An Iraqi Inshallah

by Ziad Halub

Original illustration by Knar Hovakimyan, 2019.

Original illustration by Knar Hovakimyan, 2019.

I went to Kuwait to get away for a few days. I had heard that it was happier there, that the streets were paved, and that I could catch a cab without the risk of being kidnapped. I walked across the dusty land border and waited patiently for two hours to get a visa—all because I had heard it was happier there. I knew when I had arrived; the dirt tracks were transformed by asphalt and pavements began to appear. I got a cab without having to worry that my accent gave away my foreignness, unlike Basra where they knew I wasn’t a native as soon as my mouth opened. I had arrived at Kuwait City unharmed. 

But the people were no happier than those on the dusty roadsides of Basra. My Kuwaiti friends battled the same personal problems, albeit in a more developed environment. The fantasy I was sold on the rooftop of my aunt’s house was a fallacy born out of the contrast between the chaos of Iraq and the ordered way-of-being that Kuwait exhibited with pride. I slept that night thankful knowing that utopia was not simply a two-hour drive away. 

The idea of happiness moves us. It comes in different forms: stability, wealth, luxury, peace, excess, simplicity. It’s an arbitrary experience reinforced by our personal lives and the understanding we have of our pasts. But happiness was not a place I could visit, and not one just out of reach for my family.

The next day, it had come as a surprise when I asked my Kuwaiti friend for dinner and he replied with a causal Inshallah. Infuriated by his response, I swore at him in disbelief. Growing up, we had known inshallah to mean no, a polite (but almost divinely) definitive rejection. Inshallah was dismissive in my household, and to the many Iraqis I know. Translated as “God willing,” it reads as “hopefully” or “we’ll see”—it’s a phrase that lacks the certainty of action. Certainty, or sureness came in the form of akeed; inshallah was used to blow people off, but akeed meant “for sure.” On the phone, my friend laughed at my reaction and explained that he had every intention of keeping to the plans that we had arranged. To him, inshallah and akeed could be used interchangeably. To me, the words were antonymous to one another.

Back in Basra, my cousin and I spoke about inshallah and the associations we attach to it. She had said it with the same melancholy I had come to expect tethered to its syllables, the eyes that always trail off before the word escapes our breaths, the sigh of exhaustion, the pained smile, the flippant nod. I asked her how strange it was that in Kuwait inshallah carried all the freedoms of certainty, whereas here it weighed its burden onto our tongues. Her response was reasoned and balanced by the romanticism and reality that most Iraqis are conflicted by: “When things that should be akeed stop becoming akeed, then our lives are left at the mercy of god’s God’s will.” 

Certainty is a privilege in Iraq. It has been like this for as long as I remember. Families would fall asleep without knowing if they were going to wake up in the morning. My cousins would leave the house without the assurance, or even expectation, of returning home. Schools would cease to exist overnight. When something as akeed as going to work or school stops becoming a mundane certainty, then what prospects could we possibly have when controlling our daily lives? 

There is an admission of defeat to a divine entity when we say inshallah; it’s in equal measures both hopeful but pleading—and serves as a reminder of the ambiguity Iraqis exist within. The Iraqi is stripped of agency. The certainty of routine or even plan-making that is often overlooked elsewhere in the world, is handed over to the heavens. Human hands no longer able to wield the power to create, a divine intervention is evoked in a ritual of pessimism. We then leave creation (of plans, of routine) in the hands of God. If it happens or not is whether god wills it. The inshallah of a Kuwaiti was the opposite, a personal choice, an affirmation of personal freedom and certainty that is charged by a celestial approval. There was a confidence I had not recognized in my friend’s inshallah—it didn’t weigh heavy on his heart like ours did. 

Freedoms are carried with us, worn as insignias by the way in which we can express ourselves. Iraqis were used to hardship, and rejection, and the struggle of melancholic hopes imparted onto our children. We silently appeal to a higher power every time inshallah is said. It is a phrase that becomes a vehicle of our ancestry—rooted in the acceptance of pain and loss. We have become trapped by our words. 

Ziad Halub: Twenty-something, British-Iraqi, product of exile. Archaeologist, photographer, writer and storyteller. Hates writing about himself.