Notes on a Journey through Lārestān, Iran

Written by Afsheen Sharifzadeh, a graduate of Tufts University focusing on Iran and the Caucasus. This narrative stems from a brief trip to Larestan, Iran during the Persian New Year (late March-early April) of 2014. 

The author at Borj-e Nane-ye Nader Shah in Lar, Iran 2014. 

My roots in Larestan
My father is from Lārestān, a non-Persian-speaking, hybrid Sunni-Shi’a pocket tucked away in the southeastern-most portion of Fārs province (ancient Persis) in Iran, just inland from the Persian Gulf. There in the embraces of rolling foothills dotted with chamomile shrubs and tamarisk trees he passed his childhood and adolescence, before moving to Shiraz to attend what was then the royal Pahlavi University; the premier university of early modern Iran. Today, Lar proper is a bustling regional center of over 50,000 souls, replete with luxury apartments, its own international airport, a multi-purpose sports stadium, foreign language schools and gated orchard communities. But his memories of Lar—which happens to be located atop the seismic fault lines of two tectonic plates—are as bitter as they are sweet. On April 24, 1960, a devastating earthquake struck Lar, reducing a large portion of the historic mudbrick and timber town to rubble and claiming the lives of about 3,500 of its inhabitants (about a fourth of its population at the time). Following this tragedy, Lar’s inhabitants set out to construct a new settlement under government funding slighty north of the ruins, which they called Lār-e Jadīd or “New Lar”, while Lār-e Ghadīm “Old Lar” remained in a state of ruin but was gradually rebuilt and resettled by migrant workers from surrounding villages over the decades. At the time of writing, per my personal observation the two settlements are contiguous with each other.

Ruins at Lār-e Ghadīm, or “Old Lar” (2014). An earthquake in 1960 reduced the historic town to rubble. 

My father’s immediate family was dispersed for days following the 1960 earthquake, and it took countless hours of pursuit to retrieve all 14 of his siblings. For a time following 1960, informants report that Lar was reduced to a pile of rocks inhabited by a dwindling population living in abject misery. Some informants report having eaten locusts in the summertime. The tragedy left an imprint on his childhood and spawned within him a yearning for migration and higher education, first on the well-trodden path to Shiraz and finally to the United States. This article is a compilation of my observations from a brief journey through Lar, focusing on peculiarities in the culture and history of the region and Lari, a modern iteration of “Middle Persian” (inasmuch as it refers to the southern Middle Iranian vernaculars in Fārs province prior to the spread of Muslim New Persian from Khorāsān) and the language of my father’s boyhood.

Larestan (marked in red) consists of a series of settlements, the largest of which is Lar. 

Lar: Jewish origins
Lar was probably originally a Jewish settlement, and one thing we know for certain is that it boasted a prosperous Jewish community as early as the 16th century. The French traveler Jean-Baptiste Thévenot reports that most of the inhabitants of Lar were Jewish silk farmers when he visited Larestan in 1687, and a Spaniard who visited the town earlier in 1607 met there a “messenger from Zion” named Judah. But as with other Persian Jewish communities (save the Georgian Jewish deportees employed as silk worm farmers in Māzanderān), the Jews of Lar suffered at the hands of the Safavid rulers during the 17th and early 18th centuries; indeed the pogroms and mass conversions are described by the Judeo-Persian chronicler Bābāi ibn Luṭf. According to him, the persecutions throughout Persia during the reign of Shāh Abbās I began some time before 1613 and originated in the city of Lar, whose rabbi had converted to Islam and taken the name Abul-Hasan Lāri. This renegade Lari rabbi obtained a royal edict whereby every Jew in Persia was required to wear a discriminatory badge and headgear. This in turn culminated in the abrupt expulsion of hundreds of Jews from the capital city, Isfahan, on account of their conspicuously newfound “impurity”.

Lar was nonetheless historically a center of Judeo-Persian literary activity, and among the notable scribes and translators was Judah of Lar in early 16th century. A Florentine traveler, Giambattista Vecchietti (1552–1619), even collected ancient Judeo-Persian manuscripts from Lar and brought them back to Europe. We know that there existed a Jewish community in Lar through the beginning of the 20th century, and according to BM (1907, p. 51) there were 70 Jews living there in 1907. They were soon thereafter expelled from the city and walked all the way to the northern city of Jahrom, eventually settling in Shiraz and thence Palestine. Regrettaby, there remain no traces of their synagogues or other socio-cultural spaces within Lar proper.

Persian Jews in Shiraz, early 20th century

The historic vernacular among the Jews of Lar, often termed “Judeo-Shirazi” (endonyms: Jūdī, Chodī), is a member of the Larestani branch of Iranian languages and was written using the Hebrew alphabet. A sister to modern Lari, it also served as the medium of their literary productions and perhaps safeguarded the local idiom vis-à-vis New Persian for many centuries after Islamization of Fārs. Moreover, unlike “New Persian”– which despite its name ultimately developed from the royal Parsig-Dari language of the Sassanian court at Seleucia-Ctesiphon, but itself had its roots further north and east in Greater Khorāsān where a simplified version of Dari with Parthoid elements had taken hold–Larestani appears to be an exponent of the various unattested “Middle Persian” dialects that were once spoken by the Zoroastrian and Jewish inhabitants of Fars province prior to Islamization and the subsequent spread of New Persian within Shiraz and surrounding areas. Perhaps modern Laris were originally a semi-nomadic Sunni pastoralist group whose ancestors had had extended contact with inhabitants of the Lur- and Kurdish-dominated highlands to the northwest of Fārs and gradually displaced the Jews over the course of a few centuries (see discussion below). It is conceivable based upon historic reports that many local Jews converted to Islam following a hypothetical trajectory of Muslim transhumance into the region.

Despite the absence of any material or linguistic evidence of a Jewish past within Lar proper, the non-Muslim heritage of Larestan remains at least nominally operative in the ethnic consciousness of modern Larestanis. One Lari informant mistakenly identified the region’s original inhabitants as Armenians (Christians)—indicating that a general awareness of Lar’s non-Muslim past remains ingrained in the social memory of the people, regardless of academic familiarity with the subject.

Ruins at Lār-e Ghadim, or “Old Lar.”

Arabic Bilingualism in Larestan

Because of its location on the caravan route connecting southern Iran to the Persian Gulf ports, Larestan has traditionally held an opportune position in trade with Arabic-speaking territories across the Persian Gulf. But throughout the medieval period Larestan was nearly always an obscure region, seldom becoming involved in the politics and conflicts of mainstream Persia. Most of the settlements within Larestan including Khür, Khonj, Gerāsh, Fishvar, Evaz, and Bastak are Sunni Muslim (اهل تسنن ahl-e tasannon), except for the city of Lar itself, which like the rest of Iran is majority Shi’a (اهل تشيع ahl-e tashayyo’). The Sunni inhabitants of Larestan maintain particularly close cultural and economic ties with their coreligionists across the Persian Gulf, and can be seen sporting conspicuously Qatari- and Emirati-style hijabs and garments in the central bazar of Lar proper. One entrepreneurial family has even opened a shawarma restaurant in Khür (c. 2014) that has recently blossomed into a gathering place for eager patrons hailing from far and wide in the region. As such, Gulf Arab fashions and tastes are flourishing in Lar, and there is a high degree of Arabic language proficiency.

The interior of an Emamzadeh in Lar, Iran (2014). Mirrorwork is a common feature of Iranian Islamic architecture. 

Within my own extended family, Arabic proficiency is pervasive. Two uncles worked their careers in Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, and in particular are familiar with Iraqi and Gulf folk songs, including Meyhāna (ميحانة) and Bayn el-’asr wel Maghreb (بين العصر و المغرب). The performance of these songs together with my uncles, often accompanied by a tombak, served as a common form of entertainment at family gatherings.

Lari families have historically transplanted to Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE– where they are known collectively in Arabic as ‘ajāyem (عجايم; sing. ‘ajami عجمي). Laris have inhabited these countries for generations, usually maintaining their language and cuisine. Dubai’s oldest quarter, known as Al Bastakiya (البستكية), is namesake to the enterprising textile and pearl traders from Bastak, Larestan who settled and developed the area. My own family has relatives in Bahrain as well as a large branch situated in Qatar, descended from an aunt who married a Lari-Qatari sheikh and bore him eight children about half a century ago.

Al-Bastakiya is Dubai’s most historic quarter. Established at the end of the 19th century by affluent textile and pearl traders from Bastak, Larestan, its labyrinthine adobe lanes are lined with restored merchant’s houses, art galleries, cafés, and boutique hotels. Pictured here are two prominent bādgirs (بادگير), or “windcatchers”– a quintessentially Iranian architectural form encountered in Lari colonies throughout the Persian Gulf region.

