Maybe you dubbed me schizophrenic. Or maybe you just thought (oh so wrongly) that I’m someone who doesn’t really mind style or consistency within a written product. But you’ve probably noticed that since the inception of this blog, I’ve spelled my dear host city in a few different ways. What’s up with that?
Well, let’s look at the world around me. The Kurdistan Regional Government website spells it Suleimaniah, and that should be a fairly authoritative source, right? Not so fast. If you look at the official name of the American University of Iraq, it’s Sulaimani. In Quil Lawrence’s extensive book on the Kurdish struggle for independence, “Invisible Nation,” it’s Sulimaniyah. On the city’s international airport’s website, it’s Sulaymaniyah. And Google suggests you might have meant to type Sulaimaniyah. Huh.
Two things in play here. First, the usual conundrum of having to spell, using our very own letters, a word originating in a language that uses an Arabic alphabet. There is no set way to write any Arabic or Kurdish sound that doesn’t exactly match a letter in our repertoire, especially vowels, and my host city is a prime victim of such epistolary maltreatment. Similarly, there are three ways of writing the sound corresponding to our letter “h” in Arabic, depending on how you woke up that morning. Hard “h,” dirty “h,” warm “h”… And of course, one can get quite creative with the Arabic/Kurdish spelling of my name, I’ve found (most ways of spelling it give the name a feminine connotation, go figure). Truth is, as a side note, that most Middle Easterners I’ve met while in the US don’t care how you spell their name using the Latin alphabet – whichever way you choose, it’s not really their name anyways. And that was a hard concept to grasp for consistency/style/format-obsessed writers in the Washington, DC communications world, believe me (myself included).
Second, there’s that issue of this area of Iraq having gone back and forth between two languages over the past decades. At different stages during Saddam’s rule, Arabic was forced as the only official language of the country, and to some degree imposed on the Kurds. However, Kurdish remains the primary and most culturally relevant language of the people of this region (although of course, without getting into details, there a couple of distinct Kurdish dialects within a 100-mile radius that differ significantly from each other). In Kurdish, the name of the city is closer to “Silemani,” while in Arabic, it’s more like “Sulaimaniyah.” And, thanks to those subtle differences in pronunciation, one could get lost in the million different ways to spell each version using good ol’ A-through-Z.
I would probably be ready to commit to Sulaimani, as that’s a fairly close interpretation of the Kurdish pronunciation of the city’s name, not to mention that’s how my employer spells it. But, truth is, the different types of spelling are interchangeable. And I kind of like saying it the Arabic way sometimes, with that long vowel party at the end: Suleimaniiiiyyyaaah.
As I’ve done since Sar Chaw’s launch, I think I’ll mostly just stick with Suly, the city’s warm nickname. But excuse me if once in a while I divert – absolutely knowingly – from one version to the other. After all, in a multi-ethnic society, it’s all about making everyone happy.