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POPULATION: 28,221,180 (2008 estimate)
LANGUAGE: Arabic; Kurdish; Turkoman (a Turkish dialect); Assyrian; Armenian
RELIGION: Islam (Shi'ite, 60-65%; Sunni, 32-37%); Christianity


Iraqis are among the world's most economically devastated peoples. Iraqis have lived under conditions of war nearly continuously since 1980. Nevertheless, the people have a long and proud history and some of the world's oldest civilizations originated in what is present-day Iraq.

Iraq (the Arabic word for "cliff ") contains the ancient land of Mesopotamia, or "the land between the rivers." The rivers are the Tigris and the Euphrates, which originate in the mountains of Turkey and flow southward through Syria into Iraq. Between these two rivers lies a fertile plain where, as far as is known, the first human civilization flourished. By 4000 BC, the Sumerians had established cities and government institutions, the earliest known on the planet. Writing, mathematics, and science also began in Sumer. The Akkadians conquered Sumer in 2334 BC, but a mere 200 years later, the Sumerians regained control of the region. From then on, a series of peoples invaded and conquered this fertile land. The Babylonians gained control in 1900 BC and ruled for 300 years, during which King Hammurabi developed his famous law code. The Assyrians followed the Babylonians, then the Chaldeans took over in the 7th century BC. Perhaps the best-remembered Chaldean leader was Nebuchadnezzar II, who reigned from 605 to 562 BC from the capital city of Babylon. The Persians invaded in 550 BC, then Alexander the Great conquered the Persians and claimed Mesopotamia for the Greeks in 331 BC. The Greeks introduced metropolitan cities and scientific rationalism and improved irrigation methods, trade, and commerce. In 126 BC, the Persian Parthians took command and ruled for about 300 years. The Romans occupied the land briefly two different times: once from AD 98–117 and again from AD 193–211. The next conquerors were the Iranian Sasanids, who took charge in AD 227, and then Islamic troops, who entered the country in AD 636. Arab tribes, some of whom were Christian, lived in the area at that time and often acted as paid armies for the Persians. The Arab tribes from the Arabian Peninsula, having recently converted to Islam, were sent to invade the area now known as Iraq. The Christian Arab tribes and others switched allegiances en masse and "converted" to Islam. They then joined the Arab troops from the Arabian Peninsula in attacking the Persians. By AD 650, Iraq was an Islamic state.

The Golden Age of Iraq occurred during the reign of the Abbasid Caliphate, from AD 750 to 1258. In 762, Baghdad became the capital and the center of political power and culture in the Middle East. The Abbasids, however, tried to control more territory than their resources would allow. This problem was further complicated by the inherent problems of hereditary rule. By the time of the Mongol invasion of the Middle East, the Abbasid empire had fragmented into many small realms that showed allegiance to Bagdad in name only. This made it easy for the superior military forces of the Mongols to formally bring to an end the Abbasid Caliphate with the sacking of Baghdad in 1258. The Ottoman Turks eventually added Iraq to their empire in the 16th century. Iraq remained part of the Ottoman Empire until World War I, when Britain invaded and conquered it in 1917–18. In 1920, at the end of the war, an Iraqi Arab state under British mandate was created. Twelve years later, in October 1932, Iraq was recognized as an independent monarchy.

Independence did not spell the end of Iraq's troubles, however. Beset by internal conflicts and plagued by foreign powers, the monarchy finally fell to a military coup on 14 July 1958. A series of coups followed over the next 10 years, until the Ba'ath Party seized control in 1968. Saddam Hussein, named vice-president in 1968, became president of what was renamed the socialist Republic of Iraq in 1979. Iran and Iraq were at war from 1980–1988. Although Iraq declared itself the victor, the war destroyed the country's economy, heavily militarized the society, and spurred rebellion among Kurds living in the country's northern mountains. Hussein responded to the Kurdish rebellion with a chemical weapons attack that killed several thousand Kurdish civilians.

Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, but a U.S.-led coalition acting under United Nations (UN) resolutions launched an invasion of Iraq in January 1991 and expelled Iraqi troops from Kuwait by February 1991. After the war, known as the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Kurds in the north and Shia Muslims in the south rebelled against Hussein's government. Hussein responded with a brutal military assault. Over the next decade, Hussein ruled Iraq as a dictator, and repressed both Shia Muslims as well as Kurds. His Ba'ath government also enacted several damaging environmental and agricultural policies that resulted in a draining of Iraq's southern marshes and extinction of a people known as the Ma'dan (or Marsh Arabs). Hussein's actions caused the United States, Great Britain, and France to set up no-fly zones over the country and requirements from the United Nations' Security Council to surrender weapons of mass destruction. Hussein refused to cooperate with the U.N. orders, and international sanctions were imposed against the country. These measures led to a U.S.-led invasion of the country in March 2003, and removal of the Ba'ath regime from power. Hussein went into hiding but was captured in December 2003 and was brought to trial and executed in late 2006. A U.S.-led coalition established an occupational government in 2003 known as the Coalition Provisional Authority and established what was initially an interim Iraqi government and, as of 2008, a transitional government. A new constitution was approved in 2006, but U.S. troops continue to occupy Iraq and war-like conditions continue to plague Iraq. Serious conflicts between the country's Shi'ite majority, Sunni minority, and Kurds threaten Iraq's long-term stability and as of 2008 the country remained at risk of falling into civil war.


Iraq is located in southwestern Asia, in the heart of the Middle East. It is bounded by Turkey to the north, Syria and Jordan to the west, Iran to the east, and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to the south. There is a short coastline in the southeast on the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf. The total land area is about 437,072 sq km (168,754 sq mi), including half of a neutral zone that Iraq administers with Saudi Arabia to make it easier for the nomadic Bedu to move between the two countries. For comparison's sake, Iraq is just a little larger than the state of California. Within Iraq are four distinct regions. The Delta region of the southeast is a broad alluvial plain. West of the Delta are the Steppe-Desert Plains, part of the dry Syrian Desert, made up of sand and stony plains. The northern foothills between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers contain a fertile area of grassy flat-lands and rolling hills. In the Kurdish Country of the northeast, the land rises steeply into the Zagros Mountains where the Kurds live.

The climate varies from region to region. In the north it is temperate in the summer and freezing in the winter. The east and southeast have a tropical climate with high humidity. The west is dry and desert-like. Temperatures also vary by region, with summer highs ranging from 22¡C (72¡F) in the north to 43¡C (110¡F) in the south and west, and winter lows of 0¡C (32¡F) or less in the north to 15.5¡C (60¡F) in the south and west. Iraq has two seasons. Summer lasts from May to October and is generally hot and dry, and winter stretches from November to April and is cooler and wetter. About 90% of the yearly rainfall occurs during the winter. On average, Iraq is a dry country. In most regions, the annual rainfall averages only 10–18 cm (4–7 in), although up to 101 cm (40 in) can fall in the mountains. Even the fertile lands between the rivers receive only 38–63.5 cm (15–25 in) of rain per year. In the summer, a dry, dusty northwesterly wind known as the shamal frequently blasts the landscape, lasting for several days at a time, and it is often accompanied by fierce dust storms. A winter wind called the sharqi comes from the south and southeast, bringing cool, moist air from the sea, which is a welcome change.

Plant and animal life differs by region. For its size, Iraq has very little wildlife. The most common tree is the date palm. Before the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war, Iraq had more than 30 million date palms, each of which produced about 1,000 dates per year, and more than 80% of the world's date supply was grown in Iraq. Two decades of war have harmed the country's date industry seriously, and fewer than 3 million date palms are estimated to remain in the country.

The people who live in Iraq include a number of ethnic groups, physical types, and languages. According to 2008 estimates, the total population of Iraq was 28,221,180. About 75% to 80% of the population is Arab, and Kurds make up the largest ethnic minority at 15% to 20% of the population. Other ethnic groups in Iraq include Turkoman and Assyrian peoples. About 40% of the total population of Iraq is under the age of 15. Most Iraqis (75%) live in cities. Baghdad, the capital and largest city, has a population of 6 million people. The next largest cities, in descending order, are Basra, Mosul, and Kirkuk.

A distinct subgroup of Iraqi Arabs called the Ma'dan, or Marsh Arabs, once inhabited 15,540 sq km (6,000 sq mi) of marshy area just above the point at which the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow together. Their lifestyle, however, has become virtually extinct as a result of the wars and Iraqi government programs to drain the marshlands.