Men from Lar have a long history as merchants engaged in Indian Ocean maritime trade and in local overland trading between the Persian Gulf and inland Iran. Laris assumed a new role in the trade of the Persian Gulf region with the beginning of oil production in Kuwait and other small states after World War II. At that time, Lari men like my uncles began migrating to Kuwait to open small shops that catered to the huge influx of migrants working in the oil industry and in construction. Typically, Lari men left their families and worked in Kuwait for periods of 18 months to several years before returning home for six month visits.

The Friday Mosque, Lar, Iran (2014)

In contrast to the educated migrants from Egypt and Palestine who staffed the Kuwaiti bureaucracy, and the uneducated migrants from Arab countries, Pakistan and Asia who worked as unskilled laborers, almost all Laris were engaged in retail trade. Typically a man would start out in business with a small shop in partnership with another man, often a relative. The stores ranged from green groceries to import shops. Remittances also raised the standard of living for most Lar families allowing them to buy a variety of consumer goods. In fact, the smuggling of such articles as Japanese TV sets, wrist watches and tape recorders was a lucrative side business for many migrants. Following the betterment of the economic situation in Iran in the 80’s, the tradition of Lari labor export to Kuwait declined significantly and finally ended. Today, Laris look closer across the Gulf–to the Emirates and Qatar, for exporting labor and investments.

Larestani Cuisine

Larestani people’s diet consists of a mixture of traditional Persian foods, as well as local dishes and those from surrounding coastal regions on the Persian Gulf. A few representative local dishes are described below:

-Kabāb Kenje-ye Lāri: a traditional dish consisting of young lamb marinated in strained yogurt, onion, black pepper and salt for several days, skewered and barbecued over an open flame.

-Polo malakh: Small shrimp (malakh) cooked with mung beans, saffron, salt, and black pepper served with pomegranate molasses sauce as a condiment.

-Breads: A variety of breads are made from unsifted wheat flour, including ninanü, botonür, bālatova, jarādak, which are cooked quickly on a griddle. These breads are seasoned with ma’va– the local favorite seasoning consisting of ground mustard seeds, dried ground māhi-e motü (a local anchovy variety imported from the Persian Gulf coast), and salt which is fermented together under direct sunlight over 3-4 months. This base is often accompanied by bābüna (chamomile) and konjed (sesame seeds). Other traditional breads include taftu (the dough consists of unsifted wheat flour, sunflower oil, whole milk, baking soda, salt; topped with sesame and golrang, a local herbal food coloring resembling saffron, and baked in a ceramic tannur oven), taptapigapok and non-e nāzok.

-Tokhm o dol and tokhm o kher: eggs seasoned with turmeric, salt, black pepper and tossed with a variety of local mushrooms gathered from surrounding mountains (two varieties: dol and kher)

-Khoresht-e khoraü: a local leafy green (khoraü) stewed with lamb, potato, and onion and seasoned with turmeric, salt and pepper served with rice.

Kabāb Kenje-ye Lāri served with traditional taptapü bread and fresh Persian basil. Photo taken at the author’s family orchard outside of Lar, 2014. 

Comparison with Sorani Kurdish and Persian

Larestani is an Indo-European language belonging to the southwestern subgroup of the Iranian branch, and is spoken by about ~150,000 people in Iran and abroad. Like Persian, Larestani is Indo-European in its core vocabulary, however it also features an albeit small number of loans from non-Indo-European languages in its general vocabulary, particularly Classical Arabic (via Persian) and Gulf Arabic (via bilingualism). Other languages in the southwestern subgroup of the Iranian branch include Modern Persian and all of its ancestors and sisters, Luri, Kuhmareyi, and the Kumzari language of northern Oman. As discussed above, the Larestani languages are direct descendants of unattested Middle Persian vernaculars that survived the spread of Muslim “New Persian” from the Khorāsān and Central Asia. All of the Larestani languages and dialects together form a single speech community, despite considerable lexical and morphological variation. For example, whereas Khüri has ē“here”, in Lar proper the same word is heard as enke, but these variations are within the bounds of mutual intelligibility to native speakers. Kurdish languages belong to the Northwestern subgroup of Iranian, but there are a number of analogous lexical and morphological paradigms in Kurdish and Larestani that are worthy of noting. I attribute these similarities to areal features, whence the ancestral Proto-Larestani and Proto-Kuhmareyi languages must have been in contact with ancestral Kurdish languages at some point in their development following the Old Iranian stage (Kuhmareyi even features a definite marker –aku, reminiscent of Kurdish -aka):

English Larestani (Lar) Kurdish (Erbil) Literary Persian
“son” pos kurr pesar
“daughter” dot kich dokhtar
“mother” nänä dayk mādar
“brother, sister” berosü, khongü bra, khweshk barādar, khwāhar
“I went” chedem chūm raftam
“he said he cannot go today” oshgot ērōz oshnáshā ochü wuti amrro nátwane biche goft emruz nemitavānad beravad
“where are you going?” äko ächedoish? akwe dachi? kojā dāri miravi?
“they said [to me]” [mava] shogot [pem] wūtiyan [be man] goftand
“may it be” bet bāshad
“beautiful” ju jwan zibā, ghashang, khoshgel
“big, large” got, gapü gawre bozorg
“mouth” käp dam dahan
“leg” leng laq
“in” tek tēy…(da)
“alone” sevā tanyá tanhā
“he/she comes” det miāyad
“he/she had come” undesse hátibū āmade būd
“yesterday” de dwene dirūz
“tomorrow” säbā sbayne fardā
“I want; I don’t want; I wanted; I didn’t want” mävi, omnóvi; mäves, omnáves amawe, námawe; wistim, namwist mikhwāham, nemikhwāham; khwāstam, nakhwāstam
“you slept” khätesh khawit khābidi
“I ate” omkhä khwardim khordam
“they fall” äkeven dakawin miyoftand

Larestani and Kurdish have together retained a number of phonemic archaisms from the Middle Iranian stage that have disappeared in modern Persian. For example, Lari and Kurdish have a rounded front vowel at the beginning of the word “we” (Lari: amā, Kurdish: emā), while modern Persian has . Rounded long vowels –ō, –ē from Middle Iranian are preserved in Larestani (Lari: gōsh vs. Persian: gūsh “ear”) and Kurdish (Kurdish: rōj, Lari: rōz, Persian: rūz “day”) except for in modern Persian borrowings, which are assimilated (Lari güshi “telephone”). Lexical archaisms are numerous and include Lari gapü “big” and got (from Proto-Indo-European *gʰrewd-, *gʰer-, cognate to English great, Latin grandis, Albanian ngre), whereas Old Persian adopted a Median word, now pronounced bozorg (from Proto-Indo-European*weǵ- Old English: wacan, wacian; English: wake. Originally meaning “endowed with generative power”, from Old Persian vazra- via palatilization and sibiliation, already literary Old Persian vazarka, Middle Persian wuzurg).

Larestani and Kurdish both share a postposed directional complement à “to”, and in Larestani a derivative o- is used to express general possession, “to have”, when complemented with a pronomial enclitic (note immediate possession in Larestani parallel to Arabic is expressed using pronomial clitic + bāi.e. ma qalam omnebā “I don’t have a pen [with me right now]”). Kurdish uses a possessive pronoun + haya/niya. Larestani: chedem à madrasa, Sorani Kurdish: chūà madrasa “I went to school”. Persian does not use a directional complement.

English Larestani
“I have, I don’t have” ome, omnísi
“You have, you don’t have” ote, otnísi
“S/he has, s/he doesn’t have” oshe, oshnísi
“We have, we don’t have” mo’e, monísi
“You (pl.) have, you (pl.) don’t have” to’e, tonísi
“They have, they don’t have” sho’e, shonísi

The dative construction takes two forms in Larestani: one is the postponed directional complement attached to both nouns and pronouns discussed above (Larestani: à ma = “to me’), and the second is a more conservative dative construction that takes the form of a postpositional suffix -va attached to the pronoun it modifies. The latter is highly unusual in the southwestern Iranian group, which includes Persian, although postpositions are found in Caspian languages. The construction is notably parallel to Oghuz Turkic –(y)a/-(y)e, and is encountered elsewhere in northern Tajik Persian dialects, where it developed under the influence of eastern Turkic (Tajik -ba > Uzbek -ga “to”). Perhaps Larestani obtained this exclusively pronomial dative construction from the neighboring Qashqai Turkic, but there is no evidence of widespread bilingualism or substrate as in the case of northern Tajik to explain an eccentric morphological innovation of this kind. Instead, it is likely a vestige of the Middle Iranian stage, inasmuch as a multitude of shared features between Larestani and peripheral Iranian languages are the likely heirlooms of an ancestral dialect continuum that connected genetically distant cousins (for example, lexical and morphological parallels between Larestani and Talyshi).

