Bringing Back Babel: Language Barriers in Iraqi Kurdistan
March 13, 2018
A language barrier between Iraqi Kurdistan and much of the rest of the country poses a host of challenges.
To heal Iraq’s divisions, politicians will need to find common ground—if only they could find a common language. While calling for negotiations with Baghdad, the new prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Nechirvan Barzani confessed his spoken Arabic was shaky—and promised to improve it “for the unity of Iraq.” Yet a limited grasp of Arabic represents the norm, not the exception, for the KRG’s younger generations.
Arabic use in Iraq’s Kurdish region never rebounded after the region gained autonomy from Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1991 and reversed Saddam’s repressive “Arabization” policies. Schools now teach Arabic as a second language, but curricula are heavy on grammar and light on communication skills. Many students are more interested in English. While Nechirvan Barzani’s uncle and former KRG president Masoud Barzani used broadcast-quality Arabic to court allies, many younger Kurds struggle to converse.
Momentum for learning Arabic today lies among those motivated by prayer or pop culture. KRG authorities say demand for Qur’anic memorization schools which teach classical Arabic has increased fourfold in recent years. Meanwhile, fans of Arabic music and television—often women—cop the Syrian, Lebanese, or Egyptian accents of favorite stars as well as snatches of Iraqi dialect. Sometimes they wind up with a confused admixture.
The challenges posed by language barriers have been cast into relief by the influx of Arab Iraqis displaced by fighting as well as Syrian refugees. More than a million Arab Iraqis remain displaced in the KRG, where they report language to be a key obstacle to their integration. As Iraq enters a new chapter, Iraqis all over the country have a lot to say. How their voices are heard—and understood—is a critical question.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.