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Artists Deftly Render Iraq’s Dark Ironies

Times Staff Writer

For seven days, the space in the newspaper where Moayed Neama Samarayie’s steady lines once danced was stark white, a simple black band of mourning across the lower left corner and the political cartoonist’s signature on the right. It stood in remembrance of a life of art, humor and incendiary politics.

“I’m not throwing Molotov cocktails,” Samarayie said in a lengthy interview shortly before his Nov. 27 death of a stroke at age 54.

“For me, caricature is a form of protest,” he said. “I am describing the explosions in the hearts of people who are filled with hate.”

Amid the grim, bloody realities of contemporary Iraq, the late Samarayie led a handful of fellow illustrators in livening up newspapers with provocative political art that portrays the country’s dark ironies. U.S. troops, as well as insurgents, the government and even the media, have become legitimate targets for ridicule under Iraq’s new rules of engagement.

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Samarayie, an art teacher who became postwar Iraq’s most famous caricaturist, first learned to walk the tightrope a quarter of a century ago.

Newly emboldened by Saddam Hussein’s 1979 ascent to the presidency, the security apparatchiks arrested him and locked him up for three days. The longtime Communist Party activist could have been executed or sentenced to a lengthy prison term. But he was no ordinary dissident. The celebrated and acerbic cartoonist was beloved even by his tormentors.

We like you, the officials told him. Cut off ties to the troublemakers in your past and stay away from overtly political topics and we’ll let you go -- we’ll even let you keep doodling, he recalled them telling him. Samarayie, who had a child and another on the way, quietly leashed his pen, confining himself to drawing on existential and humanitarian topics.

But 24 years later, he unfurled his brash and brutal illustrations with a vengeance that has inspired Iraq’s caricaturists.

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In one drawing, a Neanderthal-like insurgent addresses a colleague holding two bloody severed heads. “What do you mean you’ve tried everything [to derail the political process]?” he says. “You haven’t tried cutting off the air supply.”

Another takes on all Iraqis, depicting the violence lurking just below the veneer of cordiality by showing two men smiling and shaking hands as they blow off each other’s heads.

Analysts of Iraqi opinion say they pay special attention to editorial cartoons, which lack the byzantine and often indecipherable decorum of editorials.

“We think they’re some of the strongest statements in [Iraqi] newspapers,” said a U.S. Embassy official who monitors Iraqi media. “The language is direct. There’s an economy that can’t be found with editorials. We find the editorial cartoons to be potent expressions. They tend to express upfront what the articles can’t.”

For Iraqi cartoonists such as Samarayie and his contemporaries, the new era brought its own perils. They have found themselves attempting to explore volatile topics in a dangerous climate in which the taboos are far from clear.

In one of his drawings, Abdul Raheem Yasser takes on Iraq’s inexperienced police force: Officers are shown diligently frisking a man, apparently unaware of the huge revolver in his hand.

Sameer Wakil, a Health Ministry employee who draws for the newspaper Azzaman, mocks the local government in an illustration showing a father with empty pockets telling his son that he can give lunch money only every other day, much like a new Baghdad law that dictates how often drivers can use their cars.

“The caricaturist should be a naughty boy,” said Khudair Hemiyar, a 50-year-old native of Hilla who studied to become an economist before taking up a pen to make a living. “Iraqi publications are sleepy. It’s my job to wake them up.”

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In one of Hemiyar’s illustrations, he lashes out at Iraq’s neighbors, international aid agencies and the West: A group of men, some with tears in their eyes, and another wearing the cross of relief agencies, rush to the aid of a leaking oil barrel. A bleeding Iraqi lies nearby, ignored.

Hemiyar takes on the Americans with relish. One drawing shows the gun turret of a U.S. tank extending a microphone into the face of a stunned Iraqi. “How does it feel to be living in a democracy?” the man is asked. In another, Uncle Sam, watching a U.S. soldier angrily pointing a gun at a frightened Iraqi, paints a picture of a smiling soldier giving a flower to the Iraqi.

The cartoonists’ freedom comes after years of isolation and fear under Hussein. Though they were relatively free to draw what they wanted during the first years of Baath Party rule in the 1970s, they had to limit their topics once Hussein tightened his grip around the 1980 start of the Iran-Iraq war.

“It was very hard to make fun of domestic politics,” said Ali Mahmoud Mandalawi, a 46-year-old cartoonist whose colorful, bulbous caricatures of politicians long graced Iraqi magazines as well as other Arabic publications. “Instead I tried to tackle social, economic and international issues.”