English Larestani Qashqai (Turkic)
“To me” vä mana
“To you” vä sana
“To him/her” shävä ona

Larestani verb inflection is strikingly different from Persian, her Southwestern Iranian-branch sister. The issue of ergativity in Larestani is discussed below. Three features set the Persian and Lari dialect groups in Fars province squarely apart from each other: (1) the ending of the second-person singular, Fars dialects –ē/-ī, Larestan dialects –; (2) the imperfective marker, Fars dialects -/-, Larestan dialects a(t)-; (3) the existence in the Larestan dialects of a present progressive by means of a locative construction based on the verbal noun. Moreover, the particular way of regularizing verb stem formation in the Larestan dialects may suggest input from a non-Iranian system. The pronomial clitics of Larestani are placed in different positions from those of Persian, with a resemblance to the ergative construction of Kurdish. In addition, Larestani has a split proclitic-mesoclitic system of verbal negation: sho’äshā  “they can”→ shoshā “they cannot” but  “S/he comes”→ neS/he does not come”, while Persian has only proclitic: mitavānandnemitavānand “they can; they cannot.”; as does Kurdish: datwanin; twanin “they can; they cannot.”

In Kurdish, the simple past tense of transitive verbs is formed from the past stem of the verb and an agent affix—the ergative construction. Modern Larestani languages, alongside Kurdish, display split-ergativity (or perhaps more rightly termed, vestigial ergativity); ergativity is present both according to the Kurdish paradigm, as well as erratically in transitive and intransitive verbs in both the preterite and perfective aspects (e.g. omgot “I said”, otnāshā “You cannot”; but khätem I slept“, nāfämesh “You do not understand”). The former two constructions have intransitive ergative character, but the latter two illustrate the fact that Larestani also features nominative/accusative morphology. Ergativity is thus more pervasive in Larestani than Kurdish, but only incongruously so. Persian is a non-ergative language.

English Larestani (Lar) Kurdish (Sorani) Literary Persian
“I want; I don’t want” m’ävi → omnóvi damawe → -m nawe mikhwāham, nemikhwāham
“You said you don’t have money” otgot pülot nebā wuti parat niya gofti pul nadāri
“We bought” mose krriman-man krri kharidim
“I gave you water” Mä aw’m à to dā Minit pe awem da Man be to āb dādam

Sorani Kurdish (except for the dialect of Suleymaniyah in Iraq) has da- as habitual and progressive verbal prefix, while Larestani has prefix a- for habitual and a- + a medial affix –dā- for the complete progressive construction

English Larestani (Lar) Kurdish (Sorani) Literary Persian
“I am going” ächedā’em dachim dāram miravam
“you are seeing (witnessing)” äde’esh dabini dāri mibini
“S/he is doing” äkerdoy dakat mikonad 

Entrance to the author’s uncle’s orchard (bāgh) located southwest of Lar city, where families retreat for feasts, gardening and recreation. 

The Future of Lari

No two people speak the same language exactly alike. As such, languages may evolve insularly among speakers of the same language in the general absence of external pressures (for example, Icelandic). But language change is not random—it flows in the direction of accents and phrases admired and emulated by large numbers of people. Once a target accent is selected, the structure of the sound changes that move a speaker away from his or her own mode of speech is governed by rules. Sound changes follow unspoken and unconscious rules – the sound changes are not idiosyncratic or confined to certain words; rather, they spread systematically to all similar sounds in the language.

Lari is not an exception to this rule. As an oral language, Lari literature is scant and limited exclusively to poetry. Without a standardized, pervasive literary form or a compendium of Lari literature, the language is particularly volatile to assimilative pressures. The various dialects are considerably different from each other and seem to be distinguished primally upon village and secondarily upon Sunni-Shi’a sect affiliation. The language of school education is Persian, and all educated Larestanis speak Persian as their second language. Persian has also become the language of interethnic communication, particularly between Laris and the Turkic Qashqai element in Larestan. Many Larestanis with ties to the Gulf (mainly Sunnis from Khür, Gerash, Bastak, and Evaz) speak Arabic as a second or third language. As such, the Shi’a Lari dialect has been Persianized in its lexicon and phonology and the Sunni dialects have been Arabicized—processes that have accelerated in the past several decades and the former may ultimately lead to endangerment.

I will only deal with lexical assimilation with Persian, as phonological assimilation is outside the scope of this article. Of note, I was surprised to behold an episode of lexical transformation between my father and his siblings. My father, having left Larestan over 40 years ago, speaks a vernacular true to the spoken language of that era, while those who have remained within Larestan have been subjected to assimilation pressures as a result of improved school education and communications with the rest of Iran, as well as increased migrant traffic in both directions. As such, my father’s vernacular features lexical archaisms that have since been rendered obsolete in favor of Persian borrowings in the current Lari vernacular.

English Lar (pre-1975) Lar (2014) Persian
“A little, a bit” chondokü kami, ye zara kami, ye zare
“yawn” käpfroghü khamyāza khamyāze
“I speak” kwät äderem harf azanem harf mizanam
“a local pancake made from oil, wheat flour, egg,
chamomile flower, local greens”
ninanü ninani, regāk (from Arabic)

The future of Lari seems bleak, as generation Y has effectively ceased to employ Lari, even as a mode of family communication. As such, Lari is to be classified as unstable, for the sphere of its use is steadily diminishing. Socio-cultural stigmatization of Larestan by inhabitants of Iran’s major urban centers compounded by new and improved contacts with the rest of Iran via Persian language television and radio broadcast have inspired generation Y to emulate Tehrani Persian speech, even in response to their parents speaking in Lari. Moreover, knowledge of and proficiency in Persian is associated with upward social mobility, which in turn has influenced the older generations to incorporate Persian words and phrases into their speech. Of note, one can hear the Persianized khūbesh? instead of Lari khäshesh? (“Are you well?”)– a form that had no currency fifty years ago but is now canonical if not preferred.


Anthony, David W. “The Horse, The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.” Princeton Review Press: 2007.

Bonine, Michael E.; Nikki R. Keddi. Modern Iranian Dialectics.

Fischel, Walter Joseph; Netzer, Amnon. “Lar.” Encyclopaedia Judaica. 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

Loeb, Laurence D. Outcaste (RLE Iran D): Jewish Life in Southern Iran.

McIntire, Emily Wells. “From Lar to Kuwait.” The Search for Work. Cultural Survival Inc., issue 7.4 (Winter 1983).

Vainakh — A Bridge to the Chechen people, their Language and Culture

Written by Afsheen Sharifzadeh, a graduate of Tufts University focusing on Iran and the Caucasus. The goal of this article is to familiarize the reader with the looks and feels of Chechnya, its people and language in a historical and modern setting. 

Traditional Chechen dance among youth. Many Chechens in the Russian Federation live outside of the Chechen Republic in other subdivisions of Russia, particularly Daghestan, Ingushetia, Rostov, Moscow and Tyumen in Siberia. Note that the Chechen dance repertoire is typologically Caucasian in style, bearing close resemblances to folk dances found in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and other Russian federal subjects in the North Caucasus. The Chechen repertoire is distinguished by a double-step stride; each dancer taps first with the point of the foot followed in rapid succession by a heel stomp to compose a single stride, in effect creating a gallop-like aesthetic. 

The Chechen Republic in Russia

Forced population movement is a bitter and tantalizingly familiar memory in the Caucasus. For centuries, neighboring superpowers have used the Caucasus as a playground for showcasing grand military gestures and executing socio-strategic gambits vis-à-vis each other, all the while imperiling the condition of the region’s native inhabitants. It is nonetheless a grave misfortune—both socio-economically and psychologically—for any human being to be uprooted from his or her home and forcibly resettled in a far away land, and indeed the act can have dire consequences for the continuity of a people and culture. In the Soviet Union in 1944, the entire Chechen (and Ingush) nationality was deported en masse from their home of 6,000 years in the North Caucasus and dispersed throughout sparsely-populated Siberia and Central Asia. Death estimates range between 20%-50% during removal, which took the form of a month-long exodus packed in cattle cars ridden with disease and starvation. Survivors began returning sporadically after Stalin’s death, especially after 1957 when return was officially permitted although discouraged. This is the setting in which the Chechen-Ingush ASSR was born, and later the Chechen Republic at the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, Chechnya gained de facto independence from Russia after the First Chechen War in 1996, only to have Russian Federal control restored after the Second Chechen War three years later in 1999. This article builds a bridge to the Chechen people and their history, bypassing politics and modern history, and instead relying on culture, language and tradition to serve as the golden diplomats between the reader and the Chechens.

