Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Iraq War Parties

An Attempt at Categorization

The image of the Iraqi scene in terms of the US versus insurgents or terrorists was dominant for much of the time since the American invasion of Iraq! It is basically an extension of the "with us, against us", "good guy, bad guy" view. On one side we have the US forces (and allies), the democratically-elected Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces. On the other side are the insurgents (or terrorists!) Syria and Iran. More sophisticated souls understand that the Iraqi security forces have been infiltrated by the insurgents.

A nice, tidy picture! Alas it is not sufficient, or even true.

The other, currently more dominant, three-color Sunni-Shiite-Kurd picture of strife in Iraq is also tidy! Alas, it is also incomplete, and even misguiding!

These two visions seem to be enough for a large number of people all over the world. Many people try to accommodate the news items they see and read within the categories offered by these visions. Yet, much remains inexplicable. Most people do not bother to contemplate further! It must be something to do with the "crazy" part of the world!

Yet, many people, including many Iraqis, are so confused! For example, people cannot understand how an Iraqi 'nationalistic resistance' can target and kill so many innocent Iraqis.

The picture is so complex! It is like watching a movie in different and spectacular colors changing in slow motion! Watching that picture unfold for more than three and a half years makes it look even more confusing! This, to my mind, has been the difficulty with understanding what has been happening in Iraq. So many forces! So many different means and manifestations! So many violent methods! Yet, people need simplifications; they need tags. This is my attempt at over-simplification!

An analogy to this attempt is the color system. A picture with a profusion of colors can be reduced to more elementary colors – ultimately three (RGB, red, green and blue)!

The three basic elements of violent forces in Iraq:

Putting aside subjective values of good and evil for the moment, the task is to attempt to 'categorize' the various forces at play in present-day Iraq since the invasion. The objective is to understand the otherwise inexplicable events of senseless violence.

For that purpose, I propose the following broad categorization to describe the multitude of active forces that have been using mostly violent means to pursue their agenda in Iraq:

R- External-agenda Forces
This group includes the American administration and the US army, coalition forces, forces with international anti-American agenda (such as Al-Qaeda), countries that wish the US campaign to fail and the US to be bogged in the Iraqi quagmire, Countries of the region serving their own interests

G- Iraqi-agenda Forces
Forces of National Resistance, Baathists, "nationalistic" religious forces and Sectarian forces. This group must also include the two main Kurdish parties and a wide assortment of Iraqi political parties.

B- Criminal gangs
Pure criminal gangs out for money and the power associated with it, taking advantage of the absence of Law and Order to loot, rob banks, kidnap and murder; Criminal gangs in the service of any of the above forces willing to pay for their services to bomb, kidnap, sabotage and create chaos.

Putting different groups in a category does not necessarily mean that they are allies. More frequently than not, the opposite is true. Furthermore, entities within a single sub-group can have widely differing and conflicting objectives. For example, within "counties of the region" group, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait have widely differing objectives and motives and use different means.

The picture is complicated for several reasons. One of which is that most groups do not publicly declare their true intents and positions. Another main reason is that the degree of interaction between the various groups is truly astounding, hence the spectacular range of colors! The most widely used vehicles have been funding and guns! The result: mostly red, innocent blood and a gray, devastated country.

Nevertheless, this picture may provide a better basis for analyzing the various forces at play in Iraq today than the "with us, against us" vision or the Sunni-Shiite view! The only assumption I make is that each group pursues its own interests and objectives without moral qualms.

This picture may serve to understand better what has been taking place in Iraq over the past few years. But, more importantly, it may serve to help look ahead at possible solutions out of the present quagmire… and why the task is so formidable! But that is another story for another day. All I wanted to do in this post was to introduce this view.

Thursday, July 20, 2006


Goodbye My Boy

This summer, the trumpeted security plan of the new government was put in action.

Others it seemed had their own ‘insecurity’ plan. It was far more effective than the government’s. Some say that elements of the government and their allies were active participants in that other plan. The result was a chaotic, murderous situation that no news agency has the capability or the resources to convey to others living outside this hell-hole. On an average day nowadays, I alone learn about six murders that are not reported anywhere on any media.

The resulting popular mood was reflected in a depressing essay by Shalash al Iraqi that I translated in my previous post. That essay included a long hate-list of an average Iraqi. It later occurred to me that poor Shalash, being an unmarried man with no children, missed at least one important item: our children.