The official languages of Iraq are Arabic and Kurdish. Kurdish is spoken primarily in the mountainous regions of the north. Other languages spoken in Iraq are Turkoman, Assyrian, and Armenian. Arabic has two different forms, spoken and written. Spoken Arabic has developed many dialects that often differ from one country to another, and those who speak different dialects may not always be able to understand each other. The written form of Arabic is called Classical Arabic or, for today's literature and press, Modern Standard Arabic. It is the same for all literate Arabs, regardless of how different their spoken forms are. Arabic is written from right to left in a unique alphabet that has no distinction between upper and lower cases. It is not necessary for the letters to be written on a straight line, as English letters must be. Punctuation conventions are also quite different from English. Kurdish uses an Arabic-based alphabet, but it is an Indo-European language in origin.

Arabic speakers tend to use emotional appeal, exaggeration, repetition, and words instead of action (for example, making threats with no intention to follow through on them). They are more interested in the poetry of the language than in communicating cold, hard facts. "Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan, to which one replies, marhabtayn or ahlayn. Other common greetings are As-salam alaykum, "Peace be with you," with the reply of Walaykum as-salam, "and to you peace." Ma'assalama means "goodbye." "Thank you" is Shukran and "You're welcome" is Afwan; "yes" is na'am and "no" is la'a. The numbers one to ten in Arabic are: wahad, itnin, talata, arba'a, khamsa, sitta, saba'a, tamania, tisa'a, and ashara.

Iraqi Arabs have very long names, consisting of their first name, their father's name, their paternal grandfather's name, and finally their family name. Following Islamic custom, a woman does not take her husband's name when she marries, but maintains her family identity. First names usually indicate an Iraqi's religious affiliation. Muslims use names with Islamic religious significance, such as Muhammad and Fatima.


The most famous collection of Arab folktales, The Thousand and One Nights, was probably put together in Iraq sometime around AD 1000–1500, during the reign of the Abbasid Caliphate. The premise of the collection is that a king keeps killing his wives until the beautiful woman Scheherazade marries him. She tells him a story each night with a cliffhanger ending so that he must keep her alive to find out the ending. This goes on for one thousand and one nights, until finally the king decides to let her stay alive forever as his wife. Among the stories she tells are the well-known tales of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp," and "The Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor."

Another famous story originating in ancient Iraq (then known as Mesopotamia) is the Akkadian hero-tale, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh was the name of a ruler of Erech, but it is unknown whether this is the same Gilgamesh as the one in the epic poem. The poem tells of Gilgamesh's struggles to achieve immortality.

Some common superstitions in Iraq are beliefs in omens and signs. For example, it is considered good luck if a stork chooses to build its nest on the roof of your home. Also, precautions are taken at birth celebrations to ensure the protection of the child from bad luck, such as not allowing women who have had no children or people with blue eyes to attend.


The majority of Iraqis, about 95%, are Muslim. Of these, 60% to 65% are Shi'ite, and the remainder is Sunni. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslim but consider themselves distinct from Iraq's Sunni Arab population. Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians, Mandaeans, and Yazaidis also live in Iraq. Ancient Mesopotamia was originally a Jewish region, and the Jews actually left and returned to Mesopotamia many times with various conquering armies, including the Greeks and the Persians. The few Jews who stayed on in Mesopotamia created a small band of descendants in Iraq, most of whom migrated to Israel when it became an independent Jewish state in 1948. Iraqi Christians are mostly Catholic. They consider themselves the original Iraqis since they were there before the Islamic invasion. When Islam arrived in the 7th century AD, many gods and goddesses were being worshipped by the people of present-day Iraq. The Islamic conquerors brought most of the people together under one god, Allah.

The difference between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, which has played such an important part in Iraqi history, has to do with the early history of the religion. After Muhammad's death, the entire Muslim community was divided over who should become the first political successor, or caliph. A strong minority believed that Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, should be caliph. The rest accepted Abu Baker as the first caliph. Abu Baker assumed the caliphate and eventually obtained the allegiance of Ali.

