A Cultural Mystery: Symbols from Iraq

Before I chose to use this blog to post my photography, it was intended to host tale of my travels and explorations (hence the name). While digging through old photos, I came across this small set featuring a cultural mystery that’s perplexed me for a decade.

A little background– in 2007 I was serving in Iraq as a paratrooper scout with the 82nd Airborne. Al Qaeda and splinter groups, then known as the Islamic State of Iraq (proto-ISIL/ISIS), had taken over large swathes of the agrarian province of Diyala. Small farming villages dotted tributary rivers that flowed down through the provincial capital city Baqubah (the “house of [biblical] Jacob). Baqubah became a central battleground where AQIZ/ISI hoped to grind the Coalition troops down in gritty urban combat. The rivers acted as covert transportation routes for resupply and the small farms hosted terrorist cells that trained recruits, built carbombs, and acted as resupply. AQ leaders held the townsfolk hostage, hosting public beatings and executions to keep the people in line. To make matters more complicated, the religious factions were actively warring with each other in a de facto civil war.

During Spring 2007, we chased AQ out of several key towns and established outposts, living amongst the people of the valley. In towns where AQ had held reign, we would often see this eye symbol painted on doors or walls, especially near shops. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but later when I became interested in communication, symbols, and regional mythology, I wanted to know more about the meaning and history.

I recall one of our local interpreters telling me it meant a shady shopkeeper who was cheating with prices or sales. The eye meant they were “watching you” or as a warning to potential buyers to keep a close watch on the seller. At the time that sounded reasonable, AQ implemented shariah law and dictated how shopkeepers could do business. The problem is that the terp was a Kurd from the north, and not very literate. It’s possible he just made something up so it didn’t appear like he wasn’t being useful. I have since asked other Iraqis, even one who used to live in this town before AQ moved in, and no one seems to actually know what it means. In fact, no one really wants to even guess and my Google searching doesn’t bring up any examples of this eye.

A couple interesting things– there is a pre-Islamic tradition of the “evil eye” in Arabic cultures. The hamsa symbol often depicts an eye (usually blue) inside a hand as a ward against the evil eye, and it is an extremely dangerous thing to mark someone with the evil eye. This doesn’t seem like a practice extreme adherents to fundamentalist Islam would use. In fact, they would likely do the opposite and destroy the symbols as evil icons.

Second, it appears similar to the Eye of Ra/Thoth/Horus (take your pick). This symbol comes from ancient Egypt and is considered similar to the hamsa. Again, it seems a strange symbol for Wahabbists to use to mark rivals’ homes.

So there it is, my little mystery. Unfortunately, photography was not my primary job or concern at the time, nor was cultural studies so I didn’t document these symbols and these terrible pictures are all I have of proof. I have never seen similar in any other photos from Iraq.


The strange eye symbol. I cannot read Arabic, so I don’t know what the writing says but I believe it tells the type of shop. 



Side of the shop with more writing. 



The eye on the gate and more of the shop. Picture was taken on a terrible camera while driving, so it’s not very helpful. 



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