I cannot imagine a father or mother hating their children. But in our miserable existence, we come very close to that.

An average parent in present-day ‘free Iraq’ spends a good portion of the day and night worrying to death over his or her children going to school, going out with their friends, being a shade late in coming home or strolling to the neighborhood shop to buy crisps and coke. Their resentment of restrictions over their comings and goings is a constant, never-ending source of friction and battles. Their agony in their sleep soaking wet in their sweat during the long power cuts in the mercilessly hot summer nights of Baghdad is a dull pain of helplessness and fury in the heart.

Most of the time you are sick with worry over their safety and well-being. The knowledge that they are in constant danger consumes you. It eats you alive.

You then realize that it is your love for them that is killing you. You begin to hate that love.

My eldest boy went away 16 months ago. Six months later, it was my daughter. We were left with the little one, not yet 17.

This summer he started working on his all-important Baccalaureate exams (the equivalent of high school). All we wanted was for him to pass that hurdle. But that was not to be. All the many forces of darkness on the loose in Iraq today went into an orgy of killing and senseless violence. It was too much for us. I don’t know how many people can fathom the depth of agony of seeing a loved one in eminent danger and not being able to do a thing about it.

Now my little one too has gone away.

Goodbye my boy.

May the Goddesses of Safety, Happiness and Good Fortune blow gently in your sails.

I hope you forget all your agony and your lost childhood, leave the pain behind, make new dreams and forge ahead in a world of hope and achievement.

As for those responsible for your suffering, may those of them who believe in God taste His wrath in Hell for all eternity. May those of them without a conscience acquire one to torment them with their own deeds for as long as they live. May the rest of them taste the medicine they recklessly prescribed to others for as long as their hearts are sick.

Goodbye my boy! There is a new, fresh pain of loss in my heart . Yet I hope I won’t see you soon.

Now I can start loving you again.

Friday, June 23, 2006


Shalash al Iraqi

I haven’t posted for a while. Many of the Iraqi bloggers are also less vocal than usual. It is understandable that some of the rosy-picture painters may be short of material. But this cannot explain the silence of others. There is no shortage of material there!

I myself have been having such difficulty. It is anger and some element of desperation! I nowadays have more feelings of fury and bitterness than inclinations towards rational discourse.

One writer who has emerged during the past year called himself Shalash al Iraqi. He is a resident of Sadr City with a great deal of first-hand knowledge of that part of the city. The name he has chosen certainly has ‘redneck’ overtures. He has a unique, lovable writing style: sarcastic, critical and funny. He writes in classical Arabic but frequently interjects local terms and colloquial expressions. He covered numerous subjects of present-day Iraq, mainly concentrating on social and political aspects. He has no love lost for the previous regime, no time for the ‘new political process’, no tolerance of the farce now called Democracy and certainly no disposition for sectarianism. I followed his writings closely with great admiration. He never failed to make me chuckle while reading his essays. He was mentioned now and then by vigilant outsiders such as Cecile of Streamtime. Dr. Imad Khadduri sarted a blog to collect Shalash’s writings. Yet, he remains largely unknown outside Iraq.

Shalash too was quiet for several months. However, over the past three weeks he has written three essays. I will translate his last one to give a feel of a prevalent mood.

Shalash is no longer funny

Shalash’s new essay has a different flavor. There is nothing funny or sarcastic about it. It is entitled “A Desperate Letter!” the essay is written in long paragraphs! I have taken the liberty to segment it and tried my best to retain the original flavor but I cannot do that with the style.

A Desperate Letter

As I and others expected, the ‘security plan’ became a cover for murderers and night gangs that have allied themselves with infiltrators into security forces to kill people and dump them in garbage piles. Otherwise how would those in charge of the plan explain how those killings, assassinations, kidnappings and abductions take place with such a massive deployment of armed forces and the nightly curfew? How do those criminals move and do their deeds and how do they spread death in the streets in such cold blood?

Are they ghosts that move outside the vision of check points during curfew hours. Or are they part of the forces implementing the curfew?

I know that the government has no explanation or is ashamed to admit the politically embarrassing truth. People, Mr. Prime Minister, well know now that those death gangs are no longer 'secret death squads' as the media are fond of calling them. Those same gangs are publically proclaiming their acts and that those ‘death lists’ are being openly circulated between members of what you call militias.