Ali did not become caliph until after the death of Uthman, the third caliph. At that time, Mu'awiyah, the governor of Syria and a relative of Uthman, challenged Ali for the caliphate using Syrian troops personally loyal to him. The battles between the caliph and Mu'awiyah were inconclusive, and Ali remained in control over most areas except Greater Syria until his death. At that time, Mu'awiyah was able to defeat a number of challenges from Muslims of Muhammad's family and friends to firmly establish himself as caliph. He instituted a system of hereditary rule for his family, thus establishing the Umayyed dynasty. Those Muslims who continued to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Mu'awiyah's caliphate and the Umayyed dynasty were called the followers of Ali, or Shi'iat Ali. The supporters of the Umayyeds were known as Shi'iat Uthman. Eventually the followers of Ali became known as the Shi'ites.

Although there are doctrinal differences, the fundamental difference between the sects is an argument about authority, not doctrine. The Shi'ites believe that the successors of Muhammad should have been from his close family (or Ahl al-Bayt) and that Ali should have been first caliph. The Sunnis believe that, although Ali was justified in defending the caliphate from Mu'awiyah, once the Umayyeds took control, it was more important to maintain political stability than to risk the chaos that might have resulted from a civil war. These political differences have developed into substantial theological differences over the centuries.


Iraqi Muslims celebrate Muslim holidays, and Christians celebrate Christian holidays. Because Iraq is not officially an Islamic state, Muslim holidays are not official state holidays. But, since the overwhelming majority of Iraqis are Muslim, their holidays become essentially state holidays. Friday is the Islamic day of rest, so most businesses and services are closed on Fridays. Muslim holidays follow the lunar calendar, moving back by 11 days each year, so their dates are not fixed on the standard Gregorian calendar.

The main Muslim holidays are: Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year, during which Muhammad received his first revelations—celebrated by complete fasting from dawn until dusk each day of the entire month; Ayd Al-Fitr, a three-day festival at the end of Ramadan; Ayd Al-Adha, a three-day feast of sacrifice at the end of the month of pilgrimage to Mecca (known as the Haj)—families who can afford it slaughter a lamb and share the meat with poorer Muslims; the First of Muharram, or the Muslim New Year; Mawoulid An-Nabawi, the prophet Muhammad's birthday; and Ayd Al-Isra wa Al-Miraj, a feast celebrating the nocturnal visit of Muhammad to heaven.

Ahura, which is only commemorated by Shi'ites, is a formal day of mourning for the anniversary of when Muhammad's grandson, Husayn, and a small band of loyal followers were massacred by Yazid, the son of Mu'awiyah, who was named caliph by the Umayyeds after Mu'awiyah's death. Yazid was almost universally despised by the Muslims for his impiety and oppression but maintained a strong army personally loyal to him. The massacre occurred at Karbala' in Iraq. The Muslims who had asked Husayn to oppose Yazid failed to show up at Karbala' to help him against Yazid's army. Today, the holiday has political overtones as Shi'ites cry and lament the failure of the Muslims to defend Muhammad's family and celebrate the bravery of Husayn in opposing an unjust ruler despite terrible odds. For this reason, Iraq's former leader Saddam Hussein had outlawed the commemoration of this important Shi'ite holiday.

Christian holidays center on Christmas (December 25) and Easter (depending on the lunar cycle, occurring sometime in late March or early April). Several secular holidays that were celebrated under Saddam Hussein's regime are no longer officially observed, and the government of Iraq had not established new national holidays as of 2008.


The birth of a child is an occasion for a big celebration, especially if the child is a boy. Boys are usually circumcised at birth. Three days after the birth, family members and friends come to visit and bring gifts for the child. Sometime between 9 and 13 years old, children begin the al'Khatma, or the "reading of the Quran." A child studies for a year or more to prepare for this difficult task. When ready, boys read to men and girls read to women. Those who read without an error earn the title of hafiz. After a successful reading, the family holds a celebration in the child's honor, usually a luncheon or a tea. Relatives give the child gifts and money, and everyone wears colorful clothes.

After children reach puberty, they generally are segregated by gender. Young men and young women attend separate schools and are rarely seen together in public. Early marriage is encouraged, and marriage is considered the start of adulthood. Unmarried daughters and sisters are carefully protected by the male members of their families, and marriages are often arranged. Marriage is considered a contract between families. Dating is relatively rare. In all circumstances, the groom is required to pay a large dowry to the bride's family, but this money is often used to buy furniture for the new couple. Weddings consist of a brief ceremony and several days of parties. After the parties, guests escort the newlywed couple to their new home or to a hotel. Cars following in a procession, honking horns, and in rural areas, bullets are sometimes fired into the air.

