So what does it really mean to be Iraqi? Rest assured this isn’t going to be a philosophical take on identity and assimilation but the reason I ask is because only recently I officially became an Iraqi citizen and yet I feel no different from before. Sure I am happy because travelling to the country is now easier as it negates the need to have a visa and now I have a piece of paper which legally affirms my (preferred) nationality but I do not feel any different about myself or my country.
Outside law, being Iraqi, in my opinion, has nothing to do with citizenship. A few years ago I met Ayatollah Sistani at his home in Najaf and asked him a very simple question, “how are you?” and he replied immediately in a dreary tone, “look at Iraq, that is how I am.” I then asked regardless of the situation in Iraq, how he was feeling and he calmly showed both his palms and said, “I cannot separate between Iraq’s health and my health”
Now if you think about it, that makes him just as patriotic as any Iraqi at a football game screaming his lungs out “jeeb il kaas jeeba” but bear in mind Sistani has, on more than one occasion, rejected Iraqi citizenship despite having lived in the country for over half a century. I am sure many Iraqis will see that as insult to Iraq but Sistani’s political stances, on many occasions, demonstrate a love for Iraq that has made the country become part of his own identity. Conversely, although still an Iranian citizen, he has refused outright to travel to Iran, and many Iranians will find that insulting. When he fell ill in August 2004, he pointedly chose to go to the UK instead of Iran for treatment in a move that was widely interpreted as a snub to the Iranian system of clerical governance.
A phrase Iraqis love using is ‘true Iraqi’ – which as you would imagine is as subjective as ‘Iraq’ itself – and the term is used by almost every group to label themselves or their leaders as opposed to the ‘others’ who are pawns of Saudi Arabia, Iran, America or [add country].
Unfortunately the state has always played an instrumental role in defining what it means to be Iraqi. During the Ba’ath reign being an Arab socialist was part and parcel of being a ‘real’ Iraqi. During the last decade or so of Ba’ath rule the element of Islam was thrown into that toxic mix and post-2003 a different story altogether emerged. Will there ever be a bottom-up definition of ‘Iraqiness’ that will outlive whatever government happens to be in place in Baghdad? More importantly, what does it mean for you to be ‘Iraqi’?
Is it eating Pacha at 7am in the morning? Listening to Nadhim al-Ghazali? Cooking for 10 guests when you know only 5 are coming? Playing mhebis in Ramadhan? Cracking lame jokes that would never be funny in any other language? Having a kirish and/or big nose? Of course it can’t be any of these things because some are not unique to Iraqis and others can simply be learnt.
Surely being Iraqi has nothing to do with the amount of time one has spent in the country. Some people were born outside Iraq and still consider themselves Iraqi because of their heritage, but others spend years in Iraq and then forget about their country as soon as they leave, fully assimilating into their new adopted home.
Is it language? No, because many Iraqis can’t even speak Iraqi Arabic. No one has the right to turn around and say, “I’m sorry you cannot be considered Iraqi unless you can solve this hazoora”
So if being Iraqi is not conditional to citizenship, customs, culture and language, what exactly is it? I am just as confused as I was when I first started writing this post.