Saturday, December 11, 2004


The "Abu" Business

Rose recently published an interesting post explaining the meaning of the words Abu and Um as used in names in Iraq. I thought that perhaps an extension of the outline may be useful.

Regarding the ready-tags for names, it may be interesting to note the historic and religious spread they cover. In origin, they are not restricted to father-son relationships as may be seen from the following examples:

Ibrahim (Abraham) – Abu Khaleel – title (more on this in a future post, I hope))
Mousa (Moses) – Abu Haroon (Aaron) – brother
Yousef (Josef) – Abu Ya'goob (Jacob) - father
Isa (Jesus) – Abu Mariam (Mary) – mother
Qais – Abu Leila – beloved (Qais was a notorious poet, Leila was his Juliet)
Mohammed – Abu Jassim – son
Faisal – Abu Ghazi – son (Faisal was King of Iraq, 1921-1936)

As you can see, these name relations span a period of over 4000 years and cover all major religions and other facets of history. These were just a few examples for illustration. The list is long!

It is quite customary to use these name-tags as nick-names for young people too. Some people get so used to it that they give their son or daughter the same name, just to keep their nick-name!

In addition to Rose's description that "Abu" means "father of" and "Um" means "mother of", the words Abu and Um sometimes mean "the one with" or "owner of".

For some reason unknown to me, every soldier is called Abu Khaleel (and no, I am not a soldier and have nothing to do with any army!). Every policeman is called Abu Ismael (Ishmael).

In the early 1970's a serial killer who terrorized Baghdad was referred to in police reports as wielding a metallic tool. Baghdadis quickly nicknamed him "Abu Tubar": the one with the hatchet.

A man with unusually thick, "prominent" mustaches may be called "Abu" mustaches.

A Baghdadi family of cheese-merchants were given, and still retain, the name "Abul Jibin" (Jibin = cheese"; Abul is an abbreviation of Abu al ... al=the).

Job association: We say Abul-water (water-meter reader), Abul-electricity (electrician or electric meter reader), Abul-buawri (plumber), etc.

The English are usually referred to as "Abu Naji" by Iraqis. Naji al Karradi was a Baghdadi land-owner who was on very good terms with the British when they "liberated" Iraq. He was particularly friendly with the outstanding Miss Gertrude Bell, the influential Eastern Secretary at the British Embassy. He also benefited from these good relations and did well, materially and politically. He was later elected to the parliament.

This naturally brings up the question of what the Americans will be called by Iraqis in the future. Perhaps "Abu Allawi"?

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