Americans keep asking us all the time to be grateful, having given much thought into what exactly are some of the things that we cannot evade but say "thank you" the way a grateful near-gone patient say it to the smug know-it-all doc, and one of the things no two Iraqis (given that they can read) will argue about being a good byproduct of American Invasiliberoccupation of Iraq is that we got to hear from Shalash al-Iraqi.
The importance of Shalash cannot be overstated enough, at its best, Iraqi art and literature have always verged on a quasi-real ambience that felt borrowed from an unreal, Shakespearean sketch of heroes and villains, it have worsened substantially under the totalitarain years by the added burden of forced tribute to the king - who often wrote novels for farts, what little post-relative war drama that managed to escape fake patriotism failed to reflect a true daring vision of life in an Iraqi street, and Iraqis lost interest following up such laughably unrealistic creations that have simply no relationship to day-to-day motivations of Iraqis; merely pretentious, poseur hambala (one can only point at the horribly languid dramas that showed during Ramadhan such as the laughable parallel-universe "Love Militia".
And out of all this wrecakge of theatrical wannabes and detached artistic indulgences came a voice so real in its simplicity that lights a candle of hope for all Iraqis every morning that he chooses to write. Since Septembr 25, 2005 - Shalash started to publish articles in well-known Iraqi website Kitabat.com, the first one or two articles were nondescript political commentary without any particular course, but soon Shalash began to craft satirical masterpieces about life in now-legendary Sadr City slums, his articles soon gained a large following and is heralded today as perhaps the most read Iraqi writer today. For the Western world, it is best to understand the impact of Shalash al-Iraqi by comparing him to the influence of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when it first hit out - it uses the language of the street to uncover social diseases with unflinching blatancy, there are actually many factors as to why Shalash is such a revered writer, first - quite simply, Iraqis need black humor as a pscyhological defense with urgent demand ; nothing practical seems to work and while we can't fix it, we might as well use the defense of the joke, like the small nourishement of an anti-Saddam joke back in the relatively 'good' days of the moustached tyrant. Second, Shalash manages to hit on all the rights strings that defines a typical Iraqi in a time where it's very hard to find a good depiction of that: From his very name 'Shalash', the image he conveys is of a simple, downtrodden man who looks at the follies of the world at large and cannot do anything about it, a straight man who revers holy figures but is not particularly religious, aware of his sect without it being a problem that transcends his nationality. Politically, Shalash is not biased toward any particular group, he has one day been honored by the government for that day's article which made fun of 'the enemies of the state' only to be severely threatened for the next day's article, like most Iraqis, Shalash is especially spiteful towards all Iraqi politicians and generals and has only apathy for Americans.
Shalash is a great study into the Iraqi psyche.
And, he is so funny.
Shalash is one of the few writers that can make me fall out of my chair in surprised laughter, it is hard to convey to you how exactly he does it and how well he does it, becuase the charm lies in how his words dance together in their streetwise charm - it might be important to notice that the usual written word is Classical Arabic, which further creates a sense of detachment from an Iraqi's everyday experience, when you you open an Arabic novel, you are teleported into a different world. Shalash keeps you firmly entrenched in your mundane surroundings while making their otherwise dull presence shine with gleeful charm. Most importantly Shalash makes you proud of the fact that you are Iraqi, that your culture can be so funny, can be so touching, he brings back a piece of importance and glory to this suffering land that has become largely dependent on past days' glories. Shalsh isn't just a talented talker with the commitment of transcribing his words to paper, he is a crafted, encyclopediac writer who is skilled with all the ins and outs of storytelling - Taking Sadr City as a starting point, Shalash creates a dynamic universe to set his stories in: while not fictional by any means, Shalash utilizes an array of characters who are often comical exaggerations to create an enjoyable experience that carries his idea forward, characters such as fan-favorite Khanjaar, (literally translates as dagger), an ignorant, flamboyant person with who always is where the money at, a somewhat accurate comic sketch of the mentality of people in the Mahdi's Army or Nowira, wife of Ghurab (Enlightened, wife of Crow): the woman who knows all the secrets and scandals of the street or many others, Shalash has managed to provide a consistent string of classics until February of 2006, where his tone has notoriously changed - his writings became less frequent and when he did actually write, his articles lacked his quick down-to-earth wit and were instead formless ravings about how bad it is with machinegun curses at most of the Iraqi politicians, a tactic far removed from Shalash's masterful humilitation of them in his earlier articles, Zeyad said that one of his friends has been killed, but I have no evidence of this anywhere. However, as of late - Shalash seems to be recovering and is writing more regularly, his recent writings seem to indicate that he has a newfound hunger and is recuperating, it is still not as good as his older ones, and some people doubt that it comes from the same person, but we may now be blinded by the weight of expectation or it needs some time to sink in.
