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Yes, No, Inshallah: Navigating The Divine Art of Evasion Amongst Arabs

from divine will to divine won’t

“Inshallah, I’ll call you in two hours and let you know,” my uncle casually replied when I desperately asked him for a lift to the airport. My flight was in four hours, so when I told him that I’d rather get a taxi instead, he sounded relieved. Of course, I wasn’t going to miss my flight because he couldn’t say no, which left me wondering: why is it that Arabs around the world struggle to muster a definitive yes (or no)?

In the earlier days of my childhood, between my Iraqi parents’ instance on speaking my native tongue at home and Arabic school on Saturdays, I was introduced to the word “Inshallah.” Stripped of any social connotation, “Inshallah” translates to “God willing”– a fitting response to uncertainties like whether or not you did well on your final year exams. Essentially, it serves as the go-to answer in cases when you lack a definitive answer and place your trust in God for the outcome. But I, like many before me, found that “Inshallah” was a complete answer in itself; neither a yes nor a no, but instead, a polite, simple, and ambiguous middle ground leveraged by loved ones to avoid conflict and appease the asker.

Like said, with time, its meaning shifted from “God willing” to a wishy-washy maybe. But it wasn’t long until I realized that I was being shut up and shut down with this veto-like response. “Baba, can you buy me a Wii?” “Inshallah”. “Mama, can I go to this party?” “Inshallah.” Very effective. VERY confusing. It was used almost always to dodge disagreements and teenage temper tantrums as the simple word basically became the new no.

I remember everything being “Inshallah-ed”. And there was only so much I could respond back to it. Technically speaking, all these things could still happen if God willed it. So what could I do if he didn’t? Realistically though, it only depended on whether Mama and Baba were willing to grant my request.

I came to realize that there’s a reluctance to commit to an answer, to plans, to promises on this side of the world. This reluctance to commit is a well-practiced art. It’s like our unofficial national sport– no definitive yes’s or no’s, just a never-ending state of uncertainty. And really is that so wrong? I can’t speak for everyone, and maybe I’m making excuses for the noncommittal approach, but considering the tumultuous backdrop of Iraq’s history and similar stories across the Arab World, it might be considered wise to avoid concrete plans. Perhaps the reason my mum and dad, like many Arabs, genuinely can’t commit is because it’s unwise to promise something for tomorrow when tomorrow isn’t promised. Or maybe my dad just really didn’t want to fork out on that Wii and my mum didn’t want to play chauffeur to my teenage social life.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard “Inshallah” used as a substitute answer as much as I have in the last 10-months of living in Baghdad. Having recently moved from London, one of the first pieces of advice I was offered was from a Baghdadi-born colleague, warning me that 90% of plans that are made and confirmed with “Inshallah” simply won’t happen. And he was right. Day trips, dinner dates, and downtown escapades all put on hold, nudged ever so slightly to the back burner by one short, infamous reply.

I’ve had an outing with my cousin planned every weekend since I got here. It was supposed to be the first week I got here and has been pushed back and “Inshallah-ed” ever since. I haven’t been out with them once. “Inshallah” might be the ultimate excuse to escape without hurting someone’s feelings, but it leaves you perpetually waiting on divine intervention and makes for a reputation of unreliability. It’s ironic considering this region where “wajib” (duty) is hailed as an uncompromising value, yet people continue to dodge decisiveness, social commitments, and responsibilities like Bush dodged Muntadhar al-Zaidi’s shoe in ‘08.

Even more serious commitments like the promise of an airport drop off, the hunt for a new house, or even service appointments with businesses aren’t excluded from the list of plans that will never be. Maybe I have only myself to blame for taking “Inshallah” so literally, when my own experience with the word and common society understand that the definition has evolved to mean “unlikely.” Perhaps I am the one with too much faith.

The word carries great weight, especially in majorly religious communities, and its use is testament to how little control humans do have in their own lives. At the same time, I’ve learned now that any plans sealed with an “Inshallah” are best pencilled in lightly and not penned. In fact, double booking isn’t a problem as it’s probable that neither will materialize.

It’s a fascinating contradiction, where a society that prides itself on honor and duty has mastered the art of avoidance, turning “Inshallah” into the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card. It was, and still remains, an elegant evasion entangled in the divine will that I unfortunately have become fond of using myself. You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the noncommittal “Inshallah” merchant yourself.

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