Ulric Shannon

Ulric Shannon, Ambassador of Canada (السفير الكندي) to Iraq, belongs to a new generation of diplomats who are far away from the old school behavior of arrogant and ignorant ambassadors (who above all know how to tie a tie).

So, what’s this new generation of diplomats about? They know how and when to listen and show great and true interest in the culture of their host country. They are sharp minds who don’t shy the pain of learning a new language, and, in Ulric’s case, even passionately fall in love with that language, i.e, Arabic. Ulric has been learning Arabic for almost twenty years in several countries and spares no opportunity to tweet and give interviews in Arabic.

UIric and his wife Robin Wettlaufer are two role models of this new generation of diplomats. Robin was Canada’s head of political affairs for Syria in Istanbul and achieved many diplomatic breakthroughs in a tough and difficult environment. Currently, she is the Canadian representative to the Palestinian Authority. Besides, she is also an Arabic nerd. Like Ulric, she doesn’t mind at all giving live interviews in Arabic. And like Ulric, she also studied Arabic at Middlebury College. [But they didn’t meet there ;-)]

Robin & Ulric are, as far as I know, the only couple in the Western diplomatic sphere which is fluent in Arabic.

I am very grateful that Ulric shares his experiences with Iraqi Arabic in this interview and tells us more about the differences to other dialects and to Modern Standard Arabic.

Ulric Shannon’s Arabic journey

Question: Since when do you study Iraqi Arabic? Do you take courses at a center, do you have a private teacher or do you study on your own?

I’ve only had the chance to study Iraqi dialect since the fall of 2019, after I concluded my assignment as Consul General in Istanbul. I was able to do self-study using some audio-visual materials and textbooks produced by the language training institute of the Canadian Foreign Ministry, including some materials prepared by an Iraqi-Canadian teacher at our institute who was the very first instructor to teach me Fusha back in 2002.

Then, after leaving Istanbul, I accompanied my wife to Jerusalem (she had just been appointed as our Representative to the Palestinian Authority) for one month before my own assignment to Baghdad was confirmed in November. I was able to find a language school in Ramallah that could teach me Iraqi dialect. This is the Sebil Center in downtown Ramallah, which is a very small school but with two excellent teachers, Lina and Mahmoud.

Ulric with his teacher Lina at the Sebil Center.
picture credit: Sebil

Both are Palestinian, but they had a good grasp of Iraqi dialect and they invested a lot of effort in producing unique materials for each lesson, and we relied a lot on audio-visual materials from Iraq. Obviously it would be preferable to be taught dialect by a native Iraqi but my teachers worked very hard to compensate for this, and I am very grateful to them. I spent a total of about four weeks in intensive (5 hours per day) lessons at Sebil.

When I arrived in Baghdad, I was able to find an Iraqi teacher with a permit to access the international zone (this is an unfortunate constraint on movement) and to start holding weekly lessons, but unfortunately this was disrupted by COVID, which has placed Baghdad and our embassy under pretty strict lockdown.

Iraq – some facts

Population: 39 million (est.)
Religion: Shia 64-69%, Sunni 29-34%, Christian 1%

Iraq has the most famous ancient rivers – the Tigris and the Euphrates. I guess you’ve heard about Mesopotamia. Furthermore, Iraq is the birthplace of Arabic grammar (Basra and Kufa).

Fun fact: Some claim that the common superstition of being afraid of black cats originally began here.

Flag of Iraq

Question: Which Arabic dialects did you know before?

I know Egyptian pretty well from having lived in Cairo for two years early in my career, and Palestinian dialect from two years posted to Ramallah as well in the mid-2000s.

I also know Syrian/Lebanese from having spent time in Beirut (including a couple of months studying Lebanese dialect at the Saifi Institute in Beirut, which unfortunately was destroyed in the recent explosion at the port of Beirut) as well as from working with a team of Syrians in the private sector in Istanbul for a couple of years.

I also studied Gulf dialect a little bit for an assignment that ended up not happening, a few years ago. It’s mainly the North African dialects that I’m not familiar with.

Iraqi Arabic in real life

Question: Can you manage with Modern Standard Arabic in the streets in Iraq?

Unfortunately I have little exposure to the “streets” of Baghdad!

Our security requirements are such that we don’t move around very easily and have little exposure to everyday Iraqis. This has been the case ever since I arrived in Baghdad in November 2019, because of the deteriorating security situation, and has been exacerbated by COVID and the curfews and lockdowns that resulted from that.

In terms of Iraqi officials and other educated people, I find that people here pride themselves on their Modern Standard Arabic and make an effort to speak it in official meetings.