Little is known about Shalash's true identity for reasons understood, judging from his knowledge about Sadr City it is safe to say that he has lived there for some time, but it is doubtful whether he continues to live there now.
A SAMPLE OF HIS WRITINGS:
Shalash's pieces sometimes are just for the fun of it, but more often than not they are allegories that might be missed if u don't look close enough, I have chosen this piece because its brilliance lies not in its language but in the idea, it is one of the few pieces which Shalash has written largely in Classical Arabic.
"THE ETERNAL NIGHTMARE OF COMRADE JABIR"
16 October 2005
The tale of Jabir and Mahdi begins in 1982, when comrade Jabir, a Baath official in one of al-Thawra* city's districts insisted to pry Mahdi from the arms of his mother and two orphaned sisters to enscript him in the ranks of the People's Army to contribute in the war against the "Fire-worshipping Iranian" enemy.
Mahdi tried and tried to evade his fate by changing the courses and timings of his comings and goings between his home and his workplace at "al-Jawadain bakery shop", but he finally fell into the trap, while Mahdi was going to work in an early morning hour Jabir finally managed to trap him and to force him inside the section's car. Mahdi's tears and beggings did not soften the heart of comrade Jabir nor his fellow comrades, and when Mahdi gave up on it, He only asked for a chance to inform his sick mother, who has nobody to support her but him, but the Party taught Jabir to only follow the prinicples. The car drove on and Mahdi found himself in a training camp away from his mother's eager heart, who awaited him duly on the doorstep until late night when she knew for sure that he fell into comrade Jabir's vile hands. "What I feared has come true" she said to herself and sobbed heartfully. The next day, she called upon Fatima, her eldest daughter, to show her the way to the comrade's house, which is normally called 'The official's house', a weak hand knocked on the door, and comrade Jabir opened it and explained to her with courtesy that the country needs men and out of his respect for Mahdi's neighboring of him he will ask for someone to take care of him, adding that it's "only a matter of months". when Mahdi's mother explained in between tearful shrieks their hard living conditions "By the Abaas, we do not have a lump of bread", comrade Jabir curtly said that "The country is passing through a difficult historic stage and we must sacrifie the expensive and the precious for the eyes of Abu Oday*, this is what men are destined for."
In the first attack he was flung into, Mahdi was captured in the famous 'al-Shoosh' battle, to find himself in a camp on the Soviet-Iranian borders where he lived his youth as a prisoner facing extremely difficult conditions: "We ate very few rice and bread, never meat, and we tried to cut our way through ice which was a meter thick, by our plates, hearing nothing of the outside world and on top of that...." Such a thing was normally heard from Mahdi upon his return.
In 1987, one of the most bizarre, if not nightmarish, things happened, as during a visit of a member of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution (SCIRI) to the prison camps to issue a religious seminar, a man by the name of Fadhil who wore a turban and was close to al-Hakim's family which owns the council, this man was accompanied by four aides, the foremost of them was, lo and behold, comrade Jabir, yes, comrade Jabir who also was captured in 1985 and announced his repention, becoming one of the repentors who formed the Badr Brigade.. Madhi felt the earth shaking below him seeing that the heavens has unleashed Jabir upon him in his homeland and now to this forgotten spot of the earth....oh my god, what is going on!! Mahdi said this while his eyes shot to the sky. Comrade Jabir took a few steps towards Mahdi after having recognized him, he said: "God has sent me as mercy to you, oh Mahdi, how much have you changed...look at the white enveloping your hair, what ghost do I see? Are you really Mahdi, my longtime neighbour, do not lose hope, God will forgive you, come, I shall register your name with one of the repenters to be one of the heores of Badr Brigade, under the banner of Imam Khomeini may God extend his presence, we shall free Iraq from the unbelieving tyrant Saddam may God curse him."