The bitter truth brothers, and I say this for the thousandth time, is that certain gangs have infiltrated the Sadrist Movement with the knowledge of some of the Movement’s leaders.

They do all sorts of criminal acts and intimidate the Police that they have infiltrated. The disaster is that senior officers in the [Ministry of] Interior fear criminals who have criminal records in Iraqi courts prior to the Fall [of Baghdad].

The name of the “Sayyed’s Office” [Branch of Muqtada’s offices] now terrifies the police more than the previous regime’s security forces terrified the people. On top of that, the crimes that started as political and revenge-motivated ‘liquidations’ have turned into a culture. There is a new fearsome ‘addiction’ to killing and taking pleasure in blood! There are murders just for the sake of murder; killings for reasons that the very act of contemplating is a crime against humanity. Now, there are people who cannot go to bed before shattering people’s skulls with their pistols. What a sour life between the days of car bombs and nights of criminal gangs…

From this place, from the mountains of pain, terror, solitude and fear I address the Prime Minister…

Your Excellency, for a reason unknown to me, I though well of you. The solution is not through massive deployment of security forces, Police Commandos and forces of Occupation.

The simple solution is for you to go to Sayyed Muqtada and ask him to publicly disown those murderers and declare that they don’t belong to his movement and remove his cover of them and leave the people to deal with them. People already have lists of these gangsters and their connection to the Sayyed’s Office is common knowledge. Sooner or later the People will take their revenge from those killers. And when they do, Iraq will again sink in seas of blood in comparison to which the rivers of blood now flowing will seem like little ditches.

We have had enough.

The fearsome nights are stifling us and we now have come to hate the Fall [of Baghdad]; we hate Liberation; we hate Sunnis; we hate Shiites; we hate turbans and sidaras [Baghdadi head gear – a reference to Adnan al-Dulaimi a ‘Sunni’ politician]; we hate Jihad and Jihadists, resistance and resistors; we hate concrete; we hate streets and sidewalks; we hate the Ministries; we hate Establishments; we hate news channels and news and communiqués; we hate the Parliament that has now become a venue for swearing-in ceremonies and nothing else; we hate songs; we hate commercials; we hate newspapers; we hate cars and car-depots; we hate conferences; we hate ‘surprise visits’; we hate neighboring countries; we hate the ‘multinational forces; we hate the night; we hate the day; we hate Summer; we hate the sun that sends hell; we hate sleep; we hate water and electricity; we hate petrol and corruption and theft; we hate sectarianism; we hate sectarian ‘allocations’; we hate Reconciliation; we hate the government of national unity; we hate committees and Commissions of Integrity, Trash, Rehabilitation and Silliness; we hate [political] parties and organizations; we hate assemblies, demonstrations, banners and chants; we hate laughter; we hate crying; we hate work; we hate study; we hate each other. And we hate ourselves. But (and this is our problem) we still love something that was called Iraq.

Will you save what is left of this Iraq?

What have they done to this country? Is this what they mean when they say “Freedom is messy”?

And yet… I still have hope. It is people like Shalash al-Iraqi who, despite all their suffering, have not lost their humanity and have not lost their compass… that give me that hope.

Friday, May 05, 2006


This Blog is now a Book

This blog is now available as a book with the same title from Lulu. I have added a chapter with some details of tribal life and strife in the “Triangle of Death”.

This is what it says on the back cover:


A primer to the country and the people through facts and anecdotes

The country’s composition and diversity in ethnic, religious, urban-rural and civic-tribal terms

The occupation, the chaos and lawlessness that followed and their effect on the lives of people and individuals

A look into the “Triangle of Death” – one of the most volatile regions – from the inside, showing some of the intricacies of tribal relations

But, above all, this book is about people

It aims to illustrate how ordinary people dealt with the traumatic situation; why civil war was so hard to ignite; and why there is still hope

It may help the reader understand the failure to understand that led to failure

Saturday, December 31, 2005


The Mess Pot

The Greeks were here too. Iraq was known to the Greeks as Mesopotamia: the land between the two rivers. This is such an apt name; much of Iraq's long history is influenced in one way or another by those two rivers: Tigris and Euphrates. Alexander the Great himself also ‘liberated’ Iraq. He actually died here (reportedly from an overdose of the local liquor "Araq" – a powerful drink made from palm dates and never drunk straight).

When the British ‘liberated’ Iraq during the First World War, the British boys began calling Iraq jokingly “The Mess Pot”.

