May 15, 2005
BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 14 – Iraq is awash in carnage and politics, and Muayad Naama is on hand to help people laugh at it.
Using jagged lines and potato-shaped figures, Mr. Naama, a 53-year-old cartoonist, tells the story of Iraq today. It is a place where people have become inured to street violence; state corruption exists on a giant scale; politicians argue endlessly.
A dealer points out which vehicles are best for car bombs in a cartoon by Muayad Naama.
As violence has surged throughout Iraq, and in Baghdad in particular, over the last few weeks, Mr. Naama has sketched images that make light of the very dark situation, in which car bombings and killings tear through Iraqis’ schools, and follow them to the market, to work and home. His cartoons appear in several daily newspapers.
In one recent cartoon, a sneaky-looking character in a dishdasha, the traditional men’s gown, looks around a used car lot while a salesman points out which brands are best for car bombings. In another, a man drinking tea watches as an exploding car bomb sends heads, hands and steering wheels sailing in all directions. “Don’t worry,” he reassures his friend. “It’s not our car.”
Perhaps five other professional cartoonists of such note work in Iraq today, using wit to give Iraqis exhausted by war and dread an honest, if dark, moment of humor. One, Abdel Rakhim Yassir, showed the Iraqi under Saddam Hussein as a painter at an easel, surrounded by brick walls – and painting those walls on canvas after canvas. In another cartoon, two modern Iraqis, surrounded by the same brick walls, squabble and hit each other at the base of a single escape ladder. The next frame has each man standing alone, with the ladder sawed in half. Neither piece is tall enough to reach the top of the wall.
“Some people think the cartoon is only for fun,” said Mr. Naama, sipping spicy Arabic coffee at a hotel cafe in central Baghdad, his cartoons spread before him. “But here we have the black joke. You may laugh at it, but it’s painful.”
Corruption crops up frequently in Mr. Naama’s cartoons. Iraqis complain bitterly about theft by government officials, which they say has ballooned since the fall of Mr. Hussein. In a drawing published in March, a doctor operates on an obese patient labeled “Government Ministries.” His arm deep inside the man’s belly, the doctor declares the diagnosis: an enlarged pancreas from “too much public money.”
Mr. Naama works in a small room in an apartment in western Baghdad. His paintings decorate the purple walls, and his tools – pencils, pens, erasers and a small desk – fit neatly into a corner of the tidy room. He prefers to work at night, when there are no distractions, he said. Mr. Naama is far more unassuming than his cartoons.
“They say that when he talks, you don’t hear his voice,” said Athir Haddad, a professor of finance at a private university and a fan. “But when you see his drawings, you feel he is boiling up inside. That he is someone who feels the people’s pain.”
Mr. Naama’s fortunes have risen and fallen with Iraq’s own painful history. He was born in 1951, almost two decades before Mr. Hussein’s Baath Party took control of the country. At the time, Baghdad was a bustling, cosmopolitan city with lively cafes and bars.
But when Mr. Hussein began in the late 1970’s to clamp down on political opposition, including by the Communist Party, of which Mr. Naama was a member, his life quickly changed. In 1979, he was arrested and beaten. He still barely hears out of one ear as a result of the beatings.
Now, after decades of dictatorship, a chaotic political scene has burst forth. And unlike Mr. Hussein’s government, under which open criticism brought dire, often fatal, consequences, the new Iraqi government appears to be fair game.
For that, and many other reasons, Mr. Naama said, life is better now. People can speak freely and practice their religion as they like, he said. The chaos and lack of rules, he said, must eventually improve.
But democracy is slow going. Iraqis voted in nationwide elections more than three months ago, and it was not until May 7 that the government was fully formed. In a recent Naama cartoon, an Iraqi family huddles hungrily around a caldron, labeled “Iraqi Constitution.” It is cooking over a pitifully small candle.
“People are hungry,” he said. “They want rules. They want a government.”
Zaineb Obeid contributed reporting for this article
May 15, 2005