Abbas Sarhan
Last updated: 13 March, 2014

Religious business names are swapped for exotic English in Karbala

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 swapping to exotic English or French because they believe branding and marketing is more important. Not everyone is keen on the idea though.

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’ earnings growing and more construction shops, hotels, modern supermarkets, and malls opening in other neighbourhoods too. 

There’s been another change in the relatively conservative city, which is a centre of religious tourism and learning for Muslims. Business owners are starting to brand their stores and offices by names that have nothing to do with religion. They are also using what can be considered modern advertising – their signs now carry phone numbers, pictures, and slogans.

So now one finds a row of shops in Karbala, some with religious names, others called Zero One or 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.

“After 2005 the city has become increasingly prosperous”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 a bakery called Sea Tide.

Mohammed Khader owns a supermarket in central Karbala and believes when people call their stores religious names it is because they feel it will impart some kind of blessing or wealth. 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 the Imam.   

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 since it attracts customers and makes an impression.

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

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“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,” said Rashid Bin Issa, a member of UNESCO, now resident in Europe but visiting Karbala briefly. “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.”

Article mirrored from Niqash.