A mess pot it is.

Now that the Americans have also ‘liberated’ Iraq", it is their turn to learn what a mess pot they have got themselves into! Somehow, they even managed to add a bit of an extra mess to it themselves!


This blog has been my attempt to give a tiny glimpse of my tiny glimpse of Iraq. I hope that I have been truthful.


Baghdad Taxi Dance

I was watching a short documentary on one of the many new TV channels the other day. The crew was accompanying a taxi driver around a day of ‘usual’ business in Baghdad describing his experiences with people, traffic jams and dangers.

The man, who seemed to be in his late 40’s, was an engineer who had left for Britain in 1989 and then went to Malaysia for a better jib. He was laid off and took another job as a calligrapher of Qur’anic verses that took him to Abu Dhabi. He missed Baghdad and, according to his narrative, was prodded by his wife’s nagging. He came back home. The only job he found he could do was using his own car as a taxi.

This reminded me of the many taxi drivers I met over the past few years. In fact, taking a ride in a cab in Baghdad, and in other Iraqi towns, is almost always a unique experience.

Although there was always a law prohibiting the use of private cars as taxis, nobody bothered to enforce that law since the onset of those sanctions in 1990. You therefore meet all sorts of people working as taxi drivers; teenagers, granddads, university professors, civil servants, engineers, jobless army officers… and occasionally, the professional taxi driver.

Before the invasion, I rarely took a cab. Although I always hated traffic congestions, those were usually manageable before the unchecked rush of new cars, the total abandonment of traffic signals, traffic laws and the absence of traffic police rendered driving in Baghdad almost a unique and detestable experience. Now, the traffic police are back, but the numerous roadblocks, the various check points and the continuing disregard to all traffic laws still makes driving in Baghdad a nasty experience.

After the invasion, I began increasingly relying on taxis for a variety of reasons in addition to avoid driving. I used to take long walks for the benefit of my bad back, go to the internet shop etc. and then come back home in a taxi.

Taking a taxi in Baghdad has its own rituals. As soon as the taxi stops, he is told of the destination. If he doesn’t like it, he says so… sometimes apologizing, sometimes he just drives off. The price is then negotiated. Once that matter is settled, you get in. Men invariably take the front seat next to the driver and chat all the way to the destination. Women take the back seat and keep to themselves.

Following the usual greeting of “Allah bil Khair” the dance begins. Both driver and passenger start making tentative small talk to gauge one another for extreme views… or simply to determine where the other guy stands on the most important issues. The idea is to just touch on a few subjects and see the other’s reaction to them. This ‘dance’ usually takes about three minutes. Most people are very efficient and get that ritual out of the way in the minimum of time.

The driver is usually the more cautious party. He usually has to keep a long list of dangers in mind. Drivers know of too many stories of taxi drivers being stabbed or killed for their cars. Having an old run-down car is no guarantee of safety. Once that is done, a wide variety of topics, depending on the two people and their moods and interests, are talked about.

Like barbers, taxi drivers are usually full of stories. They meet so many different people everyday from all walks of life. If you can identify their personal filters and biases, you can learn a lot about the pulse of the street from a half hour taxi ride.

Monday, December 19, 2005


Cultural Differences and Respect

How can chewing gum be lethal?

There is no shortage of cultural traits and behaviors Iraqi people have which give cause to despise these people. I can list hundreds of such traits. This essay is not about that; it is a view from the other side.

These little glimpses depict some of the cultural differences that led to enormous consequences following the American invasion of Iraq. Different people simply react differently to similar stimuli. What can only be seen as perfectly normal actions in one culture can convey unintended images to another. In many instances, society expects a certain mode of behavior.


It was a short video clip on Tuesday, November 22nd, 2005. There was a ceremony where the US army was handing over Saddam’s palace in Tikrit to the Iraqi authorities. The American Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad was present, in addition to other dignitaries, Iraqi and American.

There was a thud. The place was targeted by a mortar shell that didn’t explode. The clip showed a small glimpse of the chaos that followed: Men in expensive suits hiding themselves behind chairs; Men in army uniforms, some started to run, some crouched, and some moved rapidly to protect their superiors and their charge. One soldier threw himself to the ground, face down.

But, for a few seconds I noticed a group of four Iraqis in traditional Arab dress who remained sanding quietly. I thought that was fascinating! I am almost certain I saw one of them smiling! Weren’t those people afraid? Of course they were… but they couldn’t show it.