Islamic law allows men to have up to four wives, but most Iraqi men have only one wife. Divorce is rare.

Young Iraqi adults expect to take care of parents as they age. As a result, few retirement homes exist in Iraq. When an Iraqi Muslim dies, the body is buried in a grave facing Mecca. After burial, a collective prayer seeking forgiveness for the deceased is offered.


Iraqis are very generous and loyal, and very polite to their friends. If a friend asks for a favor, it is considered very rude to say no. It is taboo to wish bad luck on someone because it might come true. While having a conversation, it is rude to turn one's foot out so that the sole is facing the other person. The left hand is considered "unclean" so it is never used when eating. If someone praises one of an Iraqi's possessions, he or she will insist that the other take it; therefore, it is rude to praise another's things too much.

When talking, Iraqis touch each other much more often and stand much closer together than Westerners do. People of the same sex will often hold hands while talking, even if they are virtual strangers. (Members of the opposite sex, even married couples, never touch in public.) Iraqis talk a lot, talk loudly, repeat themselves often, and interrupt each other constantly. Conversations are highly emotional and full of gestures. Some common Iraqi gestures are:

eyebrows raised and head tilted back = "No."
clicking the tongue = "No."
right forefinger moving right-to-left repeatedly = "No."
right hand moving up and down with the palm facing down = "Be quiet!"
right hand moving away from the body with the palm down = "Go away!"
right hand out while opening and closing the hand = "Come here!"
right hand on heart after shaking hands = show of sincerity
fist with thumb pointing upwards = sign of victory


Living conditions among Iraqis are in disarray as a result of nearly three decades of war. Iraqi society typically consisted of three classes: the upper class, composed of well-known, influential families and government officials; the middle class, composed of government employees, professionals, merchants, small landowners, etc.; and the lower class, comprising the peasants and laborers, rural farmers, and the unemployed. The middle and upper classes traditionally have lived in much better conditions than the lower class. The lower class, mostly rural people, lived in reed and mud huts, generally without electricity or running water. However, all classes have suffered greatly from the war.

Most Iraqis still decorate their homes with religious art, including Quranic verses written in Arabic calligraphy, religious icons, and pictures of the holy Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Homes usually are set up so that a husband and wife occupy one bedroom, and so that girls and boys each sleep in separate quarters. Homes are built of stone and fired bricks. In more peaceful times, Iraqis would sleep on their roofs on hot nights.

Before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, about 60% of Iraqis relied on the United Nations' "oil-for-food" program for basic nutrition. This program allowed Iraq to bypass economic sanctions that had been imposed against Saddam Hussein's government in order to sell oil to purchase food, medicine, and other basic supplies. Since the beginning of the 2003 war, much of that relief has come from humanitarian aid agencies. The country's hospitals are understaffed, and many basic medications are in short supply. Drinking water has been contaminated, and diseases, such as typhoid and cholera, are common. Widespread poverty, malnutrition, and pollution have caused infant mortality to rise in recent years. The infant mortality rate was estimated at 45.43 deaths for every 1,000 live births in 2008, with males less likely to survive childhood than females. Iraqi life expectancy rates also are lower than that of much of the world. The average life expectancy is 68 years for men and 71 years for women. These factors have produced a very young population of Iraqis, with a median age of 20.2 years.


The family is the most important social unit in Iraq, and family loyalty is one of the most important values. Honor, both personal and family, is also very important. It is considered a disgrace to speak badly about a family member, or tell non-family members about bad things that have happened in the family. A "family" consists of all related kin and can include hundreds of people. Rural families live with or near each other. Although urban families do not always live together, they are always willing to help out a family member in need. The traditional household of a typical man in his 40s consists of himself, his wife, their unmarried sons and daughters, their married sons with their wives and children, the man's mother if she is still alive, and frequently his unmarried sisters, if he has any. Very probably, the most powerful force in the household is the man's mother: her sons revere her, and her daughters-in-law must do her bidding. The structure of Arab society is such that financial power is in the hands of the husband, although his wife is not completely without influence. Women have a great deal of power at home and over their children, including their grown sons. Sex roles are very clearly defined in Iraq. Men wield public authority and are the stern disciplinarians at home, whereas women rule in domestic affairs and are the loving, nurturing force at home (often to the point of spoiling their children). In rural areas, this strict division of labor and sex roles causes the sexes to be almost completely segregated except when eating and sleeping.