Defense towers in the village of Erzii in Dzhayrakh, Ingushetia. According to local ethnogenesis myths, the town of Erzii, which is an Urartian loanword meaning “eagle” (also survives in Armenian: արծիվ “artsiv”), is the spawn of the Chechen and Ingush people, who are together self-designated “Vainakh”. 

The Chechens and their Language

It is said that when God created the world, he sprinkled nations over the globe, but clumsily dropped his shaker over what ancient travelers called the “mountain of languages”. Pliny wrote that the ancient Greeks needed 300 interpreters to conduct business in the North Caucasus, while later, “we Romans conducted our affairs there with the aid of 130 interpreters.”

In general, when mountains are inhabited by settled farming and herding people, they harbor unusual diversity of language families and grammatical structures relative to nearby lowlands. It thus follows that the Caucasus is as distinct linguistically as it is geographically and biologically. In fact it is the one of the most ethno-linguistically diverse regions by area on the planet. Packed in the tight valleys and coniferous thickets of the Caucasus mountain system connecting “Europe” to “Asia”, flanked on either side by the Caspian and Black seas, live humans who speak languages and dialects belonging to no less than six (or seven, depending on the informant) unrelated linguistic macrofamilies. In comparison, mainland Europe is inhabited natively by speakers of a total of three. Indo-European, Semitic and Altaic are minorities here, while Northeast Caucasian (Daghestanian), Northwest Caucasian (Abkhazo-Adyghean), North-Central Caucasian (Nakh), and South Caucasian (Kartvelian) are the dominant families and only exist here on Earth. The genetic affinities between these four groups are uncertain and improbable, although some—including this author—posit a remote relationship between Daghestanian and Nakh and postulate a split at the Proto-language stage some 5,000-6,000 years ago. The only Caucasian language with an old literary tradition is Georgian (belonging to the South Caucasian or Kartvelian family) with its own alphabet dating back to the 5th century A.D., while the others have acquired Cyrillic-based alphabets and literature within the past century or so (Note: Armenian, an Indo-European language native to the Caucasus with its own alphabet, also has a literary tradition dating back to the 5th century A.D. alongside Georgian, coinciding with the spread of Christianity to those peoples).


Map of ethno-linguistic groups in the Caucasus region. The Caucasus (Transcaucasia and Ciscaucasia) is one of the most ethno-linguistically diverse regions in the world. 

Chechen belongs to the North-Central Caucasian (Nakh) language family, along with Ingush and Bats (spoken in one small village in the Kakheti plain in Georgia). The Batsbi people, whose language is about as related to Chechen and Ingush as English is related to Dutch and German, do not follow Vainakh customs and law and consider themselves Georgians. The Chechen-speaking Kisti people of northeastern Georgia have also been Georgianized in their surnames and national consciousness and do not identify with the Batsbi or Vainakh.

A Georgian group singing an Ingush (Nakh family; close relative of Chechen) folk song in Georgian (Kartvelian family) about a Kisti maiden. The Kisti descend from Chechen tribes that migrated into eastern Georgia (Pankisi) from the highlands in the middle of the 19th century, and have retained their language. The tune is typical Caucasian ballad repertoire. 

Chechen (Nokhchii muott) and Ingush (Ghalghaa muott), the two main members of the Nakh language family, are mutually unintelligible although inextricably akin to each other. They have 83-84 percent retention of strict cognates on the Swadesh 100-word list, so their date of separation is roughly twelve hundred years ago, around 800 A.D. As such, there is much passive bilingualism between their speakers, so the two languages function as a single speech community (See Table 1). Chechen and Ingush also feature many loanwords and areal features (phonetic and morphological) from surrounding languages– particularly Daghestanian languages, Russian, Arabic, Turkic languages, Georgian, Armenian and Iranian languages.

English Chechen Ingush
“Friend” Dottagh Dottagh
“Mountain” Lom Loam
“Man” Stag Q’uonakh
“Black” ärzh Wearzh
“Scary, terrifying” Inzari Unzari
“Ant” Dzintg Dzungt

Table 1: Language comparison table prepared by the author illustrating relationship between Chechen and Ingush

A Late 19th century Batsbur wedding in the village of Zemo Alvani in eastern Georgia. The Batsbi speak a Nakh language about as akin to Chechen and Ingush as English is to German or Dutch.

To speakers of most modern Eurasian languages, Chechen appears to contain a number of unusual features. Phonologically, the language contains a wealth of sounds similar to Arabic and Swedish–namely 44 vowels and between 40 and 60 consonants depending on the dialect– far more than any European language. Chechen nouns belong to one of six “genders” or “classes” and can be declined using eight cases. The verb “to be” follows a particularly unique pattern: all nouns are assigned a set form: du, vu, yu, bu, (“is”) which must be memorized along with the noun and in turn colors all corresponding adjectives and verbal constructions.

Chechen: Ha byargsh haz bu
English: “Your eyes are beautiful”

Chechen: Ho sun 1elch yoghur yu
English: “You (f.) are coming to me”

Chechen: Sa dog q1andel hozun dog san dats’
English: “My heart is not like that of an old bird”

A traditional wedding in Chechnya, according to a mixture of Chechen and Muslim customs. Brides throughout Central Asia and the Caucasus follow a custom of refraining from smiling or showing joy on the wedding day, so as to keep away others’ envy of their fortunateness.

Origins and Ethnic Identity
The Chechen people call themselves Nokhchii; the ethnonyms “Chechen” and “Ingush” are Russian designations. Together the Chechen and the Ingush (self-designated Ghalghaa) compose Vainakh (literally “our people”), recognizing an overarching ethnic and linguistic kinship despite their longstanding distinct national consciousnesses and self-designations. Clan origins or ethnogenesis myths among the Vainakh all feature immigrant progenitors who traveled northward, married into a preexisting Caucasian ethnic group, and founded a new highland village among prior inhabitants. Most clans claim roots in Arabia, Syria, and Persia, and the Chechen nationality as a whole claims descendance from one such Syrian immigrant.

From a strictly evidential standpoint, the question of when and wherefrom the Nakh people (Chechens, Ingush, Batsbi and Kisti) arrived in the Northeast Caucasus remains shrouded in what seems to be impenetrable uncertainty for linguists and anthropologists. Aside from a few moderately-convincing attempts to pin a remote link with Daghestanian languages at the Proto-language stage, Nakh appears to be unrelated to any other attested primary language family on the Eurasian landmass, even at the magnitude of ~15,000 years. It is nonetheless widely held by some authors such as Amjad Jaimoukha, Johanna Nichols and Bernice Wuethrich that the Nakh peoples represent a periphery group that migrated (or perhaps, returned) out of the Hurro-Urartian-dominated Fertile Crescent and into the Caucasus some time after 10,000 B.C., perhaps displaced there by push factors such as the overuse of land and subsequent creation of vast deserts in Mesopotamia. This in turn places the ancestors of the Nakh peoples before the Sumerians and archaic Semitic-speaking peoples of Akkad and Babylon as the proprietors of Mesopotamia by several thousand years, and corroborates Igor Diakonoff’s suggestion of remote ties between Hurro-Urartian languages and Northeast Caucasian.

Mounting linguistic evidence suggests that the Proto-Nakh peoples who would later differentiate into the modern Chechens, Ingush, Batsbi and Kisti may have migrated to the slopes of the Caucasus from the Fertile Crescent some time between 10,000 B.C.-8,000 B.C., although the issue of their origins still remains shrouded in mystery. 

Following a supposed trajectory of Nakh transhumance into the Caucasus mountain system after 10,000 B.C., the empirical evidence we have indicates that the historical region inhabited by Nakh tribes was much larger and included areas now dominated by Ossetians (Iranian branch, Indo-European family) and Georgians (Kartvelian family). An isogloss map reveals that the original Nakh-Daghestanian center of gravity probably lies in modern day Georgia, south of the Great Caucasus range, but these peoples were gradually displaced to the highlands by Kartvelian transhumance prior to the late Middle Ages. Historically then, modern Chechen-Ingush descend from nonfrontier languages that show no evidence of contact with exotic languages throughout their prehistory, indicating that they were once surrounded by now-extinct sister languages also belonging to the Nakh-Daghestanian language family (of which Bats in Georgia is the only survivor). Indeed, Nakh language-speaking clans were historically far larger in spread and influence south of the Caucasian piedmont.

