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Culture & People
 
 
 

General

Iraq has one of the world's oldest cultural histories. Unlike many Arab countries, it embraces and celebrates the achievements of its past in pre-Islamic times. What is now Iraq was once part of the 'cradle of civilisation' in ancient Mesopotamia and the culture of Sumer, from which the first known wheel was recovered, flourished there. In the 8th century and 9th century the Islamic Abbasid Caliphs presided over what was then the world's leading civilisation, rich in science, art and literature.

In the most recent millennium, what is now Iraq has been made up of five cultural areas: Kurdish in the north centred on Arbil, Sunni Islamic Arabs in the centre around Baghdad, Shi'a Islamic Arabs in the south centred on Basra, the Assyrians, a Christian people, living in various cities in the north, and the Marsh Arabs, a nomadic people, who live on the marshlands of the central river. There are also the Bedouin tribes primarily in southern and western Iraq, with smaller groups scattered throughout the country.

Music

Iraq is known primarily for an instrument called the oud (similar to a lute) and a rebab (similar to a fiddle); its stars include Ahmed Mukhtar and the Assyrian Munir Bashir. Until the fall of Saddam Hussein, the most popular radio station was the Voice of Youth. It played a mix of western rock, hip hop and pop music, all of which had to be imported via Jordan due to international economic sanctions. Iraq has also produced a major pan-Arab pop star-in-exile in Kathem Al Saher, whose songs include Ladghat E-Hayya, which was banned for its racy lyrics.

Across the Arab world, maqam refers to specific melodic modes. When a musician performs maqam performances, the performer improvises, based on rules. There are a number of different maqams, each with or self own mood and characteristics. There are between 50 and 70 maqams, many of which also have sub-styles and varian sex, is closely related to Syrian music, but is less melodious and more melismatic. Other characteristics of Iraqi music include a slow tempo, rhythmically free ornamentation or melodic lines, and predominantly minor modes. Instruments include qanun, riqq, santur, darbuka, naqqara, ney, djose and oud.

Maqama texts are often derived from classical Arabic poetry, such as by Mohammad Mehdi Al-Jawahiri, al-Mutanabbi and Abu Nuwas, or Persian poets like Hafez and Omar Khayyám. Some performers used traditional sources translated into the dialect of Baghdad, and still others use Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Hebrew, Turkmen, Aramaic or Persian language lyrics.

The roots of modern Iraqi maqam can be traced as far back as the Abbassid era, when a large empire was controlled from Baghdad. The music has also gained influences from Persian music. The modern form, however, descends directly from the 19th century Turkmen composer Rahmat Allah Shiltegh (1798-1872).

The pesteh, a kind of light song which concludes a maqam performance, has been popularised in the later 20th century, growing more prominent along with the rise of recorded music and broadcast radio. Among the most popular pesteh performers are the husband and wife Selima Murad and Nazim Al-Ghazali.

Cultural Heritage

Iraq is a country of a wide and varied heritage, home to Muslims, Christians, Jews, Assyrians and Marsh Arabs, amongst countless others. As such, many have contributed to the wide spectrum of Iraqi culture.

Tea houses are commonly scattered over Iraq, and in the afternoon it is a habit for shopkeepers to retreat into the back with a close circle of friends to sip tea over gossip.

Rites of passage are mainly centred on children being schooled enough to correctly read the Quran, quite the challenging task. The Quran is perhaps one of the hardest texts to read, both because of depth of meaning and due to the difficult range of sounds Arabic demands from the human vocal cords. The child with least pronunciation errors is called the hafiz or 'memoriser'. There is usually a large celebration in the child's honour.


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