This brought to memory a tribal sheikh I knew who used to take his only son with him to the weekly tribal gathering - a routine assembly where tribal kin met and discussed things of common interest and solved some of the conflicts that needed addressing. For most part of a day, that young teenager had to endure long sessions of what must have been boring proceedings and discussions. If the boy as much as turned his head quickly following a sudden noise such as a slamming door or a shattered glass of water, that man, would scold the boy on the way back home. Sudden, undignified movements like those were simply unacceptable for a future tribal chief. Perhaps this example is a somewhat extreme, but it illustrates the point I am trying to make.

It also reminded me of a news conference given by Saddam’s Minister of Defense, Sultan H. Ahmed shortly before the fall of Baghdad. The man was sitting at a table; behind him was a curtain or a tent wall. Those who saw that briefing may remember it for something else: This man said that he expected the American army to reach Baghdad within five days at the same time when the infamous Information Minister, Sahhaf, was declaring victory. During the interview, there were several very loud blasts; the curtain shook. The man, either when listening or while talking, did not even blink an eye!

In much of tribal Iraq, which includes about half of all Iraqis, people in positions of leadership or authority are expected to remain calm and collected at all times, including times of crises. Posture is of utmost importance. This of course is not unique to Iraqis.


One of the major impressions that killed the halo of invincibility of the US army in Iraq was the perfectly normal reaction of crouching or running for cover when under attack. Time and again, I heard things like “they are not men; they panic”. This of course does not refer to the absolutely unforgivable act of spraying bystanders with bullets when, and sometimes after, being attacked. In a country so used to bangs and bombs going off (that frequently children take off to the street to watch planes sending missiles and bombs) such an action may be seen as ‘unbecoming’ to say the least!

The other “image killer” was soldiers with hands on triggers with guns pointing at people. Those postures were dictated by the need for readiness; however, they conveyed an image of fear, aggression and disregard, which most people found offensive.

It is probably perfectly normal for an adult American to be seen chewing gum in public. In traditional Iraqi society, the act of chewing a gum is reserved to women, but never in public. Country folk utterly despise city boys when they see them chewing gum. They regard it as feminine. Even little children are discouraged from doing it. The sight of grown, armed men chewing gum must have been one of the causes of many people losing their respect for those armed men! It simply conveys an unintentionally ‘undesirable’ image!

This also reminds me of a young US soldier manning the Iraqi side of the Iraqi-Jordanian border. He glanced at our passports with a lollypop in his mouth. I couldn’t help but notice the reaction on the taxi driver’s face: Utter contempt!

I really cannot blame those American boys for doing some things that are completely natural and normal. There was no way that they could have known that those little normal acts could be misinterpreted by others. But here I am talking about how perfectly normal actions can be seen from across the cultural divide. I cannot address the rights and wrongs of this. People’s cultures are different; we may see some of their attitudes as wrong or detestable, but that view will not change those attitudes, especially if they hold to them in their own environment and in their own country.

Monday, December 12, 2005


Tribal Pact

Before the invasion, tribal resolution of major criminal or violent incidents only followed and complimented normal legal procedure. The tribe of the offending party employed ‘tribal’ relations and procedures to pacify, compensate or appease the injured party.

When this takes place, the heavy hand of the law was usually reduced by foregoing ‘personal rights’ to leave the ‘public rights’ take their course. Also, it was normal to seek the help of local (or sometimes central) police forces to pursue villains.

Over the past two years since the invasion, there has been a great deal of confusion regarding tribal responsibility towards numerous issues of enormous importance. This has taken a special significance in the absence of any real government presence, particularly in rural areas.

It must be pointed out here that the authority of the tribes in most of Iraq before the invasion was more ‘moral’ than physically affirmative.

Under the present circumstances, with the lack of any true muscle of the law, there was a great deal of confusion: cases of armed robbery; politically-induced violence; incidents of sectarian strife; common criminals claiming to be resistance fighters; people killed by ‘mistake’ by the resistance; collaborators killed intentionally by the resistance; terrorist (and other forces of darkness) acting completely outside tribal bounds.


It stared with one tribe. About 20 elders of that tribe met one morning to address these issues. They agreed on a pact defining their tribal responsibility. The pact was agreed and signed in the same morning.

