Shalash: شلش العراقيية (Shalash the Iraqi)
An anonymous Iraqi blogger, using the pseudonym Shalash wrote a blog in 2005-2006, i.e. in the post-Saddam era. In the preface to the English-language book, he explains his rationale as well as explaining the situation for non-Iraqis, including such issues as the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, the role of the various imans, before and during and after Saddam, what the US did during the occupation and what the situation currently (i.e. 2005-2006) is.
Shalash lives in Thawra City which we know as Sadr City though he will continue to use the term Thawra City. This book is the collection of his blog posts and the publishers have called it a novel. How much of what he describes is true, how much based on fact and how much pure fantasy, we do not know, but there is no doubt that there is a strong element of exaggeration, a considerable amount of mocking/satire and, undoubtedly, a lot of fiction. From our point of view it is both witty and a fun read but it also shows what Iraq was like in that era, from the point of view of the ordinary Iraqi ,which we do not generally learn about in the West.
I would imagine if a similar blog were to be done anywhere in there world or, at least, anywhere, you could more or less criticise freely without being locked up, politicians would be the focus of the criticism and the satire and it is no different here. Not surprisingly. Shalash is not too impressed with the politicians.
Shalash makes it clear that there were no Baathists (Saddam’s party) in Thawra – According to the testimony of no less a personage than Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the U.N., our block is entirely clean of Ba’athists. Nevertheless, when Saddam was in power, people had to watch Saddam on television, not least because there was only the one channel, the Saddam channel. Now however, there is satellite TV so when the politicians come on the main channel you can go and watch music videos or porn. In the past the sayings of Saddam were posted all over the place but now, apart from the efforts of Khanjar (that dissembling son of a dissembling father), this does not happen.
Of couse the politicians continue to make promises that they will never carry out (they’re going to turn Thawra into nothing less than a new Switzerland and all sorts of foreigners are going to do wonderful things, Yeah, right). We see this during the elections when Shalash and his neighbour make a tour of the many political parties and come away laden with
bribes, sorry, gifts. As his neighbour wisely points out after the elections are over, believe me, you won’t get a cent, and nobody will even look at you anymore. As we shall see elsewhere in this account the Iraqi experience in such matters is by no means unique to Iraq.
There is also a new constitution they are going to vote on and it seems that there are different versions of the text which causes some consternation. When Shalash asks Khanjar (that dissembling son of a dissembling father) how he is going to vote he says True, it contradicts itself in places, is pretty confusing in others, and surely is no vessel for even lowliest ambitions of our great nation. But, look—it’s a constitution. It’s really not so bad but will not exactly say how he plans to vote. Another comment is The people most eager to vote in favour for the constitution were the ones who didn’t read it, or at the very least didn’t understand the first thing about it.
The matter will later get complicated when Thawra and neighbouring districts want to be independent from Baghdad and set up their own constitution.
However like voters elsewhere in the world we’ve forgotten about water, electricity, sewers, and other services, and all we want is to still be alive when the sun rises tomorrow. What kind of life is that?
Religion is key but perhaps not as key as we might think. The people of Thawra are Shiites but are not strict observers. We learn, for example, about the ibeed, the dark-skinned people of the area, who are revered and one of the main reason they are revered is that they played a heroic role, inscribed forever in the pages of glory, by secretly providing Thawra City with all the arak, gin, vodka, and cold beer we needed during Ramadan. Now, of course, they use burner phones for people to order alcohol. Drinking alcohol – forbidden to Muslims, of course – will reappear in this book.
If there are some key themes, over and beyond daily life inThawra City, they are politics and Khanja. We continue to follow the constitution and the local political scene. Not surprisingly, the people of Thawra City are as sceptical of their politicians as most of the rest of us are of ours and, perhaps also not surprisingly, political discussions can turn violent. Many of the politicians are considered greedy and corrupt and fights can develop over this issue. The elections are not for us—they’re for them! So that they might dwell in their palaces, plundering and stealing at their leisure.
Khanjar (that dissembling son of a dissembling father) is Shalash’s neighbour and he functions as a useful foil to Shalash’s tale. Sometime they get on and sometimes they do not. Whatever the situation Shalash mocks and criticises him continually. There is the issue with Google Earth when Shalash shows Khanjar his (i.e. Kanjar’s) house on Google Earth and Khanjar immediately accuses Shalash publicly of peering at women through windows.
Khanjar’s wife, Saya, is a good and simple woman who knows nothing about the world. She’s the kind of woman they invented the word “clueless” for. However she will later shows that she is fighting for women’s rights and is more knowledgable than Shalash on many subjects. Shalash has a girlfriend who is studying Spanish but he is concerned about marrying her because of the behaviour of his friends and relatives at the wedding and gives us a detailed rundown of what each one will do.
While Shalash is a devoted Iraqi – there’s no one better than the Iraqis. That’s not an exaggeration. It’s not racism, not bias, not anything else. It’s just the truth! – he seems to be keen to leave for Jordan.
Shalash can be very witty and satirical but can be serious,too, about what is happening and what happened. He has no qualms about the execution of Saddam, equally he is not too thrilled about it either, not least as he sees it, in part, as a distraction from the real problems Iraq faces. He partially blames the British and Americans but mainly the Iraqi Prime Minister – Tony Blair is in Basra, Rumsfeld is in Falluja, Dick Cheney is in the Green Zone, and al-Jaafari is sleeping with his head in the sand …
However his wit – such as his fake talk show on The Shalash Media Network where he manages to mock all the political parties – are what help make this book so enjoyable. You may not have a clue who all the key players (nor, I may add, who all the various singers he mentions are) but it does not matter too much. The satire is clear and can just as easily apply to politicians anywhere in the world.
This book was set in 2005-2006. I have a suspicion that things have not improved much since then. I wonder if Shalash is now happily ensconced in Jordan or is he is still mocking his own country?
First published online in 2005-2006 by Shalash
First published in English in 2023 by And Other Stories
Translated by Luke Leafgren