a wedge between Iraqi countrymen, and turning the people’s lives into waking nightmares. Though he’s officially dead, the scars he caused are still fresh and painful. A lot of people believe that he isn’t responsible for attacks against civilians and was only attacking the American army. A lot of people believe that his role was overexaggerated by the media and used as a political card by many sides. Just like a lot of other things in Iraq today, nobody knows for sure what the truth is.
SEEN IS FOR SA’AH RESTAURANT
Sa’ah is a very famous Iraqi restaurant. A lot of foreigners even know it because it was in the news many times during the war. Saddam was believed to be hiding in a house behind it, so the American army dropped a ton of bombs on it, which turned the house into a big hole in the ground and damaged the crap out of all the surrounding buildings. It was rebuilt later. The restaurant is in the Mansour neighborhood and is still running although many car bombs have exploded near it since the start of the war. Like all Iraqis, this restaurant is a survivor.
SHEEN IS FOR SHAY
In Iraqi it’s pronounced chay, (the “ch” sound is common in the Iraqi dialect but has no equivalent in the Arabic alphabet). This tea is so mean it makes black coffee look gay. It’s brewed for hours with a ton of cardamom, it’s dark as death, and it is consumed with piles of sugar. This is the drink of choice for all Iraqis. They drink it all day long at home, at work, and in public. Today if you see an Iraqi in the street who isn’t nursing a cup of shay, he’s probably about to reach for an RPG.
SAAD IS FOR SAYD CLUB (NADI IL SAYD)
Sayd Club is one of the most famous social clubs in Baghdad. It’s the place where families would get together to spend an evening and have dinner, or children would go during the day to swim or play basketball or tennis. Uday, Saddam’s son, used to go there a lot too, but as long as you stayed away from him and minded your own business, you’d generally be fine.
DHAAD IS FOR DHARBA (ATTACK)
The 1991 war on Iraq is often referred to by local Iraqis as “the Bush’s Dharba”. After a number of attacks ensued people started tagging on numbers to distinguish them: the First Dharba and the Second Dharba, and so on. There were smaller dharbas in between too, during the 90s. People used to use “the Dharba” as a reference for time, like: “I started working two years after the Dharba.” Now when you say “the Dharba” everyone’s like, “Which one?”
TAH IS FOR TAREEQ IL MATAR (AIRPORT ROAD)
I used to live very close to the airport. Practically the entire war happened around us as we were surrounded by the airport, the national security college, and the presidential warehouses. I can’t possibly count how many thousands of rockets and missiles went over our heads. The airport road, which we used to take every day to go home, was one of the most beautiful in Baghdad. It’s very wide and was decorated with flowers, bushes, and tall palm trees. Since the American army used the airport as a base, they were being targeted daily on that road with roadside bombs, car bombs, and RPG attacks—all of which left the street full of holes. Eventually the American army had to remove and burn all the trees and bushes to make sure nobody was hiding among them to attack them.
DHA IS FOR DHILAL
Al-Dhilal is a bus company that was once one of the most important means of transportation between Iraq and Jordan. Before the current war, as part of the sanctions, no airplanes were allowed to fly over Iraq. People had to use the desert highway to go to Jordan. It was a 1,000-kilometer trip, and it could take as much as a good 24 hours on the road to make it due to delays at the border. Also, because of the bad security situation, people sometimes prefer to use buses instead of the charter SUVs that started to operate on that road a couple of years before the war. It’s safer to be with 40 people because you’re less likely to be hijacked or attacked on your way out of Iraq.
AIN IS FOR ’ASHURAA
This is a Shia religious festival that was banned under Saddam Hussein’s reign. Shia get together once a year and put on a blood-soaked parade where men and boys chant and cut and beat themselves with chains as a reminder of their atrocious past. The Sunni/Shia split originated in southern Iraq a few hundred years after the prophet Mohammed died. At the time, the people of Karbala murdered and mutilated the prophet’s grandson Hussein. ’Ashuraa shows that the Shia are still not over it. It’s also practiced in Bahrain, Iran, and Lebanon.