Religious figures, especially, speak a beautiful Fusha and it’s always a pleasure to talk to them! I feel I have gotten much more benefit from my proficiency in Modern Standard Arabic in Baghdad than in Cairo, Beirut, or even Ramallah.

History of Iraq – important dates

Where it all began…

The region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, historically known as Mesopotamia, is often referred to as the cradle of civilization. It was here that mankind first began to read, write, create laws and live in cities under an organized government—notably Uruk, from which “Iraq” is derived.

Islam and the founding of Baghdad

The Arab conquest in the mid-7th century AD established Islam in Iraq. Under the Rashidun Caliphate, the prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, moved his capital to Kufa when he became the fourth caliph.

The Abbasid Caliphate built the city of Baghdad along the Tigris in the 8th century as its capital, and the city became the leading metropolis of the Arab and Muslim world for five centuries. Baghdad was the largest multicultural city of the Middle Ages, peaking at a population of more than a million, and was the center of learning during the Islamic Golden Age.

The Mongols destroyed the city and burned its library during the siege of Baghdad in the 13th century.

Ottoman times and later

Formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, Iraq was occupied by the United Kingdom during World War I and was declared a League of Nations mandate under UK administration in 1920.

Iraq attained its independence as a kingdom in 1932.

It was proclaimed a “republic” in 1958 after a coup overthrew the monarchy. This revolt was strongly anti-imperial and anti-monarchical and had strong socialist elements.

Saddam Hussein

In 1968, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr became the first President of Iraq (from the Baath party). Later, the movement came under the control of Saddam Hussein (1979 – 2003).

Territorial disputes with Iran led to a brutal war (1980-88).

In August 1990, Iraq under Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait – US-led coalition goes to war.

Following 9/11, George W. Bush (the son) invades Iraq to overthrow Saddam’s government.

Question: In general, what is the status of dialect among the Iraqi population?

There is a very strong and distinct family of Iraqi dialects both in terms of daily spoken conversation as well as in written form.

On social media, for example, it is quite hard to decipher messages between Iraqis without a good degree of understanding of the dialect. As with elsewhere in the Arab world, there is a generational element at play, as younger people tend to rely on dialect almost exclusively as they don’t typically have a good command of Fusha, whereas older Iraqis still do.

Iraqi Arabic and Fusha


Question: Are there different Iraqi Arabic dialects?

Yes, so I’m told. There is a southern Iraqi dialect which is distinct from Baghdadi, and other cities such as Mosul have their own local expressions and accents.

Funnily enough, I have been told by quite a few people that I speak like a Maslawi (or Mosuli). That’s because my native language is French, and so I tend to roll my Rs quite hard, such that in Arabic my ر sounds a bit like a غ. Apparently this is typical of Maslawis.

Question: Would you say that Iraqi Arabic is as far from Fusha as Moroccan Arabic is? Why?

I’m not an expert in Moroccan Arabic but my sense is that Iraqi Arabic is closer to Fusha. At the level of the most commonly used verbs, for example, I feel that Iraqi usage is closer to Modern Standard Arabic than most other dialects. He wants is yreed, not biddo (Palestinian) or 3ayiz (Egyptian).

Thanks a lot is شكراً جزيلااً not merci kteer or mitshakkir ‘awi! Others may disagree but I think it may be the closest dialect to Fusha.

Studying Iraqi Arabic – grammar and structure

Question: Which books do you use for Iraqi Arabic?

I think the leading textbook is Modern Iraqi Arabic by Yasin Alkalesi. It’s very good. There is also A Short Reference Grammar of Iraqi Arabic, by Wallace Erwin, which was originally published in 1963. It’s quite old-fashioned including the use of transliteration instead of Arabic script so I’ve not used it much.

Someone has also posted the US Defense Languages Institute Iraqi Arabic course materials, including audio-visual, at the following link. It dates from 1983, though.

Question: Are there dictionaries for Iraqi Arabic (print and online)?

The only one I’m vaguely aware of is The Georgetown Dictionary of Iraqi Arabic. As I understand it, it also used transliteration, but a new edition using Arabic script was published in 2013. It’s only 240 pages though, for a bilingual dictionary, so I’m skeptical of how thorough it is. I’ve not acquired a copy.

There’s a limited Iraqi Arabic online dictionary at: https://en.mo3jam.com/dialect/Iraqi/all/%D8%A5

Question: What was the most difficult thing at the beginning? (pronunciation, grammar, vocab, etc.) Can you give an example?

Certainly if you’re using audio-visual materials, what I found challenging at the beginning (and still do) is that Iraqis tend to speak very fast, and so disaggregating conversational dialect into its parts is very difficult.

