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Sunni and Shi'i

...For 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...


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Sunni and Shi'i

Dayez, Iraqi Rebel

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 Baghdad, etc.

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."
  • "Harith 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."
  • "At 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.

I 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.

For 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.

My 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.

It's 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.

The 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):

primary school:

  • 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



And 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 brother.

And if someone asks me if I'm Sunni or Shi'i again, I swear I'll choke them to death.

:: Article nr. 18439 sent on 05-dec-2005 02:50 ECT


Link: iraqirebel.blogspot.com/2005/12/sunni-and-shii.html

:: The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this website.

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