Most marriages are still arranged by families, but a couple must approve a match. Traditionally, first or second cousins are preferred for marriage partners. Divorce is fairly easy under Islamic law and has no stigma attached to it; even so, it rarely occurs. Children belong to their father's family, and in the case of divorce the father is automatically awarded custody.

Young children are adored and indulged, though they are strictly punished for misbehavior. Older boys are allowed to attend the gatherings of the men, and by listening they absorb many of the cultural values and attitudes that will shape their public behavior. Older girls are very carefully protected. They learn domestic skills through participation. Children are expected to obey their parents and grandparents. Iraqis believe that wisdom increases with age, so the elderly are deeply revered.


Urban Iraqis, for the most part, wear Western-style clothing, although there is a resurgence of fundamentalism that has led some to return to more traditional Arab dress (such as veils for women). Most rural Iraqis wear traditional clothing. Traditional dress for women consists of a veil, which girls begin to wear after their first menstrual period, and a dark robe called an abaaya, which is an outer cloak that covers the body from head to ankle. Under the abaaya, they wear brightly colored dresses. Veils are only removed at home or in female-only groups. For men, traditional dress consists of a caftan and a head cloth. A caftan is an ankle-length robe with long sleeves. Caftans used to be colorful but are plain-colored now. Light cotton caftans are worn in summer, and heavy woolen ones in winter. Head cloths are either wrapped around the head like a turban (rural men) or draped over the head and held in place with a cord (urban men). Kurdish women wear pants under their dresses, while men wear baggy trousers tied with sashes.


Staple foods in Iraq are wheat, barley, rice, and dates. Iraqis cook almost every part of an animal, including the kidneys, liver, brain, feet, eyes, and ears. The meat is usually cut into strips and cooked with onions and garlic, or it is minced for a stew served with rice. Sheep and goats are the most common meat animals, although cows, chickens, fish, and camels are also eaten. Islam forbids the eating of pork. Lamb and mutton are traditionally used for special feasts.

Coffee is prepared in a unique way in Iraq. The beans are ground, then the drink is heated and cooled nine times before it is served. It is believed that this process removes all impurities from the imported product. Iraqis usually drink their coffee with sugar and cream or milk. Coffee and tea are the favorite drinks, served before and after (not during) meals. Ice water is drunk frequently in the summer, and Western soft drinks are popular in the cities. Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol.

An Iraqi meal has several courses, starting with appetizers, such as kebabs, which are cubes of marinated meat cooked on skewers, and soups, which are drunk from the bowl and not eaten with a spoon. A simple main course follows, such as lamb with rice, and ends with a salad and khubaz, which is a flat wheat bread served buttered with fruit jelly spread on top. Iraqis love desserts, especially one called ma'mounia, dating from the 9th century. A recipe for ma'mounia follows.


3 cups water
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
½ cup sweet butter
1 cup semolina
whipped cream
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Put sugar and water in a large saucepan over low heat, and stir constantly until sugar dissolves. Bring mixture to a boil while adding lemon juice. After the syrup boils, reduce heat and let simmer until syrup thickens slightly (about 10 minutes). In another saucepan, melt butter and add semolina. Stir until semolina is lightly fried. Then add the syrup from the other pan, and let the mixture simmer another 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and let cool 20 minutes. Spoon ma'mounia into individual serving bowls, top with whipped cream, and sprinkle with cinnamon.

Makes 4 servings.

(Adapted from Susan M. Hassig, Cultures of the World: Iraq, p.119.)


Before the 1991 Gulf War, the government invested heavily in Iraqi education. Literacy rates increased substantially and more Iraqis had access to higher education. Since then, schools have fallen into disrepair and teachers have been forced to leave jobs that often pay only a few dollars a month. When schools have been able to operate, students sit in overcrowded classrooms and share books. In addition, security concerns have prompted many families to keep their children at home. About one in six students who are eligible to receive free public education are able to do so under the war-like conditions. As of 2000, about one-quarter of the adult population was illiterate.


