In Kirkuk, Mobile Ringtones Are a High-Stakes Exercise in Identity Politics
Bus passengers in Kirkuk fire angry glances at Ahmed Ali as he takes on a call on his mobile phone.
The young man soon realizes why: the Kurdish song that serves as his ringtone singles him out as an ethnic Kurd on a bus used by many Arabs and Turkomans.
“Immediately after that, I changed my ringtone to the default one provided by the phone’s manufacturers,” said Ahmed Ali, who did not give his real name for security reasons.
In Iraq’s most diverse and disputed province, mobile phone ringtones play a big part in the politics of identity. Kirkuk contains most of Iraq’s many religious and ethnic groups, and has been described as everything from a colourful bouquet of flowers to a powderkeg.
The fear that Kirkuk’s largely ethnic politics could ignite an all-out war runs so high that the region was left out of Iraq’s provincial elections last month.
While many Kirkukis say have they lived side-by-side for decades despite their differences, some are also increasingly identifying with their ethnicity or religion.
Husam al-Din Ali owns a toyshop in Kirkuk city and describes himself as a proud Turkoman. He reveals his ethnicity every time his phone rings.
Ali’s mobile ringtones are Turkoman songs and anthems that state who he is and where his politics lie.
“I think it is the right time for the Turkomans to have a voice that can echo throughout Kirkuk because we have suffered too much persecution,” he added.
Having Turkoman ringtones “is the least we can do to boost our community and show others how important we are”, he said.
Owners of shops selling mobile phones say demand for ethnic and religious songs increases before major holidays.
Kurds like fresh ringtones for Nawrooz, a new year’s holiday celebrated in their community. Meanwhile, demand for somber cries skyrockets during Ashura, an important mourning period for Shia.
Kirkuk’s Turkomans are particularly partial to theme music from several Turkish television soap operas that were recently rebroadcast in Arabic.
Falah Ali, a mobile shop owner, said he has sold about 1,500 ringtones from wildly popular series, which have titles such as "Tears of the Rose" and "The Lost Dream."
Ringtones cost a maximum of 250 dinar (20 U.S. cents), making them affordable even for young Iraqis.
Hiwa Shorsh, a secondary school student, said his Kurdish ringtone cost him a friendship. The song he chose hinted that Kirkuk should be incorporated into Iraqi Kurdistan, an idea that many non-Kurdish Kirkuk residents fiercely oppose.
"When I was sitting with my friends in school, my mobile rang, and of course I had that song,” he said. “It annoyed my Turkoman friend. We had a misunderstanding and our friendship ended.”
"I can identify someone based on the ringtone he wants,” said Abu Saif, the owner of a mobile phone repair shop.
Abu Saif said more and more devout Muslims have been requesting Islamic ringtones, such as verses of the Koran or songs from Islamic musicians.
"I hope ringtones won't be another factor splitting the people of Kirkuk,” he said. “The barriers between the different religious and ethnic groups have increased. We don't want ringtones to be added to them, considering that we’re always carrying mobiles in our pockets.”
Idris Nadhim, a university lecturer, said the ringtones have emerged as identity-based political parties and alliances battle for power in Kirkuk.
"Politics has started to creep into our daily lives in the smallest ways because of the ethnic tensions and instability in Kirkuk,” he said.