Caricature in Iraq — a resilient art under threat
Baghdad - Ahmad Fallah, Mortada Kazar and Haytham Radi are Iraqi cartoonists whose drawings that mock and criticise Iraqi politicians and clergy made them famous but also have them under constant threat by political parties and extremists.
The caricatures, shared extensively on social media, became popular and were used in anti-corruption protests expressing anger at politicians and Islamic parties that cover for them.
Although satirical art is not new to Iraq, it has thrived since 2003, tackling a wide range of political, economic and security issues. Such criticism was banned under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.
Cartoonists, however, have been threatened by militias, forcing many to flee Iraq. The offices of Al- Sabah Al-Jadid newspaper were attacked in 2015 for publishing a caricature of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“I have left Iraq in 2014 after receiving threats from Jaysh al- Mukhtar militia for drawing a caricature of their leader, Wathiq al-Battat, on the cover of al-Fikr magazine,” says Fallah, who now lives in Indonesia.
“Had I stayed in Iraq, I would have definitely been liquidated because of my drawings, which are gaining wide popularity among the youth for criticising figures who are considered as untouchable and ‘sacred’,” Fallah said in a Skype interview.
Among his most popular caricatures and one that drew the wrath of Islamists is a depiction of Saddam wearing the turban of a cleric, with a prayer bump on the forehead, mockingly showing his dedication to prayer.
While in Jakarta, Fallah drew the leader of the Sadrist movent, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, holding a Cuban cigar, and former Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki sitting in the courtroom dock where Saddam was placed during his trial for crimes against Iraqis.
Being outside Iraq gave Fallah more margin of freedom of expression, though it is more difficult for him to follow developments at home.
“I constantly monitor Iraqi politicians, read about their stances and listen to their declarations to help me clarify the idea or theme of my caricatures. I sometimes rely on friends to feed me with data and fresh information about developments,” he added.
Fallah’s social media accounts, which are followed by thousands of Iraqis, are the spaces he uses to express himself. “No local (Iraqi) publication published my drawings because they will be simply threatened or prosecuted,” he said. “Social media helped disseminate my works, especially the caricatures of the turbaned Saddam and cigar-smoking Muqtada al-Sadr, which were well-received by the public and raised during demonstrations.”
Ziad al-Ajili, director of Iraq’s Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, said that “the idea of cartoons is not seen as an art with a purpose in Iraq but rather as a way of ridiculing the depicted persons. This is how most political parties view it.”
“Threatening cartoonists is not something new. It is an old problem that was produced by the nature of Iraq’s political systems. Iraq is certainly not an ideal environment to express oneself,” Ajili said.
Haytham Radi, who is known for his original caricatures, emphasised a growing boldness of young cartoonists in raising sensitive issues. “Cartoonists in the ‘70s and ‘80s were much more conservative than the present generation, who could expand and reach far through Facebook without having to resort to newspapers or magazines.”
Initially a writer, Radi shifted to satire 20 years ago, using drawings instead of words to convey his ideas. “To ‘draw’ an idea is much more difficult but recipients have a much bigger margin to interpret drawings,” he said.
“For instance, I was among the first to tackle religious fundamentalism and expose extremists, without, however, digging into inner causes. The idea was to portray extremism as a problem in general and it could reach all (parties) without exception,” he explained, stressing, though, that in Iraq “one should be vigilant about challenging taboos”.
Cartoonist Mortada Kazar, 34, who doubles as scriptwriter, said his works target the intellectual elite with the aim of provoking discussion and debate of ideologies. “The idea is to shed light on the situation in the country and not on a specific event or development,” he said.
In his drawings, Kazar expresses his own personal reading or opinion on the situation in Iraq. He said: “I specifically want the so-called ‘religious, pious people’ and the authorities who have been tyrannising Iraqis and confiscating their freedoms to get the messages.”
He noted, however, that “these people do not read what we write or see what we draw but cartoonists (have only the pen), not arms or militiamen like the powerful people in the government and the political parties.”
With no protection for freedom of expression, cartoonists in Iraq will continue facing criticism and threats but Radi said he is determined to keep on exposing rampant corruption, political rivalries, insecurity and religious extremism.
“We might not be able to change the existing equation,” he said, “but with our concerted efforts we can at least alleviate hatred and enmities.”