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what’s in a name
religious business names being swapped for exotic english in karbala

Abbas Sarhan
In the Iraqi city of Karbala, a centre of religious tourism and learning, most retailers use religious names because they supposedly impart blessings and prosperity. But a new generation of storekeepers are…
6.03.2014  |  Karbala
Busy street traders in Karbala.
Busy street traders in Karbala.

A few years ago shops in Karbala all had traditional religious and Arabic names that entailed blessings being showered upon the owners and customers. Today though, the city is expanding and the number of shops is increasing too. In fact, until 2005, commercial activity in Karbala was mainly concentrated in the centre of the city. But after 2005 the city has become increasingly prosperous, with locals earning more and more construction shops, hotels, modern supermarkets, and malls opening in other neighbourhoods too.

At the same time there’s also been another change in the relatively conservative city, which is a centre of religious tourism and learning for Muslims. Business owners are starting to call their stores and offices by names that have nothing to with religion. They have also started to use what can be considered modern advertising – their signs carry phone numbers, pictures, slogans and even the picture of a well-known relative of the business owner.

So now one finds a row of shops in Karbala, all with religious names, except one called Zero One, for example. Or another called Sea Bird.

The owner of Sea Bird, who wished to be known only as Ahmad, says he gave his shop the name because he found it online and just liked the sound of it.

Another store owner, Layth, says most of the unusual names seem to come from other languages. The young men choose these names so that the shop seems different from all the other stores in Karbala.

For example, Layth said, near him are three bakeries. One is called Light of Faith and another is Blessing of the Pilgrim. Then there’s another bakery called Sea Tide.

Mohammed Khader owns a supermarket in central Karbala and he says when people call their stores religious names it is because they believe it will impart some kind of blessing or wealth. For example, one of his friends opened a bakery and called it the Imam Mahdi bakery in the hopes that the name would bring him the blessings of that religious man.

The young people choosing non-religious names do not necessarily believe in the blessings of a name, says local economics professor Saeed Murtada. For them a brand name is more important in that it attracts customers and makes an impression.

Aziz Mahdi is one of these – he has opened an accessories shop and he has decided to call it Beautiful, in the hopes that the name would bring both men and women through his doors.

“I don’t believe that a religious name is going to bring me customers and make people buy my goods,” Mahdi says. “But the name of the shop is very important and it should reflect the kinds of things sold in it.”

After all, a lot of shops have religious names in Karbala but not all of them do well, Mahdi reasoned. “Today profit and loss depend on promotion and marketing,” he argued.

Not everyone agrees with the younger store owners though. Murtada says that city authorities should consider legislating against the modern business’ names, perhaps not giving licenses to operate under those monikers. “The use of foreign names might have a detrimental impact on the city and its culture,” Murtada said.

“Other languages are not better than Arabic,” Rashid Bin Issa, a member of UNESCO, now resident in Europe but visiting Karbala briefly, told NIQASH. “But Arabs are fascinated by those who speak foreign languages because they see those people as living better, more prosperous lives. That’s why they use French and English - because they think they are superior.”