Tusheti and Khevsureti, the proposed homeland of Nakh-Daghestanian peoples (including Chechens and Ingush), lies south of the Great Caucasus range in modern-day Georgia.

 Religion and Social Organization

The Chechens are divided into clans, or taips (from Arabic طائفة Tā’ifa) which then belong collectively to a grand alliance of familial clans called tukhkhums (from Armenian տոհմ tōhm, itself a Middle Persian borrowing). At the moment, the Chechens are united in 9 tukhkhums, comprising more than 100 taips.

Chechens are predominantly Sunni Muslim following their recent conversion to Islam between the 16th and 19th centuries, and belong primarily to the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence (fiqh). Of note, Sufism is popular among Chechens, and many Chechens belong to the Qadiri and Naqshbandi orders. Most of the conversion took place in the 19th century during the Russian imperial invasion of the then Persian-controlled Caucasus, with the intent of bringing groups together in anti-colonial resistance movements, in turn giving them state-like forms of organization. In the 19th century, the tribes to the west and east Caucasus became Muslim (Chechens, Ingush, Circassians, Avars, Lezgins, Dargins, etc.), while the millennium-old Eastern Orthodox Christian communities in the central section (Ossetians, Georgians, Abkhazians, Armenians) remained Christian in their majority through the present. The Jewish Lak people of Daghestan and the Judeo-Tats of Azerbaijan retained their religion from prior to the mass conversions.

Prior to their conversion to Islam just two centuries ago, the majority of Chechens and Ingush followed their own polytheistic tree-worshipping religion or were affiliated with Eastern Orthodox churches.  At the center of the indigenous Vainakh religion was the pear tree, and adherents belonged to a mixture of different cults, including animism and polytheism, familial-ancestral and agrarian and funeral cults. Interestingly, in modern Chechen the name of the supreme pagan god, Dela, is still in use alongside Allah as a word to denote the Abrahamic God, not dissimilar to the Turkic and Mongol usage of tenri/tengri.

The Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque in Grozny, capital of the Chechen Republic, Russia. Modeled off of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, it is the biggest mosque in Russia. 

The Nart Saga
The Nart saga is a series of tales about a mythical race of giants shared among the peoples of the North Caucasus. The term Nart is most likely Iranian (Ossetian) in origin, although some posit a Mongolian etymology. Nonetheless, it is generally known that all the Nart corpora have an Iranian core, inherited from the Scythians, Sarmatians and Alans (ancestor of modern Ossetians)– all of whom were Iranian peoples that once dominated the Eurasian Steppe in modern day Russia, Central Asia and and Eastern Europe. These tales played a vital role in the indigenous religions and cults of the peoples of the North Caucasus, including Circassians, Abkhazians, Ossetians, Chechens, Ingush, Daghestanians, and others, and continue to occupy an important position in the folk traditions of those peoples.

A Kabardian (Circassian; Northwest Caucasian) dance group performing a tale from the Nart Saga. The Nart saga is shared among the folklore of the Adygheans, Cherkess, Kabardians, Abkhaz, Abaza, Chechens, Ingush, and Ossetians in the North Caucasus.

Chechen Diaspora in the Middle East

Within subdivisions of Russia outside of the Chechen Republic, Chechens mainly descend from refugees who were forced to leave Chechnya the 19th century Caucasian War, the annexation of Chechnya by the Russian Empire, and the 1944 Stalinist deportation to Soviet Siberia and Central Asia (discussed above). These peoples are centered in neighboring Daghestan, Moscow Oblast, Ossetia, Kazakhstan, Georgia (excluding the Kisti and Batsbi people), Sweden and the United States.

However, there is a fascinating narrative surrounding Chechen diasporas now located in the Middle East. In the middle of the 19th century, approximately 1 million 400 thousand North Caucasians Muslims–Chechens, Circassians and Daghestanis–were forced to migrate out of the Orthodox Christian Russian territories and settle with their coreligionists in the Ottoman Empire. Only the Chechens of Jordan, particularly a community of 450 souls in al-Suknah, have retained their language, as well as clothing and marriage customs. This is in great part due to royal favoritism on the part of the Hashemite family of Jordan. Chechens in Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Iraq have been assimilated linguistically, but continue to practice a few customs and identify as Chechens. In the 16th-17th centuries, Caucasians (particularly Georgians, Armenians and Circassians) were also forcibly uprooted, oftentimes converted, and resettled throughout Persia and the Ottoman Empire. But any Nakh deportees from that period have completely assimilated, and no traces remain of their language or culture.

Documentary on the tight-knit Chechen community of Jordan (in Russian and Chechen)


Jaimoukha, Amjad. “The Chechens: A Handbook.” Caucasus World: Peoples of the Caucasus. Taylor & Francis, 2004.

Kailani, Wasfi. “Chechens in the Middle East: Between Original and Host Cultures.” Caspian Studies Program.

Nicols, Johanna. The Origins of the Chechen and Ingush: a Study in Alpine Linguistic and Ethnic Geography. Anthropological Linguistics. Vol. 46, No. 2 (Summer, 2004), pp. 129-33

Wuethrich, Bernice. Peering into the Past, With WordsScience 19 May 2000: 
Vol. 288 no. 5469 p. 1158 

Arabic Dialectics Series: Muslim Baghdadi Arabic

Written by Afsheen Sharifzadeh, a graduate of Tufts University focusing on Iran and the Caucasus. This brief survey of Muslim Baghdadi Arabic is intended for intermediate and advanced students of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) who seek a linguistic introduction to the Baghdadi dialect by comparison to MSA and Mashriqī dialects.

Arabic dialect families. Dark green denotes Mesopotamian Arabic and yellow denotes North Mesopotamian Arabic. Note Mesopotamian Arabic dialects are also spoken in a few pockets in eastern Iran (Khorasan) and Central Asia (Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). 

The colloquial Arabic varieties of Iraq belong to two main dialect groups: Mesopotamian Arabic also known as the gilit-group (Baghdad, Basra, Central Asian Arabic, Khuzestani and Khorasani Arabic in Iran), and North Mesopotamian Arabic or the qeltugroup (spoken in Mosul, eastern Syria, and by Jewish and Christian Iraqis and Anatolian Arabs). In linguistics, the gilit-qeltu paradigm is based on the different phonological systems characterizing the two dialect groups, which can be observed in the form of the word “I said”—Baghdad: gilit; Mosul: qeltu.

Muslim Baghdadi Arabic, belonging to the gilit-group, is the prestige dialect of the country. In this article, the term “Muslim” is used to distinguish the dialect from Jewish Baghdadi Arabic, a qeltu-group dialect that was spoken by almost one-third of Baghdad’s inhabitants until 1948, and is currently only spoken in Israel and abroad where it faces imminent extinction among the diaspora. Iraq is also home to a number of other languages, including Kurdish languages (Sorani, Kurmanji or Bahdini, Gorani, Zazaki), Neo-Aramaic and Neo-Mandaic, Turkoman (South Azeri), Armenian, and Persian.

Language composition of Iraq

Muslim Baghdadi Arabic is a dialect of Bedouin provenance that features several unique phonetic, lexical, and morphological paradigms vis-à-vis the surrounding Mashriqī sedentary dialects, and is layered with influences from urban Medieval Baghdadi Arabic and foreign languages such as Turkish, Persian, Kurdish, and Aramaic. This dialect, which belongs to the so-called gilit-group, should not be confused with the Iraqi dialects of the qeltu-group (Jewish Baghdadi Arabic, Christian Baghdadi Arabic, and North Mesopotamian Arabic), all of which seem to be direct descendants of Medieval Baghdadi Arabic—a sedentary medieval dialect. The qeltu-group dialects have different sound systems and morphologies from Muslim Baghdadi and also seem to have retained a greater volume of foreign loanwords that have been more vigorously uprooted from the Muslim dialect under the Ba’ath regime.

