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Ali is an economist and political analyst, working at a private UK-based company. He worked previously at the World Health Organisation and has an MSc in Development Studies from SOAS. You can follow him on Twitter (@alialsaffar).

Iraqis in London: between Iraq and a hard place?

One of the legacies of Saddam Hussein is that there is an Iraqi diaspora community in cities across the world; walking in Dearborn, Michigan, you can get authentic Iraqi kabab (with nasal condiments), in Fairfield Sydney I have had excellent tabsi beytinjaan and in Dubai, al-Samad restaurant serves the most delectable Iraqi dishes known to man.

One thing I have noticed, is how the Iraqi communities differ so much. We see a microcosmic example of this in London, where it seems that the spectrum between religious conservatism and secular liberalism is played out geographically, stretching north to south along west-London.

The size, though, of what is largely a conservative community is similar to the pattern we see in Dearborn, but is completely different to the Iraqi community in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which is far less so. Which begs the question: Why? Perhaps the first generation Iraqis that stayed in the Middle East didn’t have the same fear of assimilation (and loss of cultural identity) as those in the west did, which manifested itself in the latter clinging to their stylised identities in quite dramatic fashion.

If this is the case, what now? Do second generation Iraqis assimilate and and become British? Are we a unique blend that calls itself British Iraqi? How do we draw the line between keeping our Iraqi identities and being swamped by our Britishness? I for one, do not think that clinging to an archaic and debilitating conservatism that stifles our participation in society is the way to go. We are fortunate in that modern-day British society doesn’t expect everyone to be  homogeneous, and to some degree or another tolerates differences. How though, do we as second generation Iraqis, ensure that our participation in this society is one that doesn’t dilute our Iraqiness to a degree that we run the risk of losing an integral part of our identity? It is a fine line.

I would love to hear everyone’s take on this, is London’s Iraqi community far more conservative than the rest? If so, why? And is this necessarily a bad thing? Or is it a means of ensuring that our Iraqi identity isn’t lost? Are their better ways of guarding our Iraqiness?

14 Comments on “Iraqis in London: between Iraq and a hard place?”

  1. Mehdi May 13, 2010 at 12:33 pm #

    Speaking only from my own familial experience, when my parents came to the UK I was brought up with the mentality of ‘one day’. One day when Saddam is removed, well go back. One day when the Iraq is free from tyranny i’ll show you where i grew up. One day.

    The refusal to integrate into British Society was partly fearing losing your cultural heritage or religious values, but more importantly its that if you lost that heritage, you lost hope of returning to your homeland.

    With my generation, the choice for us is now real. We can, relatively, book a one way ticket to Baghdad and settle to our ‘homeland’. But as many of us have gone and visited Iraq in the last few years, we find ourselves alien to a culture that we thought we knew, but we dont belong. Its paradox of theoretically and practically; on paper it seems like we should belong (we have the language, the culture, the late night im7abes playing), in reality, were as British as the next person, the only difference is we speak Arabic.

    Now many of us have made the choice to stay here, were embracing British society and integrating into it whether through political, economic or academic participation. How deep we integrate is a question of how much we identify with our new culture; British-Iraqis.

  2. Mohammed Abdullah May 13, 2010 at 2:06 pm #

    I agree with your explanation; I think when immigrants move to unfamiliar cultures, they tend to clump together, and those things which are identifiably common to them – in this case their culture and religion – will be exagerated beyond what it would have otherwise been in their natural environment. The nature of a community is dynamic however, but what determines the tragectory? Communities don’t make concious choices to be conservative or liberal, these are macroscopic outcomes of microscopic (individual-family) values and behaviours. The microscopic actions in turn react to the macroscopic behaviours (eg, reinforced or rejected) and the variation subsequently increased. So is London’s Iraqi community more conservative than the rest? Probably, for the most part, but it is not as conservative as the more conservative sections of Iraq, nor will it remain conservative – it will become (has become) more diverse. Perhaps what will happen is that the more liberal Iraqis will tend to assimilate and inter-marry/cohabit with the local culture, and weaken their affinity to their Iraqi heritage, whilst the conservatives will only marry in, remain clumped together and maintain a strong cultural identity, and by virtue of this, Iraqis will be seen as predominantly conservative.

