By Samah Al Momen
Consumed by the ongoing political crisis between the parliamentary blocs and government over passing a package of reforms meant to replace the current cabinet with independent technocrats, Iraqi protesters last week stormed the parliament building inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. Meanwhile, the silent majority of the intellectual elite continued to take their anger and frustration to the wall of Facebook, the most popular social media site among Iraqis.
Opinion makers on Facebook were divided between those who saw the “staged” protests as a show of power meant to give a boost to Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr as the underclass leader. Others saw no harm in such endeavor, saying that he and his supporters can be the last hope to reform the sectarian quota system that has underpinned Iraqi governments since the topple of Saddam’s regime in 2003.
And while observers continue to debate that no light can be seen yet at the end of Iraq’s political tunnel, a different kind of “reform” has surfaced on the social media sphere in that country. Over the past weeks of the crisis, many Iraqi Facebook users have been shifting attention from the pages of famous local bloggers to one run by a young caricature artist named Ahmed Falah.
Unlike Egypt, Iraq does not have a vibrant cartooning culture as it has for poetry or prose. Verbal forms of communications always had the upper hand in Iraq. Actually, many Iraqis justify the popularity of Facebook as a social media site to its unlimited word count compared with twitter’s restrictive 140 characters.
The young cartoonist satirized in his caricatures the political leaders, top clerics, and occasionally high profile regional players such as Iranian official Qassim Sulaymani who is in charge of the Iraqi dossier.
Falah’s portrayal of these public figures mirrors the general sentiment of the majority of Iraqis who became to realize that the current “corrupt” political class, in particular Islamists, are no different from those of the former regime of Saddam.
Using digital technology to implement his work, Falah’s style depends on distilling the crowded political scene in Iraq in a short and snappy dose of cynicism that many could see as shocking yet familiar. His messages are easy to identify with, especially if you have ever lived in the country, or if you are aware of its political history and culture. One example would be his portrayal of ousted Iraqi President Saddam wearing a cleric’s turban with a prayer mark on the forehead, in reference to what the artist sees the similarity between the Islamists and Baathists.
The cartoon kept trending for several days among Iraqi Facebook users along with other separate portraits of politicians who were illustrated sitting in a trial cage similar to the one Saddam had during his high profile trial, which was aired on Iraqyia TV, the state-run Satellite channel. Falah even had the channel logo on some of those cartoons, which you can see in the slideshow below.
The artist’s wishful thinking that these politicians, including those of Islamic parties, will eventually face the same fate is said to be behind his sudden decision to leave the country. He told Al Monitor, that he received death threats from a militia that he did not name.
Yet, his departure seems to have increased his appetite to embrace even bolder ideas that never cease to generate controversy such as his latest work, which was a parody of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. In his version, the cartoonist replaces Jesus and his disciples with Iraq’s top leaders sitting on a dining table. Falah posted his work a day before Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr’s ultimatum to PM Haider Abadi and parliament session was over, suggesting that their meeting that night to reach a solution over the reforms could be their last one. The next day, Al Sadr gave his supporters the green light to storm the green zone where most of these politicians work and reside.
The work however was seen by some Iraqi Christians as offensive, including Steven Nabil a popular Christian activist, who advocates for tolerance. It is said that Facebook suspended Falah’s account after many Iraqis reported that his work was offensive to religious sacred symbols. The artist account was reactivated again but his version of “The Last Supper” has been taken down since then. The one posted above is his but its taken from a different Facebook page.
Known as one of the most peaceful components of Iraq’s social fabric, the Christian community’s reaction to the cartoon came to many as a surprise. However, such anger seems to be the natural result of all oppression this community has been facing under Islamists, whether from extremist groups such as ISIS in northern Iraq, or even by the political parties that often marginalize them.
Read the Arabic version