Figure 1: Mashriqī Dialect Comparison Table prepared by the author; differences between Standard, Maslāwi, Baghdādi, Damascene (Levantine) and Cairene (Egyptian) dialects. Prepared by Afsheen Sharifzadeh

English Standard Arabic (MSA) Mosul, Baghdad (Jewish and Christian) Baghdad (Muslim) Damascus Cairo
“I told you (f.)” Ana qultu laki Ana qeltolki Āni gilitlich Ana ‘eltellik Ana ‘oltilik
“A lot, many, very” Kathīr, Kathīran Ksīɣ Hwāye, Kullish Ktīr ‘Awī, Ktīr
“I want” Urīdu Aɣīd Arīd Biddī ʕāyiz(a)
“She had” Kān ʕandaha Kān ʕanda Chān ʕedha Kān ʕenda Kān ʕandáha
“I didn’t do” Lam afʕal Ma suwwetu Ma sawweyt Ma ʕamelet Ma ʕameltesh
“With them” Maʕhum Maʕhem Wiyyāhum Maʕun Wayyáhum
“How are you (f.)?” Kayfa Hāluki? Ashlōnki? Shlōnich? Kīfik? Izzáyik?
“There exists” Hunāk, Hunālika Akū Akū
“What” Mādha Ashū Shinū Shū Eh
“Here” Honā Hunī Hnāne Hōn Héna
“Now” Al’ān Hessa Hessa Hallā’ Dilwa’tī
“This way, like this” Hākadhā Hēkī Hīchī Hēkē Keda
“They were going” Kānū yadhhabū Kānū yiɣūhū Chānow da-yerhūn Kānu ʕam-birūhū Kānū  birūhū

Phonemic characteristics

1.) Qāf ق is pronounced differently depending on the word. Sometimes this may seem arbitrary, but there is historical and phonemic rationalization for it. For example, in words that denote higher or abstract concepts, the Classical pronunciation of the qāf has been retained, such as the in the words حقيقةHaqīqa “truth”, مستقبل mustaqbil“future”, and اقتصاد IqtiSād “economy”. The archaic uvular pronunciation of qaaf is also retained in borrowings from Medieval Baghdadi Arabic: دقيقة daqīqaminute, moment”, قرأ qira “he read”.

2.) In general in quotidian/mundane words of Arabic origin, there is a Bedouinization of the qāf from “q” –> “g”. For example, “I say” اقول is pronounced agūl, “I arose/began” قمت is pronounced gumit, “heart” قلب is pronounced gaLub (the “L” is emphatic), and “moon” قمر is pronounced gumar. There is also a tendency to retain the “g” phoneme in loanwords and in some instances to evolve in favor of it (i.e. khāshūga“spoon”, from Persian قاشق qāshogh). However as mentioned above, lexical borrowings from Medieval Baghdadi Arabic regardless of usage retain the Classical uvular pronunciation of qāf.

3.) In some very specific instances, the classical qāf sound is realized as “k” (q–>k). This phenomenon is observed in only a handful of words and seems to be rooted in voiced/unvoiced consonant agreement. For example, the word “time” وقت can be pronounced wakit or alternatively waqit. However, in the fixed word شوكت shwakit(“when”), only the former form is used. We also see this sound change in the 3rd person simple past of the verb “to kill” قتل, which can be heard as kital.

These pronunciations are by and large not interchangeable, and in fact switching between the “q” and “g” phonemes can result in change of meaning (i.e. farraq “to divide” and farrag“to distribute”; warga “leaf” and warqa “piece of paper”). Thus the pronunciation of qaaf depends on the word. Also as a note, the Levantine and Egyptian pronunciation of qāfق as hamza ء is not found in any Mesopotamian dialects.

The letter Dādض is always pronounced as Dhā’ظ, and Dhā’ is in turn pronounced as its classical voiced alveolar fricative pronunciation (as in Modern Standard Arabic).

Iraqi Assyrian singer Daly performs song in different languages and dialects of Iraq in this order: Muslim Baghdadi Arabic, Kurmanji (Bahdini) Kurdish, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, Muslim Baghdadi Arabic, Muslim Baghdadi Arabic, Basrawi Arabic, Basrawi Arabic.


Muslim Baghdadi Arabic is by no means a creole language, despite its lexical and grammatical distinctions. In fact these differences are not nearly as anomolous as features of other dialects in the Mesopotamian and North Mesopotamian groups, such as Anatolian Arabic and Khorasani Arabic. The core vocabulary of Muslim Baghdadi Arabic derives from Classical Arabic, Medieval Baghdadi Arabic, and Bedouin dialects. For a comparison of Muslim Baghdadi lexicon with other Mashriqī dialects, see Figure 1 above.

There are, however, many loanwords from peripheral languages and other areal features that have made their way into common speech via foreign hegemony, historic trade relations, bilingualism and direct contact between groups living in Baghdad. Many loanwords have become obsolete or consciously uprooted from the language, particularly within the last century. 

English Persian Standard Arabic Muslim Baghdadi Damascene Arabic
“Also, too” Ham, nīz Aydhan Ham, hammena Kamān
“By foot” Piyāde ʕala al-Aqdām Pyāda Mashī
“Wheel” Charkh Dūlāb (from Middle Persian) Charikh Dūlāb
“Manly, Womanly” Mardāne, Zanāne Rujūlī, Niswī Mardāna, Zanāna Rujūlī, Niswī
“Good” Khōsh, Khūb Jayyid Khōsh, Zein, Helū Mnīh, Helū
“Cure, remedy” Chāre ʕilāj Chāra ʕilāj

Figure 2: Language comparison tables prepared by the author; some Persian words in Muslim Baghdadi Arabic. Prepared by Afsheen Sharifzadeh

English Ottoman Turkish Standard Arabic Muslim Baghdadi Damascene Arabic
“Slow” Yavash BaTi’ Yawāsh (borrowed via Persian) Shwayye
“Impolite, mannerless” Edebsiz Gheir mu’addab Adabsizz ‘Alīl adab
“Ice cream” Dondurma Būdha Dondirma Būza
“My lord” (archaic) Agham Sayyidī Āghātī Sayyidī
“Maybe, hopefully” Belki Yumkin Balkī Yimkin

Figure 3: Language comparison tables prepared by the author; some Turkish words in Muslim Baghdadi Arabic. Prepared by Afsheen Sharifzadeh

RT Arabic interview (part 1) with Tamara al-Daghestani, speaking in Muslim Baghdadi Arabic, while the interviewer speaks in Standard Arabic. Tamara’s family descends from warriors who were brought to Iraq from Daghestan in modern-day Russia.

Grammatical Distinctions

1.) The present progressive tense is formed by adding the prefix da- to the conjugated stem of the verb. This is likely a borrowing and adaptation from Persian into the early Abbasid-era Baghdadi vernacular. For example, “I am listening” is pronounced Ani da-asmaʕ, and “I am laughing” is Ani da-adhHak.

2.) The particle of existence as in “there is/there are” is akū and “there is not/there are not” is mā. The origin of this word is believed to be from the southeastern Babylonian Aramaic that was spoken in central Mesopotamia prior to the Arab invasion (for further reading, see author Christa Muller-Kessler).

3.) The existence of an indeterminate indefinite article fad فد (“a, some”) that precedes the noun it describes is highly unusual and unique to Mesopotamian Arabic (i.e. “fad rijjāl, fad imreyye” = “a man, a woman”). This likely developed from the use of the Classical word fardفرد meaning “one, single (thing)” in colloquial Medieval Baghdadi Arabic (although it would have been pronounced with guttural “r” as in French and Modern Hebrew according to the sound system of that dialect, which provides insight to the development of its modern pronunciation), which is itself probably a grammatical influence from Persian or Aramaic via substrate/superstrate or bilingualism.

4.) The use of the proclitic d(i)-to add a note of impatience to an imperative verb. The role of this marker is just to intensify the sense of imperative (duklū= “eat!”, digʕud = “sit!”, digūm= “get up!”). This was originally a feature of Medieval Baghdadi Arabic.

5.) The word gām as an indicator of the future or “to begin to do something”, which is based on the Aramaic word qa’em formerly employed in Mandaic and Talmudic Aramaic.

6.) The Classical feminine 2nd and 3rd person plural pronouns are retained and exist as intan and hinna and their suffix pronouns are -chan and -hin respectively. This marked retention of feminine plurals is highly unusual among Mashriqī sedentray dialects and can be attributed to the dialect’s Bedouin origin.

7.) Sometimes colloquially there is an omission of the future tense altogether (an influence from Persian). For example “I will come with you” can be expressed Āni ajī wiyyāk.

8.) Muslim Baghdadi Arabic has consonant harmony, which is essentially the ability of certain consonants (emphatic consonant, bilabials, and velars) to affect or “color” the quality of the vowel they occur directly next to. For example, gumar <— Classical قمر qamar (“moon”) ; buSal <— Classical بصل baSal (“onion”); sima <— Classical سماء samā(“sky”).

