December 2, 2005
You know, all this
fuss made in the media about Sunnis and Shia has really been getting to
me lately. Iraqis are almost always categorized as one or the other.
For example, Fulan al Fulani, the Shi'i politician; Fulan al Fulani,
the Sunni cleric.
The same can happen with geographic areas,
towns and provinces, e.g. Basra, the largely Shi'i city; Ramadi, the
Sunni Arab stronghold; Salah al Din, a province with Sunni majority;
Sadr City, the Shi'i district; Amiriya, the largely Sunni district of
The media is so obsessed with these distinctions
that I am sure they will soon start to come up with new ideas just to
show off they know all about Iraq, like say:
- "the Iraqi family was at the Fulani restaurant having Kabab for restaurant. Kabab is a largely Shi'i dish."
- "Kadhim al Sahir, the Sunni singer raised in a Shi'i district of Baghdad, held a concert in Cairo."
- "Malayeen, the Shi'i belly dancer, opened a dancing school in Beirut."
- "Sunni peasants have tishreeb with rice in it. Shi'is do not."
- "Nissan pickup trucks are generally purchased by Sunni Arab farmers. Shi'i farmers prefer Toyota pickups."
- "Abd al Aziz al Hakim's great grandmother was a Sunni Turkomen from Tuz Khormatu."
al Dhari's cleaning lady is a Shi'i from the Shu'la district of
Baghdad. His grandson's best buddy at school is also Shi'i."
the Jadriya club, a duet composed of a Sunni and a Shi'i sang for a
largely elite Sunni audience. The majority of the band members were
Shi'i from various Shi'i districts of Baghdad. One of them is a Fayli
Kurd from Khanaqin who are also Shi'i. The waiters were mostly Assyrian
Orthodox Christians from Batnaya and Ainkawa. However, the club manager
is a Shi'i from Hilla. The district of Jadriya itself is a mixed one
but leaning towards a Shi'i majority."
So you get the point.
am not saying that Iraqis never noticed these differences, it's just
that recent events have somehow accentuated them. In the past, we just
used to joke about the differences. And since most Iraqi families and
tribes are mixed, there is no point in creating imaginary differences.
most of my life, I rarely knew which of my friends was Sunni and which
was Shi'i. It might have been easier to notice which was Kurdish or
Christian because of language differences. Sometimes, Shi'is from the
south, say Basra or Amara, can be recognized from their accent, but
then even Sunnis and Christians in Basra share the same accent. Most of
the time it's a regional difference rather than a sectarian one.
mother told me once that she asked her father when she was very young
if they were Shi'i or Sunni after she had heard the terms in school.
Her father slapped her hard in the face. That was how far Iraqis were
willing to go in order to supress their perceived differences.
also considered rude to ask if one is Shi'i or Sunni. If you ask, most
people would respond saying "I'm Muslim," or "I'm Iraqi." Some nosy
people get around it by asking "Where are you from?" If you say
"Baghdad," he would ask "Which area of Baghdad?" If your answer is a
mixed district, he would squirm and ask "Ok then, from what tribe?" If
you reply with a mixed tribe like Jubur, he would really start to get
uncomfortable because he can't find out whether you are Sunni or Shi'i
and he might start asking from which clan or which family you belong
to. Some are really good at finding out though if they try hard and
they are obsessed with it.
There were areas however in Iraq
which used to be considered purely Sunni or Shi'i. I heard an old
relative of mine once saying that he visited a village near Amara and
the people there asked him what a Sunni looked like. When he explained
to them that Sunnis look just like them or anyone else, their jaws fell
to the ground in disbelief and they said "You mean they don't have
little tails in their behinds??"
The "tail" story is a known
one. People who lived in isolated Shi'i villages would refer to a Sunni
as Abu Dhuwail (the one with the tail). Similar beliefs exist in
isolated Sunni communities, also in Arab countries with no Shia
communities. I was chatting once with a taxi driver in Amman and we
discussed politics and other stuff. He then cautiously asked me what I
thought about the Shia, and if they are how people describe them. When
I told him that he was talking to one, he was really embarrassed. He
kept apologizing and saying that he was wrong because he thought Shia
were Persians. He seemed to have thought that Shia looked like strange
creatures from outer space.
Iraqis now have no problem with
their differences. They intermarry all the time and they publicly make
jokes about it. Times have changed, there are rarely any pure
communities in Iraq now. There are Shia in Mosul and Ramadi, just like
there are Sunnis in Najaf and Amara.
It bugs me continously to see bloggers like say Juan Cole
to stress those differences so much and to philosophize about them to
the extent that he almost writes stuff like the list I mentioned above.
media also imagines that one's political opinion is decided by what
sect he belongs to. If a Shi'i says he is against the constitution or
the occupation or the current government, the media and political
pundits start scratching their heads trying to figure out what's wrong.
The same if a Sunni says he is glad that Saddam is gone and that the
country is fine the way it is now. It just doesn't fit in with their
ready made equation and it confuses them.
I have been so annoyed
with this recently that I made up a list of all my friends from primary
school to the present day and wrote down who was Sunni and who was
Shi'i. I didn't get anywhere and couldn't prove anything. Here is what
the list looked like (names slightly changed for anonymity):
- Ali Ahmed, Shi'i
- Sinan Mohammed, Sunni
- Harith Ghassan, Shi'i
- Rafi Bassam, Christian, Armenian Orthodox
secondary and high school:
- Dana Nazar, Sunni Kurd
- Zaid Riyadh, Christian, Assyrian Orthodox
- Saad Ameer, Christian, Chaldean Catholic
- Sadiq Abd Allah, Saba'i
- Ali Mohammed, Shi'i
- Hayder Radhi, Fayli Kurd, Shi'i
- Ahmed Raad, Sunni
- Hani Latif, Sunni
- Osama Mahdi, Shi'i
- Ahmed Abd al Zahra, Shi'i
- Ahmed Sideeq, Sunni
- Omar Mohammed, Shi'i
- Saddam Mohammed, Shi'i
- Meer Jabir, Sunni Kurd
- Ahmed Ali, Sunni
- Uday Faruq, Christian, Chaldean Catholic
- Muhsin Abd Allah, Shi'i
- Sami Sadiq, Shi'i
- Zaid Ameer, Shi'i
- Sarmad Bakr, Shi'i
- Omar Ali, Sunni
the point is what? There is none. Iraqis have been living together for
centuries and they will not allow some foreigners to come now and start
making differences between them or to try and pit brother against
And if someone asks me if I'm Sunni or Shi'i again, I swear I'll choke them to death.