The notorious Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad remains in the news, as President Bush promises a “full accounting” of prisoner abuse there and The New Yorker describes another gut-wrenching series of torture photographs from its cell-blocks. But how is the prison’s name pronounced?
The first word is easy: “ah-BOO.” The trouble is the second word, which begins with a phlegmy, guttural “gh” sound uncommon in American English—the sound is peculiar to the Arabic letter “ghayn.” The “r” is easy, but the “ai” is a bit confusing: The word doesn’t share the diphthong vowel sound of “grave” or “grape” as many newscasters seem to think; instead, the vowel is closer to that in “ebb,” but is slightly more extended. So the proper pronunciation sounds something like a French person using a rolling “r” to render “grehhb.” (Click here to hear New York University’s Ahmed Ferhadi pronounce “Abu Ghraib.”)
It’s not just TV journalists getting it wrong; some non-Iraqi Arabs may also mispronounce the latter half of the prison’s name as “ghrah-EEB.” The name “Ghraib” is common in Arab countries, as is the use of “Abu,” meaning “father of,” before a name. But the Baghdad suburb from which the infamous prison takes its moniker actually uses a diminutive version of “Ghraib,” and the difference in pronunciation is indicated only by diacritical marks that are often left out of written Arabic.
Explainer thanks Ahmed Ferhadi at New York University.