Ahmed Yasin, Iraqi football’s Cristiano Ronaldo, speaks Arabic, Swedish and English. But in a few weeks, the 21-year-old midfielder may need to brush up on a few more languages. Kurdish will be a must, as will Turkmen, and probably Assyrian too.
In December, Iraq’s parliament looks set to end a fractious nine-year search for words to a new national anthem – and surprisingly they will not all be in Arabic.
The anthem is set to feature words from each of the country’s main minority languages. It is a decision that will give Iraq the world’s second-most multilingual anthem, after South Africa’s.
“If we have to learn to sing it, then of course we will,” the footballer said. “If it’s for Iraq, it’s not a problem.”
Iraq has been searching for an anthem since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The American administration selected the current anthem, Mawtini (My Homeland), as a temporary measure in 2004, but MPs have repeatedly failed to agree a replacement since with splits along ethnic lines. Last year, the parliament’s culture and media committee came up with an answer, according to its chairman, Dr Ali al-Shalah.
“We decided to look for texts by the most famous poets in Iraq – people whom everyone could respect. It’s like deciding to take a bit of Shakespeare and make it the English anthem.”
Peace on the Hills of Iraq by Muhammad al-Jawahiri quickly became the frontrunner. Jawahiri is revered by Iraqis of all ethnicities for fighting corruption and social inequality as much as for his poetry. But it did not prove easy to get even agreement for that. Earlier this year, Iraq’s Kurdish politicians called for a whole verse to be in Kurdish. Kurds make up 15-20% of the population and Kurdish is an official language. Turkmen and Assyrian groups soon asked for the same.
Shalah has only just achieved a solution. “The idea is the song is in Arabic, but at the end we say ‘Long live Iraq’ in all the languages,” he says. “We can’t have a song with four verses in four languages. No one would be able to sing it. But I think it’s good to have some words. It’s a symbol that in the new Iraq we respect all cultures and that all cultures want to be part of the country.”
The first lines of Iraq’s new anthem run: “Peace be upon Iraq’s hills, its two rivers, their banks and their bends/ Peace be upon the palm trees, and the lofty mountains spreading light.”
The only barriers to approval, Shalah says, are the “one or two colleagues who are poets. They want their own poems used, but we cannot accept that.” Then all that will be needed is some music. “That will not be a problem,” Shalah adds. “In our culture we speak all the time about poets, not musicians.”
Ahmed Yasin says he is happy to wait for any change. “I actually like the song we have,” he says. “But if they want to change it, it’s no problem for us players.”
[I originally wrote this for the Guardian newspaper. Feel free to read it again there!]