I married an Iraqi, here’s what I learned

Alex Pak
5 min readJun 7, 2020

For starters, she doesn’t wear a hijab (headscarf) and she’s not religious.

Emojis: Iraqi Flag, Woman wearing a headscarf, Heart

Almost 2 years ago I married an Iraqi girl whom I met when I came to Europe and here are some of the things I learned from this experience.

Arabic numerals we use are different from what Arabs use

Arabic Numerals compared to the numerals we use
Arabic numerals

The 10 digits we use to represent numbers which we call Arabic numerals are actually different from what Arabs themselves use.

The numbers they use are called أرقام هندية (arqam hindiya) which means “Indian numbers” because, you guessed it, these numbers originate from India.

Europeans, however, were introduced to this system by Arabs, mainly from a book On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals by Al-Khwarizmi (whose name was Latinized as Algoritmi, which is where today’s word “algorithm” comes from).

Arabic language

At first, I was quite intimidated by the Arabic language — the sounds were difficult to pronounce, the script seemed impossible to comprehend, and on top of that, I had to learn how to basically read backward.

But as almost anything in life, it got better with time, I started to recognize some words, picking up new vocabulary and even reading (although very slowly and with a lot of mistakes).

What really helped me was spending time with my wife’s family, watching YouTube videos in Arabic, and 5–10 minutes of daily learning on my phone using Duolingo and Drops.

Each country has its dialect

Apparently, Arabic spoken on television or written in books, officially known as MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) and shared between all Arabic-speaking countries is quite different from the local dialects of individual countries.

Generally speaking, the farther your countries are from each other, the less you understand, unless both parties start speaking closer to the MSA. In fact, even neighboring countries often have very distinct differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and even grammar.

To me, it meant that I kind of had to learn 2 languages — the Iraqi Arabic and the Modern Standard Arabic, which was frustrating at the beginning but actually turned out to be quite interesting to see how different countries moved in different directions originally using the exact same language.

Everything is right-to-left

As it turned out because I used to read and speak only in left-to-right languages, my entire brain works from left to right — I write in this direction, I look at things from left to right, I count from left to right.

While reading from right to left and opening books from the “end” didn’t take much time to get used to, dealing with the right-to-left mental model can still be confusing at times because even iPhone’s user interface looks and feels different — If I swipe left, an Arab swipes right, if my “Next >” button is on the right, his “< Next” is on the left, etc.

Passport

A passport

Iraqis have the second-worst passport in the world after Afghanistan. This means they have access to only 28 countries, and traveling with such a passport is problematic. Not only you have to apply for a visa each time you travel to almost any foreign country but some countries wouldn’t even accept a visa application from an Iraqi citizen.

So if you ever want to complain about your passport or getting a visa, don’t — it’s probably not that bad.

Dates

Dates with walnuts
Photo by Ella Olsson on Unsplash

Iraq is a country of dates. It’s located on the territory of the civilization of ancient Mesopotamia, and date palm is believed to be the most ancient cultivated fruit tree.

There are more than 20 million date palms in Iraq, and it is one of the top date producers in the world.

They have tens or maybe even hundreds of different kinds of dates, they differ in taste, shape, sweetness, etc., but all of them are super-delicious and incredibly healthy.

Kleicha
Kleicha. Photo by Claude Cooks

Dates are usually eaten with tea, added to various desserts, turned into syrup or sugar, and in fact, Kleicha (a biscuit with date filling) became one of my favorite kinds of pastry.

Family

Family means a lot to Iraqis, Iraqi families are often large and relationships between family members and relatives are close. Living in one house with your partner’s family is not unusual.

Parents also have a great influence on their offsprings and arranged marriages are quite common, although more and more Iraqis are choosing their own spouses and living more independently.

Iraqi People

Although Arabs make up the majority of the Iraqi population (75–80%), there are many other ethnic groups such as Kurds, Assyrians, Chaldean, Turkoman, and others.

In fact, the second largest ethnic group — Kurds, makes Iraq two countries — the Arab part of Iraq which we all know, and Iraqi Kurdistan which not so many people are aware of, with its own language, government, law, and borders.

Arabs can be very different

There are many Arabic-speaking countries but all of them are quite different from each other.

An Arab from Sudan is likely to be quite different from his Jordanian fellows in a lot of things.

Apart from speaking a unique dialect, people in each country have their own distinctive cultures, cuisines, traditions, world views, religions, and appearance.

We all are similar

Despite coming from different countries, speaking different languages, and having different backgrounds, we all are human-beings and deep inside we are quite similar to each other — we share similar hopes and dreams, have similar problems and fears, and seek answers to the similar questions we ask about our seemingly different lives.

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