    One other thing to keep in mind is how we got here – many of us are associated with the 1980’s Islamic opposition to Saddam, so it’s unsurprising that we would be more religious than average. London was the place to go for the educated and well-to-do Iraqis, not the Middle East, nor even the US.
    In contrast, Western Iranians are seen as liberal and irreligious, but again, you have to factor the political events that brought them to the West. Neither group is actually an accurate representation of the home community.

    Labels of “liberal” or “conservative” are too coarse to say which is better – they both exhibit strengths and weaknesses, and it really depends on context. We are all genetically predisposed to certain behaviours and character traits, so much of our views on these things are heavily influenced by our DNA, and what I tend to see is great similarity in close-mindedness on both ends of the spectrum.

  3. Ali Latif May 13, 2010 at 5:55 pm #

    It’s interesting that it took the recent Iraq war to finally bring home the fact to many Iraqis in the UK that they are in fact staying for the long term if not for ever. The disappearance of the dream of return coincided with the disappearance of Saddam’s regime.

  4. Azad May 26, 2010 at 8:25 am #

    There is a simple compromise. Eat kabab, smoke sheesha, and have a pint, old chap!

    Shukran and cheers!

  5. Elisa July 12, 2010 at 8:59 pm #

    Dear Ali and dear all,

    My name is Elisa and I’m a research student at the University of Sussex (department of Geography). I am working on a research on how migrant and refugees perceive London – both as a physical urban space and as a place where geographies of identity are articulated symbolically. I am particularly interested in Middle-Eastern communities and I’d like to sort of “map” the presence of the old and new Iraqi migration in Western London, which explains why a young “Italian in the UK” like me regularly reads this forum!
    I found Ali’s post and all your comments very acute and thought provoking, and I was wondering whether any of you would be interested in getting in contact via email or skype with me and have a chat about London. I am not planning to conduct any formal or recorded interview at the moment, and I am not gonna use what you’ll say in any way in any written account of research. I am just interested in finding out more about British Iraqis (and Iraqis in the UK) and their relation with the city. I am coming to London very often this summer, so we could also arrange a meeting in due course. My email is: E.Pascucci@sussex.ac.uk; skype: pascuccielisa. My supervisors at Sussex, Mike Collyer and Katie Walsh, are also available for references and any questions you may have.

    Thank you so much, also for animating such an interesting forum!


  6. Miryam October 8, 2010 at 11:06 am #

    There is an old Iraqi saying about a woman who divorced her husband to marry her lover. She ended up losing both her husband and “Sayyid Ali”. Or the other saying about the crow that lost his style when he tried to imitate another bird. I do not agree with you about Iraqis being conservatives. All it takes to convince you is attending one of the mixed European-Iraqi parties. See for yourself.

  7. Tara Jaffar August 30, 2013 at 11:58 am #

    Very interesting points, in particular re: conservative communities, through forming tighter circles, end up with the louder representative voice. So who are these custodians of British-Iraqi identity?

    I also wonder of the wide range of British-Iraqi diaspora, which over Iraq’s bloody modern history, have ended up in the UK. Stretch back to the Jewish Iraqi communities from the first pogrom/ Farhud in 1941 and formation of Israel, ‘liberal’ Iraqis with the fall of the monarchy in 1958, conservative Shi’is under Saddam in the 1980’s, and since 2003, many Iraqis (including Christian and those of mixed ‘sushi’ groups), who have little place in today’s religiously and ethnically fuelled Iraq. This is my personal take; perhaps it’s a little simplified?

    The Iraqi Cultural Centre in London is running a series of creative workshops to explore Iraqi identity and belonging in London: ‘stories my mother told me’.
    We would love to hear from anyone possibly interested in attending the sessions, or the final presentation of results in December 2013. Get in touch, email: tjaffar@iraqiculturalcentre.co.uk

    Thank you, Ali, for an insightful impetus to a varied discussion.

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