Once, during the Iran-Iraq war, Mandalawi was summoned by the Ministry of Culture over a drawing that showed two men fighting for a spoon as a plane jettisoned thousands of the utensils. Officials said they had detected an antiwar message and chewed him out. Several years later, Mandalawi left Iraq, not returning until last year.

“It was obvious what we could and couldn’t draw and what the consequences would be if we broke the rules,” Samarayie said in the autumn interview. “There was a policeman inside all of us.”

During Hussein’s years, cartoonists largely retreated to philosophical terrain. Characters often wore Western attire or no clothes at all, allowing the artists to claim that their drawings addressed universal rather than local matters. One of Samarayie’s drawings from that time shows a man walking forward while his footprints lead backward. Another, among his most famous, shows a flower rising up from beneath a brick wall, pushing the wall open.

Leading Iraqi cartoonists occasionally accepted invitations to go abroad and exhibit their work alongside that of foreign colleagues. But even outside the country, they couldn’t escape the shadow of the regime. Instead of hobnobbing with colleagues at an early-1990s exhibition in London, Yasser went to the Iraqi Embassy, desperately pleading with the cultural attache to ignore a review in the British press praising his work as a brave stand against Hussein’s dictatorship.

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For inspiration, many now go online and view the work of their Western counterparts. Hemiyar, who draws almost exclusively for the popular mainstream daily Sabah Jadeed, is a fan of Pat Oliphant, the Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated U.S. political cartoonist. Instead of Oliphant’s signature smart-mouthed penguin, Hemiyar employs a befuddled Iraqi everyman wearing a cheriwiya, a hat unique to old Baghdad.

Yasser, 54, says he delights in the work of Ralph Steadman, the British cartoonist whose hallucinatory style was manifest in oft-imitated emblems of the 1960s and ‘70s. He describes his work as more subtle and existential than that of most Iraqi political cartoonists. In one Yasser work, two men squabble over who will be first to climb a ladder to the top of a brick wall. In the next panel, the men, having sawed the ladder in half, realize there’s no way either of them can get to the top. In another cartoon, a man holds a candle to light up a friend’s dark thoughts.

“My illustrations are generally without text,” said Yasser, who also works in the children’s department at the Ministry of Culture. “They can be interpreted in different ways. It’s enough for me to provoke a discussion.”

Samarayie made a huge name for himself after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion by viciously attacking the Islamic insurgents and their sympathizers with his cartoons for the daily Mada, now largely regarded as the most professional of the postwar Iraqi newspapers. In one illustration, a masked insurgent prepares to behead a bound hostage as cameramen dressed in traditional Arab robes and headdresses film the scene, a slap at Persian Gulf-based satellite news channels such as Al Jazeera. Another shows conjoined twins labeled “Baath” and “Terror” connected at the head.

Such directness prompted death threats. On his desk, Samarayie kept a ceramic sculpture he had made: a bound, kneeling man full of bullet holes, laughing maniacally as he heads toward death.

Mandalawi has had run-ins with insurgents and their sympathizers. In one illustration for the Saudi-financed daily Asharq al Awsat, he depicted Abu Hamza al Masri, the fiery London-based cleric who supports Al Qaeda, with a big dagger as a tongue and little daggers spewing from his mouth. The newspaper pleaded with Mandalawi to consider toning down the cartoon by scrapping the little daggers, but Mandalawi refused.

The sheik, now in prison awaiting extradition to the United States, was outraged by the drawing. He sent a letter to the editor saying all artists wind up in hell. Mandalawi countered with his own missive. “I wrote that I’d rather go to hell than to the sheik’s version of heaven,” he said.

The cartoonists mostly work as freelancers, selling their illustrations for the equivalent of about $20 apiece to Iraqi newspapers, or $50 to publications based in Egypt. Except for Hemiyar, who says he makes about $400 a month selling his illustrations, all have day jobs.

Mandalawi runs a small print shop to make ends meet, something he says he hasn’t been able to do very well. But he says at least his spacious two-story shop, filled with modern art, framed illustrations and a large stuffed Garfield doll, gives Iraq’s cartoonists a nice place to sip tea, gossip and share jokes. “Besides criticism, people need humor in their lives,” he said.

“Caricature is not criticism with a somber face. It’s the art of creating a laugh. This is what we need badly in Iraq.”

Samarayie’s untimely death has hit the small community of cartoonists hard. To Mandalawi in particular, he was a mentor and a friend.

“The caricaturist is an exceptional artist in the history of art, both in the region and the world,” said a front-page commemoration in Mada, the newspaper for which Samarayie worked the most. “Unique style and deep political knowledge are the only ways to create an artist like [Samarayie], who enhanced all these gifts with humanitarianism and courage.”


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