GHAIN IS FOR KING GHAZI
The gay (and only) son of Iraq’s first king, Faisal I, this little prince was crowned at age 21 when his dad kicked the bucket in 1933. He took his hatred of the British (who had pulled the strings throughout his father’s rule) to its natural conclusion by buddying up with the Nazis, and helped support the Arab world’s first military coup d’état—against his own government. Much to the nation’s relief, he died in a suspicious sports car crash only six years into his reign.
Photo by ReutersFAA’ IS FOR FERIDA
Ferida is a girl’s name. For some reason the names of the three brands of Iraqi beer are all girls’ names. Ferida means “unique” in Arabic, and she meets the requirement of a lot of Iraqi men: Available, strong, and cheap.
QAAF IS FOR QOOZI
Qoozi is a badass traditional Iraqi dish. It’s basically a mountain of rice prepared with a mix of spices that give it a funky taste and brownish color and is usually served with a whole roasted lamb on top. It’s the mother of all indigestion-causing meals. Qoozi is what people make for weddings and other important occasions. When my family used to invite people over and make qoozi, we planned it assuming that each guest would eat a good pound of meat and some two heaping plates of rice.
KAAF IS FOR KATHUM AL-SAHIR
Al-Sahir is a famous contemporary Iraqi crooner and sex symbol known for his trademark wailing-style singing. Kathum fled Baghdad after getting sick and tired of having to write songs about Saddam. He’s one of the biggest celebrities in the Middle East. He cut a track with Lenny Kravitz in 2003, but it bombed. He loves Baghdad and sings about it all the time.
LAAM IS FOR LAHAM
Laham is Arabic for “meat.” Iraqi lamb is the best of the lot. That’s why sheep smuggling has become a lucrative business for some people in neighboring Iran and Saudi Arabia. The fact that most Iraqis cannot live without meat has allowed greedy butchers to keep making their products’ prices higher and higher. Iraqis eat meat at two or even sometimes three of the daily meals. All meat in Iraq is organic and thus incredibly tasty. Sheep and cow are very popular, but some people also like camel’s meat. And you can forget about pork.
MEEM IS FOR MUTHAFAR AL-NAWWAB
This guy’s a legendary communist rebel poet, famous across the Middle East for his dramatic and political writing. In the early 70s he was invited to recite his poetry at an Arab League meeting, at which he proceeded to curse and swear at every head of state present in the room. His comrades had to quickly smuggle him out of the country and he now lives in Syria. He’s also a renowned drunk.
NOON IS FOR NABUG
The dictionary says the English equivalent for this round-shaped fruit is “Christ’s thorn.” To Iraqis, it’s all kids’ favorite fruit. If you see a bunch of little Iraqis gathering around a tree and hurling stones, sticks, and sometimes shoes, you know it’s a nabug tree. Though it stinks like smelly socks, it’s delicious. A spooky myth is linked to this tree—they say if a house has one in its yard and the owners intentionally chop it down, a family member will croak soon.
HAA’ IS FOR HUMMER
These boxy US military vehicles have become an inbuilt part of post-invasion Iraqi culture. When a fleet of Hummers passes by any Iraqi street, people tend to keep a distance, lest they are shot at by the jumpy American soldiers inside. The sight of a Hummer in any neighborhood means trouble. If Americans are attacked, all hell breaks loose in the shape of detentions and random gunfire. To Iraqi children in more rundown areas, Hummers means US-made candy bars from less aggressive soldiers.
WAW IS FOR WARD JOORI
These bright-colored Iraqi roses look as nice as they smell. Iraqis are fond of gardening and ward joori really brighten the landscape. In springtime, schoolgirls like to pick red, pink, and white flowers to give to their teachers as a token of respect.
YAA’ IS FOR YEZIDIS
The Yezidis are an ancient Iraqi devil-worshipping sect. Originally from northern Iraq, they bow down to Melek Ta’us (the Peacock Angel) whom they also call Shaytan (Satan). Melek Ta’us is basically Lucifer except the Yezidi side of the story of creation says that God gave Lucifer props and a camp peacock outfit for defying his orders.