It’s great to talk straight. But life is complex, and logical articulations can often be inadequate, failing to express existence’s vastness, mysteries, and possibilities.
In Iraq—the cradle of civilization—this notion is familiar. Perhaps that’s why people often greet one another with a perplexing question that can work like a Zen koan to open the mind. The Iraqi equivalent of “what’s up?”—shaku maku—asks: What is everything and nothing?
In the seeming senselessness of the question lies its wisdom. Shaku maku has a profound meaning that can’t be understood with reason alone, relying on something else, beyond thought, perhaps a feeling for how strange life is. Everything and its opposite are possible, and contradiction is the only space that can contain them.
Rob Kunzig writes in Atlas Obscura that Iraqis get shaku maku inherently—it makes sense to them culturally in a way it wouldn’t to others—because they’re familiar with unique absurdities on many levels. Civilization’s cradle, the birthplace of literature, is now a crumbling, war-torn nation with few libraries, low literacy rates, and constant military action. “The riddle at the heart of shaku maku seems to sum up the contradictions of the modern Iraqi experience,” he writes.
This question is presented with a wink. It’s a playful paradox that acknowledges unpredictability. It’s also, Kunzig explains, an invitation to share, which may or may not be accepted.
Easy answers are maku shi, meaning ”there’s nothing” or alhamdulilah, meaning “praise god” which functionally serves as “all good.” But more extensive responses may follow shaku maku—“the full litany of joys and sorrows” in Kunzig’s words—and the listener’s expected to get it…because, well, life’s complicated.
The true origins of shaku maku are unknown but the phrase is thought to be ancient. Akeel Abbas al-Khakani a professor at the American University of Iraq Sulimaniyah told Kunzig that it seems to stem from the Mesopotamian language Akkadian and is a mashup of several words.
In Akkadian, akoon means “there is” or “exists,” which in Arabic became aku. It was combined with sha, “what,” and ma, a negation. Together they make shaku maku, which literally means “what exists, what does not exist?”
Contemplate this question and you may become illuminated, or at least grow somewhat wiser. In that sense, shaku maku is not unlike a Zen koan, a riddle that masters give aspirants on the Zen Buddhist path to force the thinker beyond rational thought. Only when your mind can comfortably contain the contradictions and cease making distinctions do you approach wisdom, or so say the Zen masters.