Iraqi columnist challenges taboos with fictional characters

Saleh al-Hamadani (Courtesy of his Facebook page)

Published in Arabic by Al Rai, a Kuwaiti newspaper on Feb 16, 2014

As the 2014 general elections approach in Iraq, some Iraqis fear that the Islamic parties will continue to tighten their grip over the parliamentary seats and the government. However, a new generation of writers relying  purely on self-effort  is trying to stop the Islamic tide by raising a culture of political awareness.

Among those pops up the name of Saleh al-Hamadani, a sarcastic columnist who tries to promote a civil secular state where all Iraqis, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or gender, are equal before the constitution and law.

What makes Al-Hamadani stand out from the rest of his colleagues is his tactic  which combines between  traditional and digital media.

Born in Al Nassiryia 1969, Al Hamadani holds a bachelor degree in biology from the Collage of Education in Baghdad, 1993. He currently teaches biology in an intermediate school in the conservative city of Karbala, the second holiest destination for Shiite Muslims around the world.

His journalistic career started right after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2013 with several op-eds he wrote in local dailies such as Al-Mada, Al Sabah and online journals such as Ketabat. Currently he writes a daily column in AlA’lam, a newspaper that was closed for a while due to financial issues allegedly incited by the political parties.

To expand his audience and avoid media censorship, the teacher started using Facebook as an additional platform to reach out for the 77 percent of Iraqis who, according to a recent survey, have Facebook accounts.

As in his daily newspaper column, his Facebook posts challenge his followers to think out of the box and beyond their allegiance to the sect or tribe.

"I'm an Israeli, I read..", an op-ed that has stirred interests and controversy

“I’m an Israeli, I read..”, an op-ed that  has stirred interest and controversy

For instance, Al-Hamadani does not hesitate to give credit to a city like Tel Aviv for its liberal cultural environment and mocking a religious city such as Najaf for attempting to promote reading culture with only one small library building.

Screen Shot 2013-12-29 at 11.27.21 PM

“Rationing religious holidays”, a controversial op-ed by Al Hamadani.

He is also among the few in Iraq who dare to criticize the highest religious authority of Shiites, al-Murja’yia, for not urging the local authorities or followers to ration religious holidays that usually mark death anniversaries of Shiite Imams.

On many occasions, Al-Hamadani’s enthusiasm for a civil state comes disguised in some fictional characters he created and made famous among his readers and Facebook followers.

Many of the fictional comic scenes he creates take place in a family setting where a married couple debate in a southern Iraqi dialect a trivial matter, yet there is a symbolic connotation lurking underneath the surface.

Hamadani’s fictional stories inspired from every day life. (Photo courtesy of artist Wasma al Agha)

Kawghid (translates in Iraqi dialect as trash paper) and her husband, Haji Mankhi, are two main characters who often reflect the attitude of the common simple people of Iraq, particularly those in the southern part of the country where tribal taboos are as authoritative as religion.

Through a witty dialogue between the two, Al Hamadani compels his Iraqi readers to identify with these characters and their feelings about what is happening in Iraq. The conversation captures that duality of the Iraqi personality and the clash between the Bedouin and civil values inside it.

In one scene, Kawaghid aspires to convince her villager-husband of travelling to Tbilisi, Georgia, one of few countries that grants Iraqis tourists visa. When asked by her husband why she wants to go there, Kawaghid replies that she wants to see how it feels to wear a bikini while lying on a beach. To convince her husband, she tells him “beer is so cheap there that they sell it in gallons.” The husband, tempted by the mention of the beer, asks her in a way that shows he is being persuaded : “what are the rules of prayers when travelling?”

Aside from the comic setting he cleverly weaved, the conversation underlined the personal conflict of many Iraqis who seem to be torn between their desire for civil liberties and their fear of breaking taboos.

