Iraqi artist uses murals to blast Trump’s travel ban
Baghdad - “It is really strange and ridiculous to consider the Iraqi people terrorists,” said Iraqi graffiti artist Arkan al-Bahadli. “We have been waging a fierce war against terrorism, sustaining losses and damage only to find ourselves labelled as terrorists by the new American president.”
Revolted by US President Donald Trump’s executive order banning visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, Bahadli, 38, has taken to the streets of his home city of Basra in southern Iraq to ridicule the move.
“Iraq and the US are supposed to be strategic allies and the latter is expected to protect Iraq’s interests and security and not antagonise the people who are the most afflicted by terrorism,” Bahadli said in a telephone interview.
One of the large four bright murals he spray-painted in the centre of Basra depicted Trump as a bull attacking a Statue of Liberty holding, instead of the torch, a handful of grass to appease the raging bull. Another mural showed Trump as a danger sign covered with bright yellow hair and coils of barbed wire surrounding an American flag with new US president’s face superimposed on a skull and cross bones.
“The idea to resort to the street to criticise the US president travel ban was spontaneous, but it has obviously made a strong impact in Basra and across Iraq as well,” Bahadli noted.
Although Trump’s ban has been blocked by the US courts and is subject to future litigation, many Iraqis say they are shocked and insulted by the move. Iraq’s parliament called for reciprocity measures that would ban Americans from entering Iraq.
“The reaction of the people is also largely inspired by the political and religious parties which reject US policies in Iraq,” Bahadli said.
The graffiti artist is known for his outspoken criticism, which forced him to go into hiding when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq. His uncles were executed by the former regime in 1982 and two of his brothers arrested for opposing Ba’ath Party rule.
“It was a turning point after which I have dedicated my art to criticising the regime, despite the extremely difficult conditions I’ve been through with my family,” Bahadli said.
Bahadli said he was deeply influenced by Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali and his subtle drawings criticising the Israeli occupation. After Saddam’s regime was deposed, Bahadli said he hoped for positive change in Iraq, a dream he said was “merely an illusion”.
“We are still suffering from instability. The future is uncertain and does not inspire any hope because of rampant corruption and deteriorating political and security conditions. My daily observations made me even more determined to decry the situation with drawings,” Bahadli said.
His criticism of the situation in the country resulted in death threats, despite the relative margin of freedom that Iraqi cartoonists acquired after 2003.
“Certain subjects are still taboos that I cannot tackle in my drawings, notably religious leaders and influential politicians. On the other hand, I have illustrated the ugly armed feuds between tribal communities, lawlessness and the weakening of state authority plaguing Basra and the rest of south Iraq,” he said.
In an unprecedented initiative to help erase the traces of battles in cities liberated from the Islamic State (ISIS), Bahadli organised a drawing campaign in Falluja and al-Alam, a move that helped build bridges between the mainly Shia south and the Sunni areas.
“The idea is to have an exhibition that promotes national unity. The drawings carried messages rejecting sectarian divisions. Residents participated in most of the works by drawing simple cartoons just to leave their fingerprints,” Bahadli said.
For Bahadli, the art of graffiti and caricature is a subtle tool to influence the minds and convey messages. He said he would continue to paint until his message about Trump’s ban is received by the new US president.
“My message to Trump is that Iraqis are not terrorists. I hope he will reconsider his decision,” he said.