Arabic number twelve

Last week I sat on a mountain ridge overlooking the city of Duhok, snacking on curry-dusted broad beans and talking work and politics and culture for hours with a Kurdish friend I’ve known for four years. Located in the far north of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region of Iraq, Duhok Governorate hasn’t seen conflict in over two decades. Since the outbreak of the war in Syria it has hosted many thousands of refugees, including those in Domiz Camp where I worked with MSF in 2012 and 2013. In 2015 and 2016 many of these refugees, as well as a number of locals, made their way abroad and others are planning to do so in the coming months.

My friend weaves Kurdish sayings into everyday conversation at an impressive rate, and the occasional joke slips in as well. As we talked of the exodus from this stable and extremely peaceful area, he told me this one:

I was speaking with some young people, and they said they plan to go to Europe when they have the chance. I asked them, “Why you will go? Here it is safe, and Da’esh is losing the war in both Iraq and Syria. They will never arrive to this region. You should stay.”

“Yes,” they replied, “but don’t you remember? Before Da’esh we had Saddam, and after Saddam we had al-Qaeda. So you see there is always another evil waiting to take the place of the last one. Even after Da’esh is destroyed, it will be even more worse: Thna’ash will come.”

Before I continue, non-Arabic speakers need to understand a couple of basics:

  1. Da’esh is simply the Arabic acronym for ISIS. The meaning is exactly the same, but in Arabic acronyms are very rarely used and in this case it is largely the reduction from a grandiose name to an ugly acronym that the group’s members dislike. You can read a detailed explanation here: “Decoding Daesh”.

  2. The number eleven in Arabic is officially أحدعشر but commonly pronounced حدعش or hda’ash, which sounds very similar to داعش (da’esh) when spoken quickly. The number twelve is commonly pronounced ثنعش or thna’ash.

And now, back to the joke:

“What are you talking about?!?” asked my friend, perplexed. “What’s Thna’ash?”

“Zombies!” they replied.

(Another version of the joke substitutes Donald Trump in place of Zombies)