They then made copies and distributed them to neighboring tribes so that others knew where that tribe stood and what they saw as the limits of their responsibility (for their own tribesmen or kin) and in relation to other tribes.

Abbreviated Translation:

Tribal Manifesto

During these difficult times that our beloved Iraq is going through, times characterized by the weakness of the authority of the state and the attack of numerous forces of evil and darkness, Iraqi tribes have an important positive role to play in reducing damage to our society.

The Iraqi tribes have indeed played important parts during the numerous periods of devastation and occupations that Iraq went through between periods of civilization. Those tribes had an important effect on preserving our country’s culture and noble values, despite the frequent charge that tribalism is a contributing factor to backwardness.

This positive role would be more effective if the criteria and the limits of tribal contributions were clear and well-defined.

For these reasons, the following guidelines have been approved and agreed by the signatory tribes:

Basic Criteria: All positions will be based on our traditional values and religious beliefs that are common to all of us.

Religion: Tribes cannot address the question of religious conflicts as the issue of religion much wider than tribal bonds and jurisdiction.

Sectarianism: Most of the tribes in Iraq have members who belong to one of the two major sects in Iraq (Sunni and Shiite). Consequently, tribes cannot be associated with any sect. That would lead to conflicts within the tribe itself… which would be like strife within a single household.

Politics: Political belief is a personal matter. It would be unthinkable for a whole tribe to be Baathist, Communist, Socialist or Capitalist. It is therefore outside the bounds of tribal relations what a person’s political beliefs are as long as actions do not violate criminal or social codes.

Criminal acts: A tribe is responsible for any criminal act or misconduct by any of its members as is the norm in tribal relations. Resolution of acts such as robbery, assault, murder, etc. and their consequences should follow normal procedures tribes have always used. The only way a tribe can absolve itself of any responsibility of the wrongdoings by any of its members is for that tribe to disown that member. Members of that tribe would then be not accountable for that person’s deeds. That means that this tribe will no longer have any right to defend or to avenge that person.

Resistance: The Iraqi nation is larger and more important than any single tribe. National aspirations are wider concerns than tribal ones. People who see themselves as fighters defending their country against invasion or subjugation do not usually consult with their immediate tribes. Iraq becomes their larger tribe. Their immediate tribes cannot therefore be responsible for their actions.


This pact has found favorable response with other tribes and soon there was a meeting of tribal chiefs of the area (county) and the pact was discussed and approved in principle.

It was distributed to others so that they can suggest modifications or additions. Another meeting has been scheduled so that the modified version can be endorsed by them all so that it will be binding to all signatories in future conflicts.

Monday, December 05, 2005


World of Three Letter Words

[This post is dedicated to my good friend Cecile. Although Dutch, she is more of a southern European in disposition… if we follow Fredrick Nietzsche’s categorization! I hope it may be of some use in her frustrating efforts to learn some Arabic.

The train of thought that led to this particular post was initiated by a message I received some time ago from a correspondent who was surprised that there were more than a hundred words in the Arabic language for the word “love”.]

The word Semite generally refers to one of the human races. The prevailing idea is that people of this race are descendants from Sam son of Noah. However, the word, as used by historians and anthropologists, generally refers to a group of languages which have common features. The most prominent of these features is that most words of the language derive from roots.

I am not familiar with other Semitic languages, but in Arabic, the roots are usually three-letter verbs. The immediate question that comes to mind is how could three letters of the alphabet generate a sufficient number of words to cover the very diverse human communication needs? The answer is simple: by cheating!

There are three vowels in Arabic and they come in two types: short ones and long ones. The short ones are not normally explicitly written (although, strictly speaking they should) but are usually inferred. They are therefore not counted! And this is what I mean by cheating!

Those short vowels are not considered letters; they are called ‘movements’. There are three main ones: a short “a”, a short “o” and a short “i”.

As an illustration of the derivation of words from those roots, consider the Arabic verb corresponding to ‘to write’: kataba. All three vowels are short ones in this case and the verb is written: k’t’b’ : ﹶﺏﹷﺘﹷﻜ or, less formally, ktb : ﺏﺘﻜ
Hence it can be regarded as a three-letter word.

The interesting feature is that many words can be derived from these three letters. For example: (I will denote short vowels by one character and long vowels by two.)