Mahdi took a long look at Jabir's equally long beard and his new appearance, and he replayed in his head the image of this wolf when he spoke about principles and the Qadissiya* of Saddam, and the banner of the hero of national liberation, valiant comrade Saddam Hussein (May Allah bless him and keep him)." He regained what might he has and said: "Listen Comrade Jabir....Hasn't it been you who has brought me here? Hasn't it been you who ruined my life? What do u want more of me?! Have you not prevented my mother from my sight and left my sisters shelterless? Ok, I forgive you for all of this...but if you want to make a traitor out of me then by God that I will not forgive....in the end of days you want to make me an agent....of what are you made? There an official and here an official, what the hell are you?!"
Jabir smiled slyly and replied quitely to his poor prey: "Listen Mahdi, you are not one who is of use and you must have believed yourself, you must know that I am a leading person, here, there or in Mars. God created me a leader, what can I do? It's not in my hand...I'll give you a week to think this through and after this you know what can be done to you....you dirty, unbelieving Baathist!" Mahdi held himself and restrained a spit that urged to let go, he turned his face away from this low agent and withdrew inside his cage with tears raining from his eyes.
A week later, comrade Jabir would host daily torture parties for Saddamist Mahdi, as he liked to call him, torture parties that Mahdi could not fully describe, because the minute he remembers them his eyes swell with tears, his face goes pale and his temperature goes up, only to sweat and to shy away from those present.. Days passed, the war was over and Mahdi returns to find that his mother has passed away after losing her sight in sadness for his departure, while his thin sisters are living on the aids of neighbors and the charity of relatives...Mahdi depended on God and began his life anew in the bakery shop during the horrible years of economic blockade....
Days yet again passed, Saddam's regime collapsed and things got messy. Today, in the constitutional referrendum center, which Mahdi decided to vote yes for, he entered with his elderly composure, curved back and hesitant steps...slowly he headed towards the record employees, and suddenly his eyes fell upon two eyes that were watching him between a number of Badrist ring-yielding bearded men who were watching the center, his soul shrank and he almost fell face flat on the floor when Jabir called loudly:
"Mahdi! Lak* Mahdi is that you? What brings you here?!"
Mahdi grunted a near-dead yes that even he could barely hear.
"What will you vote for, ya* Baathi?"
"Yes. I will vote a yes and if you would like you can write it for me."
"Ah ya Mahdi the Baathi, what did you refuse to repent and spent your years rotting in cages, why did you not believe me when I said that I am a natural-born leader and you are an insect, but an insect that cannot make heads from tails."
Mahdi stared into the face of his perennial tormentor and said: "You are a traitor....a natural-born traitor." Mahdi said that sentence and disappeared.
*: Thwra: Sadr City's name before Saddam's time, in which it was named Saddam City (people still called it by its original name, Thawra, in their normal conversation, which is its original name, literaly meaning Revolution)
Qadissiya: Baath term for the Iraq-Iran war, allegroy to the historic Battle of Qadissiya, during which Arabs conquered Iraq from Persians
Lak: Iraqi preposition, a rugged form of calling someone that can be either offensive or ruggedly friendly. it's short for 'Wayl Lak', which means "A plague be upon you"
Ya: Arabic preposition, meaning 'O', as in 'O Lord'.
The way I see it, this story has a simple moral and a more composed one, the first of which is the direct criticism of SCIRI and people who always seek to rule over others - and the other is an allegory to Iraqis and their rulers during the course of several reigns, as Jabir becomes the complete shell for the cruel Iraqi ruler and Mahdi is the suffering citizen. Note that while the narrative is in classical Arabic, all dialogue between characters is rendered in slang, except the first speech given by Jabir when he repents, to add a religious and authoritative weight to it which is quickly countered by his fact-sheet style second speech.