It is important to note that all lexical and syntactical features of Aramaic origin have reached Muslim Baghdadi Arabic through the medium of Medieval Baghdadi Arabic, rather than direct contact, because that would be inconsistent with the historical development of Muslim Baghdadi Arabic both chronologically and socio-culturally and would not align correctly with the “life span” of those Aramaic dialects.

Another point of interest is the affrication of Kāك to “ch” (k–>ch), which is a Bedouin feature. This occurs again mostly in quotidian words or lexical borrowings from Persian and Turkish. For example, the past tense of the verb “to be” كان kāna is conjugated as follows:

English Modern Standard Arabic Muslim Baghdadi
“I was” Ana kuntu Āni chinit
“You (m.) were” Anta kunta Inta chinit
“You (f.) were” Anti kunti Inti chinti
“He was” Huwa kān Huwwa chān
“She was” Hiya kānat Hiyya chānat
“We were” Nahnū kunna Ehna chinna
“You (pl.) were” Antum kuntum Intū chintū
“They were” Hum kānū Humma chānōw

Figure 4: past tense of  كان kāna in Muslim Baghdadi

In quotidian words of Arabic origin, the “ch” pronunciation is favored over “k”, although there is incidence of both:

kalbكلب —-> chalib (“dog”)

shubbākشباك —-> shubbāch (“window”)

kabīrكبير —-> chibīr(“big, large”)

bakāبكاء —-> bachī(“cry, weep”)

sikkīnسكّين —-> sichchīna(“knife”)

kidhdhābكذاب —-> chedhdhāb (“lier”)

In lexical borrowings:

chakūch = “hammer” (from Persian via Turkish)

-chī= archaic occupational suffix, as in qundarchī“shoemaker” (from Persian via Turkish)

charpāya= “bed, stand” (from Persian)

chakmak = “boots” (from Persian)

chāi = “tea” (from Persian)

pācha = a traditional dish consisting of sheep’s head and hooves (from Persian)

In some instances, foreign lexical borrowings have adopted the “ch” sound when they originally lacked it: chafchīr = “spatula, large pouring spoon” (from Persian kafgīr)

The k–>ch sound change also serves an important morphological purpose–namely, to distinguish between masculine and feminine personal suffixes. The masculine form is -k while the feminine form is -ch. Ex:

Akhūk= Your (m.) brother

Akhūch= Your (f.) brother

Wiyyāk = with you (m.)

Wiyyāch = with you (f.)

“Good Morning Arabs” interview with Iraqi poet, Shahad Shammari, speaking Muslim Baghdadi Arabic while the interviewer speaks Emirati.

The non-Arabic phoneme “p” also exists in Muslim Baghdadi Arabic, but only in loanwords, and can often be used interchangeably with “b“.

parda = “curtains” (from Persian)

pālTo= “overcoat” (from French via Persian)

pāsha= “high ranking official” (from Persian via Turkish)

Salmān Pāk= a town north of Baghdad near the Sassanid-era ruins of Ctesiphon (المدائن), named after a Persian companion of the prophet Muhammad

pūlādh= “steel” (from Mongolian via Persian)

However, some words have been irreversibly adapted to the standard Arabic sound system and have undergone the resulting sound change “p” –> “b”. Curiously enough, the resulting “b” sound is often emphatic:

toBa=”ball, cannonball” (from Turkish top)

guBBa = “room, vault” (from Persian qoppeh)


Al-Maqām al-‘Irāqi in the Baghdadi Jewish Tradition

Written by Afsheen Sharifzadeh, a graduate of Tufts University focusing on Iran and the Caucasus.
This article examines the maqām in the Baghdadi tradition, first paying attention to the origin of the repertoire and then focusing on the role of Baghdadi Jews in its evolution and propagation. In doing so, the authors proposes that Iraqi Jewish musicians played a capital role in the development of the standard Iraqi maqām style, and later served as “international agents” of the Iraqi repertoire–that is, as exponents of their host country’s musical heritage–in a fashion not dissimilar to the Sephardic Jewish financiers of Ottoman Istanbul and the Armenian silk merchants of Safavid Isfahan. They disseminated their tradition through contact with foreign musicians and absorbed foreign aspects into the Iraqi repertoire. Indeed this bi-directional model of musical appropriation carried into the Israeli and Indian diaspora communities.

Iraqi Jews by Ezekiel’s tomb, Baghdad, 1932. Before 1948, Jews made up a burgeoning one-third of Baghdad’s population and had lived in Iraq for over 2,000 years. Today, there are less than 10 Jews left in the country. 

Al-maqām al-‘Irāqi

Except in Iraq, maqām has three levels of meaning: a degree of sound, a theoretical scale, and the modal organization of the Arab-Islamic area. In Iraq, the former three are known as nagham, while maqām is the main urban vocal repertoire. Currently the origin of the Iraqi maqām remains poorly characterized—while some contemporary Iraqi specialists posit that the repertoire dates back to the Abbasid era, (750-1258 A.D.), others believe that it may be a relatively new phenomenon dating back only four to six centuries. Nonetheless, I propose a development in an Iranian environment that may have reached its present state through cultural contact between Persian and Baghdadi Jews.

Farida performing a Baghdadi pesteh, “Yumm al-‘Oyoun al-Soud”, with chālghī Baghdādī accompaniment in Amsterdam 

In enumerating the underlying Iranian elements of the Iraqi maqām, we can count the following: the seven main modes or maqāmāt of the Iraqi Maqām are identical to those of the Persian āvāz or dastgāh repertoire; most of the maqāmāt have Persian names; and instruments such as the santūr and joza further suggest appropriation from an Iranian milieu. Many of the Iraqi maqāmāt sung with Classical verses are found in the Persian tradition as well, particularly the Mukhālif, Mansūrī, Dashtī, Awshār, Bakhtiyār, and Mathnawī. Another distinguishing trait of the Iraqi maqām among Arab musical repertoire is that each maqām has a distinct vocal introduction (badwa or tahrīr), the lyrics of which are usually in Persian: Sigāh has “Lilay, lilay…”; Rāst has “Yār, yār…”; Humāyūn and Dashtī have “Amān, amān…”; whereas Bayāt and Hijāz have “Faryād-e man…” (“Oh my wails” in Persian.) Thus conceivably, Iraqi musicians absorbed elements of Persian style through the performance of what Iraqi musicians have called “Persians songs”—although not the classical Persian repertoire.

While it would be a futile exercise to attempt to ascribe these cultural transformations to a single musician or host throughout the centuries, it is important to note that Persia lost control of Baghdad in the 16th century and sporadically regained control until the 19th century. And while there has existed a minority Muslim Persian population within Baghdad for many centuries, the vast majority of Persian-speakers in that city have been Jews of Persian extraction with surnames such as Shīrāzī, Shahrabānī, Irānī, Bābāyī, Āghāsī, Lārī, ‘Ajamī, Āghā-Bābā and the like. Thus the role of Jews—many of whom lived intermittently between Iran and Iraq as traders, artisans and merchants—as agents in the propagation of these influences is probable if not imperative, as Jews were also traditionally disposed to musical professions in Persia. Indeed, in one episode contact between Iraqi Jewish musicians and a Persian professional musician even resulted in Iran’s adoption of the qānūn repertoire. Thus communication between Baghdadi Jewish musicians and their Persian coreligionists is a reasonable medium of musical acculturation between the two societies that still remains to be studied definitively.

Interview (in Iraqi Arabic) with Farida, a renowned Iraqi maqām vocalist based in the Netherlands 

Nonetheless, the chālghī Baghdādī ensemble has traditionally performed at secular and religious occasions for Muslims, Jews, Christians, Mandaeans, and Yezidis in Iraq. The central instruments of the ensemble or al-chālghī al-baghdādī are the santūr, the al-kamāna [al-baghdādīyya], the joza, the daff, and the dumbag, while the ‘ūd, santūr, and nāy as well as Western Classical instruments such as the violin and cello are popularly considered to be later additions that were appropriated from either an Egyptian or Maslāwi Christian milieu. There exist some fifty individual maqāmāt and three regional traditions: namely, those of Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk. While the Baghdadi repertoire is typically performed in Arabic, Persian, or Hebrew, the traditions of northern Iraq are most often in the regional Turkoman (South Azerbaijani), Neo-Aramaic, and Kurdish languages and are distinguished by incorporation of a number of regional instruments in addition to the standard chālghī Baghdādī ensemble. When performed in the Arabic language, the poem at the center of the lyric can take the form of mawwāl or zhayrī, which is colloquial or hybrid, or the qasīda which is strictly a monorhyme ode based on Classical Arabic prosidy. The former type of maqāmāt amounts to twenty-five, according to al-Wardī, while the latter includes forty-one.