Each piece may be comprehensible when analyzed separately but not at normal conversational pace. So ironically, written Iraqi dialect, at least for me, is easier to decipher than the spoken.

Question: How does Iraqi Arabic sound to you? (compared to Lebanese Arabic which is relatively soft in pronunciation)

It sounds similar to Gulf Arabic, which is to say very guttural and rough.

Question: Regarding the vocabulary: Are there many foreign words? Kurdish or Persian influence? Can you give an example?

There are a great many loanwords in Iraqi dialect. The ones I notice the most frequently are Turkish, probably because I speak Turkish (unlike Persian and Kurdish).

One word I came across while reading Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi is أدبسز, which I racked my brain to try and figure out, until I realized that it was simply the Turkish ‘adabsız’ (or in more modern Turkish, ‘edepsiz’), meaning shameless or rude. (That is to say, قليل الأدب.)

Question: How are the letters Jim (ج) and the Qaf (ق) pronounced in Iraqi Arabic?

I find that the Iraqi jeem is often closer to a djeem. The bigger variations are with the kaf, which is often pronounced “ch”.

So the verb kaana is pronounced chaan. It isn’t consistent. Both kabiir and chibiir are heard. This also affects the feminine pronoun: sh’ismak (what is your name?) for men, but sh’ismich for women. As for the Qaf, it varies between the standard MSA pronunciation and a hard G, which is usually written as a Persian gaf گ.

Question: What are the prefixes for the verb in the present tense and future (like the b and h in Egyptian Arabic or the k in Moroccan Arabic)?

The prefixes in the present tense are the same as MSA, it’s just the voweling that varies (huwwa yiktib, hiyya tiktib). Future prefix is ح or ر.

Ulric gives some examples.

Iraqi Arabic – some phrases

How are you?Shlonak (to M.) and shlonich (to F.)
It is derived from أيش لونك – literally, “What is your color?”
I would like more bread, please.بعد خبز بلا زحمة
I have already done that.سويت هاي اولريدي
Why is he not here yet?ليش ما أجى لهسة
I won’t do it anyway.شون مجان ما أسويها
How much is it?إبّيش هاي؟

Iraqi Arabic – how to learn it

Question: What is your favorite Iraqi Arabic word?

I don’t know that I have one yet. One that I like is fad فد, which is a quirky little word (I think originally from fard فرد) that means either very or a/one/a bit of.

Let’s go get a drink (let’s drink something)يلله نشرب فد شي
That guy is something else!هذا الرجال فد شي
once.فد مرة

Question: Can you learn Iraq Arabic by watching TV? What is your favorite Iraqi TV series or movie?

I haven’t really developed a taste for Iraqi TV or movies.

One of the most popular shows, though, and one where you can really get a sense of the dialect, is the Albasheer show (https://www.youtube.com/user/albasheershow).

Ahmed al Basheer is an Iraqi living in exile in the US. He is sometimes referred to as the Jon Stewart of Iraq. I would compare him more to the Lebanese commentator and satirist Nadim Koteich, and his politics are very similar.

Question: Are there novels written solely in Iraqi Arabic?

I don’t think there are novels written solely in any dialect since it’s pretty much standard now in contemporary Arabic literature for the narration (sard) to be in MSA and for only the dialogue to be in dialect.

A recent novel from which I read a number of excerpts during my courses at the Sebil Center in Ramallah was ساعة بغداد (The Baghdad Clock) by Shahad al Rawi, which is quite challenging without some knowledge of Iraqi dialect.

Another novel I’ve read since my arrival in Baghdad was الرجع البعيد (The Long Way Back) by Fuad al Takarly, which is number 13 on the Arab Writers Union’s 2001 list of the top 100 Arabic novels. What’s interesting is that this novel was originally published in 1980 but didn’t gain much attention originally because the Iraqi dialect used in the dialogue was so dense. The novel was re-published later in the 1980s by a Lebanese publishing house, on the condition that Takarly re-edit the dialogue to make the Iraqi dialect more comprehensible to non-Iraqi Arab readers, which he did. This is the version I read, though I still found the dialogue very challenging.

Question: Can you recommend Arabic language schools in Iraq where you can learn the dialect or Fusha?

Not offhand. Because of the security situation I would not encourage non-Iraqis, especially westerners, to come to Iraq at the moment, so I have not looked into the options.

Ulric Shannon, thank you so much for your time.

picture credit: pixabay (nawrasruhaima; jorono; David Mark;Mariusz Matuszewski; Abdulmomn Kadhim; wikipedia)

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