A Look at Iraqi Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette
Facts and Statistics
Location: Middle East, bordering the Persian Gulf, between Iran and Kuwait
Climate: mostly desert; mild to cool winters with dry, hot, cloudless summers; northern mountainous regions along Iranian and Turkish borders experience cold winters with occasionally heavy snows that melt in early spring, sometimes causing extensive flooding in central and southern Iraq
Population: 32,585,692 (2014 est.)
Ethnic Make-up: Arab 75%-80%, Kurdish 15%-20%, Turkoman, Assyrian, or other 5%
Religions: Muslim 97%, Christian or other 3%
Government: parliamentary democracy
Language in Iraq
The official language of Iraq is Arabic. Many other languages are spoken by a variety of ethnic groups, most notably Kurdish. “Iraqi Arabic” (also known as Mesopotamian Arabic [Mesopotamian Qeltu Arabic, Mesopotamian Gelet Arabic, Baghdadi Arabic, Furati, ‘Arabi, Arabi, North Syrian Arabic) is a variety of Arabic spoken in the Mesopotamian basin of Iraq south of Baghdad as well as in neighbouring Iran and eastern Syria.
Iraqi Society and Culture
The Iraqi population includes a number of ethnic groups, about 77% of whom are Arabs, 19% Kurds, and the rest a variety of different groups, including Turkomens, Assyrians, and Armenians. There is also a distinct sub-group of Iraqi Arabs, called the Ma’dan or Marsh Arabs, who inhabit miles of marshy area just above the point at which the Tigris and Euphrates join together.
The majority of Iraqis are Muslims regardless of ethnicity. Its position in Iraq went through a transition during Saddam Hussein’s regime as the state moved from a secular one to one needing Islam to prop up their actions. At this stage the words “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is the Greatest) was added to the flag. During Saddam’s regime only Sunnis held real power.
With the overthrow of Saddam’s regime the Shia majority now hold more power and influence than in the past. As well as the power shift people have also been able to express their religious identities a lot more freely.
The Shia and Sunnis are similar in over 95% of ways. The differences are not as acute as one would think. Essentially the split occurred to the political question of who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad as the leader of the community. Major differences between the two occur in jurisprudence (i.e. how to pray, how to marry, inheritance) and minor elements of faith.
Regardless of orientation Islam prescribes a way of life and it governs political, legal, and social behaviour. It organises one’s daily life and provides moral guidance for both society and the individual. The rules of Islam come from the Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (known as “hadith”).
Hospitality is an Arab and Muslim tradition deeply engrained in the culture. Visitors are treated as kings and must always be fed and looked after. A tradition within Islam actually stipulates someone is allowed to stay in your home for 3 days before you can question why they are staying and when they will leave, Invitations to a home must be seen as a great honour and never turned down.
Family and Honour
Iraqis consider family and honour to be of paramount importance. The extended family or tribe is both a political and social force. Families hold their members responsible for their conduct, since any wrongdoing brings shame to the entire family. Loyalty to the family comes before other social relationships, even business.
Nepotism is not viewed negatively; in such a culture is naturally makes more sense to offer jobs to family as they are trusted.
It is common for large extended families to live in the same house, compound, or village. In urban areas, families do not necessarily live in the same house, although they generally live in the same street or suburb at least.
Etiquette and Customs in Iraq
The most common greeting is the handshake coupled with eye contact and a smile. The standard Arabic/Islamic greeting is “asalaamu alaikum” (“peace be with you”), to which the response is “wa alaikum salaam” (“and peace be unto you”). Good friends of the same sex may greet each other with a handshake and a kiss on each cheek, starting with the right.
Expect to be introduced to each person individually at a small social function. At a large function, you may introduce yourself.
Gift Giving Etiquette
- If you are invited to an Iraqi’s home, bring a box of cookies, pastries or a box of chocolates. A fruit basket is also appreciated.
- Flowers are being given more and more but only to a hostess.
- If a man must give a gift to a woman, he should say that it is from his wife, mother, sister, or some other female relation.
- A small gift for the children is always a good touch.
- Gifts are given with two hands.
- Gifts are generally not opened when received.
The culture of hospitality means Iraqis like to invite people to their homes. If you are invited to a home:
- Check to see if you should remove shoes.
- Dress conservatively and smartly.
- Do not discuss business.
- Iraqi table manners are relatively formal.
- If the meal is on the floor, sit cross-legged or kneel on one knee. Never let your feet touch the food mat.
- Use the right hand for eating and drinking.
- It is considered polite to leave some food on your plate when you have finished eating.
Business Etiquette and Protocol
Meeting and Greeting
- Iraqi businesspeople are relatively formal in their business dealings.
- The common Arabic greeting is “asalaamu alaikum” (peace be with you), to which you should respond “wa alaikum salaam” (and peace be with you).
- The most common business greeting is the handshake with direct eye contact.
- Handshakes can be rather prolonged; try not to be the first person to remove your hand.
- Men should wait to see if a woman extends her hand.
- Business cards are given out.
- It’s a nice touch to have one side of your card translated into Arabic.
- The need to save face and protect honour means that showing emotions is seen negatively. Displays of anger are a serious no-no. If you must show disapproval it is always best to do so in a one-to-one, quietly and with tact.
- Always keep your word. Do not make a promise or guarantee unless you can keep it. If you want to show a commitment to something but do not want to make caste iron assurances then employ terms such as “I will do my best,” “We will see,” or the local term “insha-Allah” (God willing).
- Iraqi businesspeople are not afraid of asking blunt and probing questions. These may be about you, your company or its intentions.
- Due to the hierarchical nature of organisations or businesses the leader of an Iraqi team does most of the talking for his company or department. Subordinates are there to corroborate information or to provide technical advice and counsel to the most senior Iraqi.
- It is a good idea to send any information or agendas in Arabic in advance. If you are bringing a team send the names, titles, and a brief business bio of people attending.
- Decisions are generally made by the top of the company but this will be based on recommendations from pertinent stakeholders and technical experts who sit in on meetings.
- Expect interruptions during meetings when phone calls may be taken or people enter the room on other matters. This should not be seen negatively; one should simply remain patient and wait for matters to return to them.
- Iraqis often have several side discussions taking place during a meeting. They may interrupt the speaker if they have something to add. They can be loud and forceful in getting their point of view across.