During the chaos and carnage of the US occupation of Iraq, which began in 2003, when everyday life in the country was fraught with danger, corruption and anxiety, a series of blog posts appeared by a writer calling himself Shalash the Iraqi. Rather than just endure the mayhem, Shalash set out to capture its essence in boisterous and uproarious stories.
Those stories – around 80 of them – provided a constant source of relief and entertainment for a great many Iraqis throughout 2005 and 2006. Set in a small neighbourhood of a huge Shiite suburb of Baghdad, and featuring characters of all stripes, Shalash’s remarkable tales poke merciless fun at human interaction and a grim state of affairs in “a city that readily mixes fiction with reality”.
Shalash’s posts have now been collected in one volume – Shalash The Iraqi – and translated into English (a considerable achievement by Luke Leafgren, who skilfully renders the characters’ Iraqi dialects). After all these years, Shalash remains a man of mystery. However, he is still keen to discuss his work and, to an extent, himself with The National – albeit from a distance.
First, there is the matter of his anonymity and the need to invent a nom de plume.
“Shalash”, it turns out, was created as a safety measure: as a mask to hide behind and a means of security for family and friends.” I receive many emails from people who say 'you have mocked our customs, traditions and religion',” Shalash says.
“In fact, their customs, traditions, and the way they understand the meaning of religion are the reasons for their infighting and homelessness, and the means that opportunistic politicians use to laugh at them. What is the value of customs, traditions and the method of religiosity if they do not prevent you from killing your neighbour who disagrees with you about the doctrine?
“The pseudonym is also an escape from ideological, sectarian and clan classifications,” he adds. “And it gives you the freedom to speak the naked truth. But this is not easy for a person. What makes us accept this life are not the facts we know but the illusions that we adopt. Telling the truth is stressful even for a satirist like Shalash.”
In his foreword to the book, Kanan Makiya shares biographical scraps about his fellow countryman: Shalash is a polymath; he can expertly mimic Saddam Hussein and recite all of his speeches; and he spent eight arduous years on the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war.
Shalash gives nothing away in his short preface, and he signs off by concisely, and cryptically, stating he is “probably somewhere in Iraq.” He is reluctant to flesh out this profile.
“There is little of significant importance to mention about my character,” he says, “except for the fact that I am a human being who was fated to be born in a troubled place. I have experienced life under the cruelest dictatorship and now find myself living in what can only be described as the most absurd democracy the world has ever witnessed.
“Unfortunately, both the dictator and those who followed in his footsteps lack a proper sense of humour. They are deeply committed to their respective agendas – the former treating me as a mere mathematical symbol in his equation, and the latter attempting to transport me back to the seventh century AD, demanding I choose allegiance to a caliph. As a cynical individual, I have no tolerance for such serious jests.”
Unsurprisingly, Shalash is more forthcoming about his writing, particularly the starting point for his stories.
“Imagine that someone who has never seen an American in his life, except in the media, wakes up one morning and sees dozens of Americans on top of their armoured vehicles occupying your street raising the sign of victory with their half-frightened and half-happy smiles. This means that your country did not exist.
“You sit waiting for democracy to be distributed to the people, then suddenly the people around you turn into strangers chanting slogans calling for the fall of the Abbasid state and the death of Harun Al Rashid, who died in 809AD. What would you have done then other than laugh out loud? That’s exactly what I did, I laughed out loud through writing, and it’s my only way to bring people back to their senses.”
Shalash believes this was “a desperate attempt” on his part. It was also an effective one. As Shalash laughed, readers laughed with him. They couldn’t get enough of his stories. They printed them out, copied them out, passed them around or told them to eager audiences. Such appreciation spurred Shalash on.
“Of course, the sudden and rapid spread of my articles was influential,” he says. “It was no longer just a matter of writing satirical articles. My readers made me their conscience, speaking on their behalf at a time when the price of a word was a bullet in the head.”
Shalash’s readers avidly followed the antics of his ragtag cast of characters in Thawra City: politicians, clerics, philosophers, thieves and militiamen. A woman nurses then adopts an American soldier. A barber uses his saliva as shaving cream during power cuts and water shortages. All try to stay afloat in what Shalash describes in one post as “exceedingly complicated political and security conditions, with death, destruction, and booby-trapped beards all around”.
Shalash says that many of his characters are based on people he knew and lived among. “I am one of them,” he reveals. “Perhaps there is a lot of me as a person present in their way of thinking or behaviour.”
One recurring character is Khanjar. “He is us, a sample of our society,” Shalash explains. “He is the radical Islamist, the communist, the atheist, the liberal, the generous, the kind, and the murderer at the same time.”
Shalash wrote regularly amid daily upheavals and never once struggled for inspiration. The “cultural earthquake” that ravaged his country gave him more subject matter than he knew what to do with.
Some of Shalash’s later posts in the book become bleaker in content and more serious in tone.
“All those who came after Saddam made his dictatorial personality with all its tyranny look like a dance party compared to their ugliness,” Shalash says. “I had not previously imagined that there was something worse than Saddam’s dictatorship, but those who followed his rule made me think of my political naivety.”
In the same post, Shalash bewails the fate that has befallen his homeland. He says he wrote it “at an emotional moment”, at a time when “we used to wake up in the morning to discover unidentified corpses lying in the streets.” Today, he says: “Iraq is a good country with a wonderful history,” but adds that the problem is "the political class that rules it".
After captivating readers for two years, Shalash suddenly stopped writing his stories. “I lost my appetite for sarcasm and I didn’t need to repeat myself,” he explains. “Black comedy is a kind of funeral for something dear that fades in front of you. It is not appropriate to laugh until the end while you are sad.”
In his preface to the book, Shalash tells how he found himself “a stranger in my own country.” Baghdad-born journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad’s recently published book about the last 20 years in Iraq is called A Stranger in Your Own City. Shalash says he read that book a month ago and sympathised with the author’s dislocation.
“I was amazed at the similarity between our sense of reality around us, with our common loss of the idea of our country and our society.
“Ghaith and I – and there are perhaps millions like us – have lost the ability to communicate with the culture in which we were born. We are strangers to where we are and I think we will die strangers as well.”