Kataba – he wrote
Katabat – she wrote
Katabaa – they (two, male) wrote
Katabataa - they (two, female) wrote
Katabu - they (male) wrote
Katabna – they (female) wrote
and so on for numerous verb variants for past, present and future tenses like…
Yaktubu – he writes
Taktubu – she writes
Yaktubaan – they (two, male) write
Taktubaan – they (two, female) write

Iktub – write (command tense, male)
Iktubee – write (command tense, female)

Other verbs can be derived from the original verb root, for example:
Kattaba – to dictate
Kaataba – to correspond with
… these become roots for the same derivations of verb tenses similar to those mentioned above!

Apart from verbs, numerous other words are derived from those ‘three’ letters (similar to, say, ‘writer’, ‘writings’, etc. in English). Below are some examples to illustrate the concept.

Kitaaba – writing
Kaatib – writer
Kaatiba – writer (female)
Kitaab – book
Kutaib – booklet
Maktoob – letter
Maktab – office
Maktaba – library
Mukaataba – correspondence or contract
Kuttaab – school (old form)
Kitba – fate

This actually leads to a profusion of words that can be derived from almost every verb. The result is a wide variety of words that refer to the same basic thing but with slightly differing shades of meaning.

There are indeed more than a hundred words in the Arabic language for the word “love”. Now I hope you know why. There are also hundreds of words for things like walking, running, smiling, crying, the camel, the horse, the sword, rain, clouds and many other items and feelings. The greatest benefactor has naturally been Poetry. It has to be mentioned though that some of those subtle differences in meaning are being lost, perhaps forever, in these times of utility, speed, junk food and junk words.

I have mentioned before that my own favorite poet is someone called Al Mutanabbi who lived about 1000 years ago. Another great poet, Abul ‘Alaa, was so fond of Mutanabbi that he once wrote something like: “When I read through the collected works of Mutanabbi, I find that I cannot replace a single word of his with a better one”. He then goes on to painstakingly demonstrate his point. This, to me, is perhaps the greatest compliment paid to a Poet by a great critic.

Finally, and while on the subject of language, it may be worth mentioning that because of the ‘flowing’ shapes of Arabic characters they lend themselves naturally to the beautiful art of calligraphy.


Readers who are not confused enough by this post should have a look at the link sent to me by a reader. It is written by an American trying to come to grips with the Arabic language. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it made me chuckle a few times… but I’m sure most non-Arabic readers will have a different opinion!

Monday, November 28, 2005


Abu Khaleel

What's in a Name!

I have already discussed the 'Abu' part of the name in an earlier post.

Khaleel (sometimes written Khalil) is one word in Arabic, meaning 'close friend' – but also alludes to spending time together in companionship. Another form of the word is 'Khil', with almost the same meaning.

The letters “kh” refer to one letter in Arabic. The closest pronunciation is as in the Scottish “loch”.

The word “Khaleel” is commonly associated with Prophet Abraham who is usually referred to as "Ibrahim, Khaleel Allah". Abraham was born in Ur, in ancient Iraq. I would like to think that no other single individual had more influence on religious thought of the world. He is so revered in these parts that he is frequently referred to as "Abul Anbeya" - Father of all Prophets.

On closer examination, the name turns out to be composed of two parts: Khal-eel, or Khal-il. Khal is definitely a corruption of "Khil" or close friend. The second part is derived from the word "el" which is an ancient word for God.

So, in essence, Khaleel means "friend of God"!

Those two letters, el or il are usually associated with Hebrew. However, they seem to have been in existence long before Hebrews or Arabs became know as distinct races. They were used originally not only by the ancient Sumerians of Iraq (who were not Semitic) but also by the Semitic Babylonians. At one stage, Inl-il was the most senior of Gods of Sumer.

In Arabic, A god is called ilah or elah. Even today, the Arabic word for God – Allah is a modified word from al-ilah, the God.

Many other old and current words commonly known across the world whether in the Judeo-Christian or Islamic heritage begin to have clearer meaning. This fact sheds interesting light on a number of other common names.

Babylon – more commonly known locally as Babil or Babel (bab = door) - Gateway to God.
Israel (Jacob son of Issac and Abraham’s grandson) - Slave of God (=Abdullah!)
Arbil (a northern, Kurdish city in Iraq) – (arba’ = four) - City of four Gods.
The list is long.

I would suggest that names such as Gabriel, Michael etc... ending with 'il' or 'el'... have Iraq's signature in them!

If only Michael Ledeen or Ambassador Khalilzad knew!

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