In another scene, Al-Hamadani tackles what many Iraqis talk about privately, but the media and the authorities try to avoid: President Jalal Talabani’s health conditions. For almost a year now, Talabani, 80 years,  has been recovering from a stroke that has prevented him from carrying out his presidential tasks. The scene opens up with Haji Mankhi chit chatting with a friend about the president’s sick leaves and how long he can extend them. Cunningly, Al-Hamadani highlights the impotence of the political partners who fail to agree on a candidate to replace the president even after a year.

Yet, Al-Hamadani’s most popular character of all is his fictional second wife, Um Hussam, who embodies the dream of every Iraqi man. In her early 40s, Um Hussam is extremely beautiful lady who is dominated by one passion and that is beatifying herself further to please her husband, Al –Hamadani, with whom she is in love head over heels.

Unlike the rest of his characters, Um Hussam refrains from discussing politics except in rare occasions when the husband insists. This past Ramadan, Um Hassam surprised her fans in one scene when she started talking in an Egyptian dialect. Al Hamadani’s use of the that dialect was meant to voice his admiration to the liberal movements in Egypt that rebelled against the Muslim Bothers government. In general though, Um Hussam’s stories are meant to offer the reader a break from politics and the daily bloodbaths in the streets , yet in many times they end up touching upon simple people’s dreams.

Arabic Reads: Um Hussam in a moment of contemplation says "Flirting should not be restricted to men"

Arabic Reads: Um Hussam in a moment of contemplation announces: “Flirting should not be restricted to men”.

Two Facebook groups named after Um Hussam and Kawghad are continuously growing with members thanks to Al Hamadani who has been diligent in updating them with the two women’s latest adventures almost on daily basis. He also has around  4000 followers on his Facebook account.

Fictional love scene with Um Hussam

Fictional love scene with Um Hussam, inspired from  the Egyptian cinema classics

From a communication perspective, Al Hamadani’s fictional characters and their stories are an application of the narrative theory  by Walter Fisher who argues that all forms of communication that appeal to our reason are best viewed as stories shaped by history, culture. In other words, if you want to communicate a message tell it through a story because people are easier  to be convinced by a story than a direct message.

While it is hard to argue that Al-Hamadani’s efforts to promote a civil secular environment will translate into a tangible outcome when the Iraqis cast their votes in April 2014. However, the buzz he is making, and the amount of impressions his Facebook posts are  gaining, will  reinforce his reputation as one  of Iraq’s leading sarcastic writers particularly if he managed to stay politically independent.

Besides his powerful sarcastic narrative , Al-Hamadani’s success  relies on his boldness in addressing sensitive issues, such as  Islamism, without being affiliated with any of the current political entities which many Iraqis nowadays view as corrupted.

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10 thoughts on “Iraqi columnist challenges taboos with fictional characters

  1. Samah. Great post. It is so important that people realize that Iraq and the Arab world are not simply cauldrons of violence and hate. Al Hamadani and his writings indicate that imagination, humor, and intelligent life is still found in the Arab world. He is to be congratulated for his talent and courage especially. You are to be congratualed for the discovery of al Hamadani and facilitating a wider audience for him. Bravo!!!

  2. I am one of young Iraqi who realy inspired by the great talent of the Al Hamadini writings and I am so happy to see him take this importance in your column , thank you

  3. Thanks Dear Samah it really great article which introduced a great journalist , yes mr Salih trends to Iraq for all the Iraqi and he trends to government which combine the Iraqi people , finally I hope we can reach to our goal in the next election

  4. al-Hamdani reminds me of Shalash al-Iraqi. Both, in their writings, criticize the situation in Iraq through comic simple fictional characters. I enjoyed the article so much and will definitely add Mr. Hamdani page on Facebook to mine. Thanks

  5. Ms. Samah, what a great blog entry. Although it appears that Mr. Al-amdani doesn’t need any publicity with his active fanbase but thank you for introducing him to those who live outside Iraq in such a witty and enjoyable style. Keep up the great work please.

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