Iraq has a rich cultural history dating back to the Sumerians, thought to be the first advanced civilization on Earth. Storytelling has been important since the very beginning. Mesopotamian stories have influenced other literature and art in the world, including Biblical stories, such as Adam and Eve, the Song of Songs, and the Psalms, and Greek epics and myths, such as The Iliad and Aesop's Fables. The most famous literary works to emerge from this vast cultural history are the Epic of Gilgamesh (an Akkadian hero-tale) and The Thousand and One Nights (a collection of Arab folktales). Modern Iraqi literature is becoming Westernized in its form and content, turning from the romantic, poetic epics of traditional Arabic literature to short stories about everyday life and non-rhyming poetry on personal subjects.

Visual art in Iraq has been greatly influenced since the 7th century AD by the Islamic prohibition against depicting human or animal forms. Iraqi visual art has, therefore, focused on intricate geometric and floral patterns, as well as calligraphy. The rich legacy of Islamic architecture can be seen particularly in Iraq's mosques, with their detailed mosaics, graceful lines, and beautifully carved golden domes and minarets. Iraq is also famous for its carpets, woven from fine threads in brilliant colors. Painting and sculpture have traditionally been the favored visual arts in Iraq, with television and film-making gaining popularity in recent years.


Iraq was once an agricultural nation, but after oil was discovered it quickly grew to become the principal industry. More than 90% of Iraq's exports are now in the form of crude oil. By 1986, only 30% of Iraqis were still farmers. Wheat, barley, tobacco, and dates are the major crops. Only 10% of the population works in small manufacturing. These industries include textiles, cement, paper products, food processing, and leather. Rural children usually follow in their parents' footsteps. The son of a blacksmith, for example, will become a blacksmith.


Soccer is the favorite sport in Iraq. Besides soccer, there is growing interest in boating, basketball, volleyball, weightlifting, and boxing. The continual warfare of the past few decades has prevented Iraq from developing competitive international sports teams.


Outdoor activities are popular in the mountains of the north, and swimming and fishing are favorite recreations in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers during the summer. Rural men hunt and fish with friends and shop together for food and drinks at the markets and bazaars of the towns. Rural women visit with each other and talk, cook, or make handicrafts. In the cities, people visit museums, haggle over prices in the bazaars, or shop in large shopping complexes with their families and friends. Men frequent teahouses, and everyone enjoys watching television. The most noteworthy fact about Iraqi entertainment and recreation is that it is nearly always done in the company of others. Iraqis are extremely social people.


Handicrafts are very popular in Iraq, and there are hundreds of arts and crafts fairs each year to handle the volume of handicrafts produced. Most crafts are in the form of jewelry, rugs, blankets, leather, and pottery. Village women love to make handicrafts in their leisure time. Several households may chip in together to buy a pottery wheel and share the use of it.


The 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war, the 1991 Gulf War, and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion have produced poverty and social upheaval for Iraqis. It remains to be seen whether the country will recover and thrive under its 2005 constitution or whether internal strife between Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish factions will force Iraqi society to crumble under civil war. Since 1991, the Iraqi middle class has virtually collapsed.

Violence continues in Iraq. The human rights group Amnesty International noted in its 2008 Human Rights Watch Report that thousands of civilians, including many children, were killed in sectarian fighting. Human rights violations were committed by armed militias, Iraq's military forces, and U.S.-led forces. An estimated 2 million Iraqis are believed to have been killed in war-related violence, and about 2.8 million Iraqis are living as refugees within the country. An additional 2.2 million have fled the country in search of safer living conditions abroad. Among those who have stayed, unemployment rates are approximately 40%.


Ongoing violence in Iraq has made conditions in the country increasingly unsafe for women. Although Islamic principles have long enforced such practices as public segregation of individuals by gender, many Iraqi women worked outside the home and enjoyed a great deal of authority in the running of households. This independence has been hampered by death threats, domestic violence, and "honor killings." Many women have been forced to leave jobs or seek refuge abroad. Early marriage continues to be encouraged for women, especially in rural areas, and women who marry outside their religious sect face an increasing threat of violence.


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—revised by H. Gupta-Carlson