Saturday, February 12, 2005


Dogs in Iraq

Iraqis certainly present an ugly spectacle to the casual observer. Iraqis' attitude to dogs exemplifies this rather well!

Dogs are regarded as filthy animals. Many of the older people would be gravely offended if they touch a dog. They would have a bath and change cloths as soon as they can.

The common string of cuss words is to call someone Kalb (or sometimes Chalib in slang!), ibn il kalb or worse kalb ibn il kalb! [Respectively: dog, son-of-a-dog and dog-son-of-a-dog] to express extreme anger.

Yet, as elsewhere, dogs are regarded as a symbol of loyalty.

Traditionally, the praise of poets was always sought by fame seekers. One notorious unfortunate character was praised by a mean-spirited poet in a famous poem:

You are like a dog in your loyalty to friends…
… and like a billy-goat in ramming hardships.

There was nothing he could do about it! He was made a laughing stock for 12 centuries!

Very few people keep pet dogs. Some people in the city do. Yet, they are rarely allowed into the living quarters. Their pens are usually allocated in the roof or garden.

When Alexander the Great died in Iraq, his vast empire was carved up between his generals. Iraq was the share of one Selucius who initially built his capital south of present Baghdad on the right bank of river Tigris in a place now known as “Tel Omar”. For some reason, a hunting dog is known as a “Selugi” in Iraq.

In the countryside, dogs are only used as guards, to replace “alarm bells” or as “early warning systems”! When someone approaches the farmer’s house, his several dogs start barking. Whoever present would rush out to see who’s coming. The dogs immediately quiet down. If you are unattended to and are met by barking dogs, don’t run away. You are then liable to be attacked. These dogs are not trained to attack people. The best course of action is to bend down and pretend to pick a stone. They always back down!

If you hit a farmer’s dog, you’re in trouble. They don’t take that act lightly. It is considered as an insult and an act of aggression! You may be even in for a fine.

In their own way of passing their wisdom through fables, an ancient story that you may hear frequently in the countryside goes like this: A very old man is told that someone had killed his dog. He instructed his sons to seek and kill the dog’s killer. They did not. Some time later, one of his sons was anonymously killed. When told, he immediately barked: “Didn’t I tell you to kill the dog’s killer? Now go and seek the dog’s killer”. Most people of course know this story. So when someone is grieved by someone else you sometimes hear only the words “dog’s killer” coming from “hawkish” councilors – roughly meaning: “Don’t let it go unpunished”.

During the British occupation of Iraq during and after WWI, some British officers took their pet dogs to meetings! Those dogs would sometimes jump and sit in the lap of their masters or next to them on settees. Tribal chiefs and local dignitaries present, being generally quite particular about status and seating hierarchy, could not have been insulted more! Those well-meaning British boys had no idea what damage they were doing.

One such character that comes to my mind is called Bertram Thomas who served as a political officer in a few towns in the south of Iraq in the 1920’s. Thomas had actually written his memoirs about that period. Reading them, you would see a sensible and a well-behaved person. Reading about him from Iraqi literature written about that period, he is usually described as monster. Many writers do not fail to mention his contempt to local dignitaries displayed by seating his dog with them or patting it before shaking hands with them.

Dogs are not given human names. They are referred to by their distinguishing traits: red, loud-mouth, naughty, thief, impatient, etc. Sometimes names are coined up for them. When they are given human names, it is usually done in mockery.

Tribesmen, being particular about their bloodline, find it hilariously unbelievable that dogs in some countries in the west are given the owner’s family name in their license and documents. It never fails to amuse them!

And yet, no family would go to sleep before making sure that their dogs have been fed. It is also noticeable how the little ones in the family take tender care of them, particularly the poppies. They are frequently scolded when caught playing with them, but more in mock than in earnest.

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