A maqām preformed in the Turkoman (South Azerbaijani) language of northern Iraq, particularly Kirkuk and Erbil. 

A standard Iraqi maqām begins with the badwa or tahrīr, which is the opening melody/main theme that is repeated throughout the maqām; qitā ‘ (sing. qita‘a) and awsal (sing. wusla), or secondary melodies, which form the building blocks of the composition; the meyāna, or climax, which is usually a qita‘a or a wusla sung in the high register; a small cadence known as a jelsa, which precedes the meyāna; a qarār, or a descent into the lower register; and the taslīm, which is the final, closing cadence that signals the end of the maqām and the coming pesteh (from Persian “baste” via Ottoman Turkish “beste”). Pestāt are in turn rhythmic songs with repetitive melodies that often contain simple, humorous, texts dealing with cotidian matters and various aspects of society. These, while not a part of the maqām repertoire, are popular, light-hearted urban songs typically in Arabic and Persian.

Iraqi female vocalist Zuhuur Hussein performing the pesteh “Ya ‘Aziz al-Ruh” in Arabic and Persian

Jews in al-Chālghī al-Baghdādī Ensemble

As in most mashriqī Arab musical traditions, maqām singers (mughannīn or even mutribūn) have traditionally been Muslims, and many are reciters or chanters of the Qur’ān for Islamic rituals and ceremonies. They are rarely professionals. In Iraq, the singers have traditionally belonged to the Arab, Kurdish, and Turkoman ethnic communities and most often belong to the lower urban social classes of merchants and craftsmen. However, central to our discussion here is the curious fact that until 1950, almost all the instrumentalists of the Iraqi maqām (daggagāt, ālātīyya) were Jews.

In explaining this phenomenon, a number of ethnomusicologists propose a class-based theory. Of course Islam has traditionally been unfavorably disposed towards music, so professional musicians have necessarily held low rank in society. Yet music has been an indispensable component of Muslim social life, so naturally a reasonable resolution was to regulate musical functions to ethnic minorities in order to preserve the cultural tradition in the face of opposing social and religious attitudes. Moreover, in explanation of this trend, scholars suggest that it is precisely musicians’ low rank that allows them to be enjoyed. As low-ranking persons they are a negligible element of society; they simply are not to be taken seriously as social beings deserving of interaction. As providers of a social service, their rank is assumed; therefore they can be admired solely for their musical product.

Consistent with these societal attitudes, many musicians were blind or handicapped and were recruited by the Jewish vocational institute in Baghdad in the 20th century. However it should be noted that the majority of mughannīyūn or vocal performers of the maqām have been Muslims. Jews in turn attribute this to the Muslims’ “superior” pronunciation of Arabic, or at least concede that the Muslim dialect is the highbrow, prestige dialect of that city. A brief survey of the two dialects reveals considerable phonological, lexical, and morphological differences, even impairing mutual intelligibility in some instances. The outspoken differences between the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian dialects of Baghdad arise from conflicting origins: while the Muslim dialect is of Bedouin provenance, the latter two descend from Medieval Baghdadi Arabic which was a sedentary dialect with considerable Aramaic and Persian substrate. Furthermore, the Jewish dialect includes a sizeable inventory of Hebrew vocabulary that further distinguishes this mode of speech to linguists as “Judeo-Baghdadi”. Resultantly, Jewish maqām readers (qurrā’) were not appreciated due to their outspoken “Jewishness” which manifested itself in their peculiar mode of speech. It was only in the form of vocalists such as Salīma Murād–a Jewish qāri’a who converted to Islam and displayed a marked attempt in her songs to imitate the Muslim Baghdadi dialect—that Jews could be universally appreciated and she in turn became one of the most famous mughannīyūn of the 20th century.

A sample of the Jewish Baghdadi dialect of Arabic, now only spoken by the diaspora in Israel and abroad

As the preferred musical performers of Baghdad, Jews served as domestic and international flag-bearers of the Baghdadi maqām repertoire. Jews had to become familiar with widespread musical systems— the chālghī baghdādī, rīfī folk songs, abūdhiyya poetry with rabāb accompaniment as well as synagogue repertoire in the maqām system. Due to their knowledge and mastery of Muslim repertoire, Jewish instrumentalists and qāris were hired to sing for Muslim holiday services, such as Ramadan evening parties and radio-broadcasts during the holy month. As a result of Jewish hegemony in the Iraqi music industry by the early-mid 20th century, many Muslims were not satisfied as there was virtually no music to be enjoyed during Jewish holidays. An attempt was even made in 1936 to close down the broadcasting station’s music program that was directed by Jews until Muslims learned to play Iraqi music, although after several months the Iraqi officials ceded control back to Jewish musicians in defeat. As agents of the a diverse range of repertoires, the Jews were successful in soliciting acclaimed Muslim vocalists such as Rashīd al-Qundarchī and ‘Abdallah Fāris to sing in the Judeo-Baghdadi Arabic as an ode of appreciation to the Jewish pioneers of the Iraqi maqām. In sum, Jewish masters of the maqām became highly-regarded musicians in Baghdad and exerted their influence over their Muslim counterparts.

However the influence of Baghdadi Jewish musicians was not limited to the urban centers of Iraq. Indeed, Iraqi Jewish musicians as members of a diaspora served as “international agents” in a similar fashion to the Sephardic Jews of Ottoman Istanbul and the Armenian community of Safavid Isfahan by disseminating their tradition through contact with foreign musicians and absorbing foreign aspects into Iraqi repertoire throughout the 20th century. They were responsible for introducing foreign elements unfamiliar to their society due to close ties with foreign musicians, primarily Egyptian. For example, the violin was probably adopted from Egypt under the influence of Ezra Aharon, a Baghdadi Jew who was an outspoken proponent of Egyptian musical trends. This very Ezra Aharon traveled with Iraqi Jewish music delegation, which was led by the acclaimed Iraqi musician Muhammad al-Gubbānchī, to the Congress of Arab Music held in Cairo in 1932. After emigrating to Israel following the Farhūd persecutions of 1950, he is known for fashioning his Iraqi radio ensemble to follow the Egyptian mainstream style.

Ezra Aharon and Muhammad al-Gubbānchī with the Iraqi Jewish music delegation to the Congress of Arab Music, Cairo, 1932

But the influence felt between Iraqi and other Arab musicians was reciprocal, as Iraqi musicians were acclaimed masters of their art and thus served as points of reference for their Arab counterparts. For example the Jewish composer Salah al-Kuwaytī taught Umm Kulthūm a composition and taught Abd al-Wahhāb the maqām lāmi, which he later utilized in a composition. Within in Iraq itself, it so happened that Arabs unknowingly sang many traditional Jewish melodies whose Hebrew text had been changed to Arabic by Jews. Additionally, at least one maqām was recorded in Hebrew in 1920 and sporadically after that, indicating that there must have been some demand for Hebrew renditions of maqāmāt. But perhaps the most conspicuous vestige of Jewish hegemony in Iraqi maqām is observed in the badwa of maqām al-țāhir, which begins with the Hebrew word “Hallelujah.” Evidently Jewish Baghdadi musicians were able to exert their influence on their Muslim counterparts both inside and outside of Iraq, and they left a distinct Jewish imprint on the Iraqi maqām repertoire alongside loans from Egypt and the West.

In conclusion, Iraqi Jewish musicians have played a capital role in the development of the standard Iraqi maqām style, and later served as “international agents” of the Iraqi repertoire–that is, as beneficiaries of their host country’s musical heritage–in a fashion not dissimilar to the Sephardic Jewish financiers of Ottoman Istanbul and the Armenian silk merchants of Safavid Isfahan. They disseminated their tradition through contact with foreign musicians and absorbed foreign aspects into Iraqi repertoire. While the Baghdadi Jewish diaspora in Israel has remained markedly more operative and prolific in the continuation of the Iraqi maqām tradition than its Indian and Javanese counterparts, it too struggles to define its identity in the face of an ever-homogenizing host society. With the emigration of all of the Jews of Iraq out of the country in the mid twentieth century and pressures towards assimilation in their host countries, the Iraqi maqām faces a difficult and defining future.


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Virginia Danielson; Scott Marcus; Dwight Reynolds. “The Iraqi Maqām and Its Transmission.” Garland Encyclopedia of Music. Routledge: Vol. 6 (Aug 2001) 1200 pp.