How Do You Pronounce “Abu Ghraib”?

Hint: It doesn’t rhyme with “babe.’

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.

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Explainer thanks Ahmed Ferhadi at New York University.