Who is Shalash the Iraqi?

Credit: Harriet Yakub

Kanan Makiya introduces a mysterious figure.

I first met ‘Shalash the Iraqi’ in Paris in the summer of 2006. An odd place for two Iraqis who don’t speak French to meet, chosen in part by circumstance (roughly halfway between Cambridge, the USA and Baghdad, Iraq), but also because the chronicler of the ever so endearing residents of city block number forty-one in Madinat al-Thawra needed to visit the cafés and city haunts of Jean-Paul Sartre. And that is how we spent our first week together, walking Sartre’s streets and talking about an Iraq that had descended into sectarian strife the previous year, just about when Shalash started posting the daily blogs that made him so famous among Iraqis that it seemed no conversation between them, anywhere in the world, could be conducted without some reference to one of his stories.

Alas, I cannot tell you much more about ‘Shalash the Iraqi’. Not even his name. All I can say is that he is the author of some eighty posts written in colloquial Baghdadi dialect between 2005 and 2006. Oh, and I can say that he is a polymath who at the time of our first meeting was much taken with the French intellectual life of the 1960s and 70s (Sartre, Foucault, Derrida) – as indeed was typical of the small group of Iraqi oppositionists operating then in Baghdad as an Eastern European-style samizdat collective.

I myself had an anglophone education alongside my official Arabic one, and never could make head or tail of anything Derrida wrote. I was therefore flabbergasted not only by the fact that Derrida and Foucault were known, but that they were being hotly debated during the 1990s in the privacy of at least some Iraqi homes and cafés in Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad. Shalash introduced me to those circles inside Iraq, hitherto completely unknown to those of us exiles outside the country so preoccupied with opposing the Saddam regime. And, as I soon discovered, a delightful novel called Baba Sartre (Papa Sartre), written by the gifted Iraqi writer Ali Badr, captured the fascination with Sartre inside those circles, among whom Shalash was by far the leading light.

Another of Shalash’s many gifts is his ability to recite from memory all of Saddam’s speeches, in exactly the tone and register that they had been delivered; the difference being that when Shalash recited them, one could not help but collapse in paroxysms of laughter, whereas laughter in general (not only while Saddam was delivering a speech) was foreign to the Iraq that Saddam built. I envied Shalash his prodigious memory, as any fellow writer would; and whereas I had only written about the Iraq–Iran war, he had served on its frontlines for eight gruelling and exceptionally cruel years. Those are two entirely different ways of ‘knowing’ war. To ‘know’ the biggest war of the post-independence ‘Third World’ and still be able to make people laugh is a blessing granted to very few.

But again, alas, I cannot tell you much more about who Shalash really is, because the identity of the person who created this fictional alter ego must, for the security of his family and friends, remain a secret, even today, sixteen years after he abruptly stopped writing his stories. The fear this time does not derive from some brutal dictator or the all-pervasive organs of a security state; it derives from the anarchy that Iraq fell into shortly after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The morning after Saddam fled Baghdad on 10 April 2003, Iraqis found themselves in a state of deep anxiety and confusion. They had learned only too well the rules underlying survival in a semi-totalitarian state. But they did not understand waking up overnight to find themselves in a world with no rules.

By the late 1990s many of them could see that another war was brewing, but they assumed it would end like the last one, in 1991, with a bruised dictator still very much in power. Even when American troops were on the outskirts of Baghdad, and in spite of all the rhetoric about freedom and democracy, they never in their wildest dreams expected a foreign occupation. When it came, it was a total rupture with their past, in the form of a new beginning to which they had not contributed and yet in which they were now expected to serve as principal actors. In such conditions, it was easy to imagine that American incompetence was deliberate; that every Iraqi who popped up on the public stage was either a fool, an opportunist, a carpetbagger, or someone else’s stooge. And, to be sure, some of them were all these things at once.

Shalash writes about such people. He created a constellation of villains and other characters who pop up again and again in his stories, all of which centre around one small neighborhood in Thawra City, a sprawling Shiite suburb of Baghdad containing roughly half of the city’s population of eight million strong. Featured are bumbling Imams, suddenly politicized thugs, vain and venal politicians, fanatical militiamen who switch allegiances at the drop of a hat, and carpetbaggers descending like an army of cockroaches from all corners of the world to make a quick buck.

In the course of doing so, Shalash made anxious and worried Iraqis laugh. They hadn’t laughed much in the previous thirty years. In fact, it was dangerous to so much as crack a joke. Humour had landed many an Iraqi in jail, and worse. But it turns out that laughing was a kind of tonic to the unfolding craziness, especially after that craziness evolved into civil strife between 2005 and 2007. Laughing was, even more importantly, a safety valve, a form of sorely needed solace.

However, just as abruptly as they had burst onto the scene, and right when the sectarian killings were at their peak, the anonymous writings stopped. When I pressed Shalash, who had revealed himself to me that same year, to explain why he had given up on giving us more of Shalash’s stories, he told me he just didn’t know how to be funny anymore.


The Palestinian cultural critic Salma Khadra Jayyusi has written about humour and irony in Arabic literature:

‘With only a few exceptions, modern Arab writers [. . .] wrote in the romantic or realistic tradition, in the tragic or heroic mode, they favoured a serious tone and a direct approach. The comic apprehension of experience, burlesque and parody, double meaning, the picaresque, the ironic and sarcastic, were not easily adopted, and the richness of both classical Arabic and Western literatures in these modes was rarely utilized . . . it remains true, as one peruses the vast panorama of Arabic literature, that the tragic spirit is more spontaneous with the Arabs, while the heroic, so muted in modern Western literature, is even more constantly alive in their hearts.’

Standard written Arabic, in which most literature is written, is a poor halfway house between the classical language of the Qur’an and the multitude of spoken local Arabic dialects. No one speaks it on a daily basis, although everyone understands it; it is the language of newspapers and radio broadcasts; the language of politics and speechifying that does not know humour. In fact, all feelings are strangers to this kind of Arabic, which is what makes it so ineffectual in the fictional mode. But Shalash was deploying sarcasm, wit and irony; in order to make people laugh at the newly installed Iraqi political elite, he had to write in the way that ordinary Iraqis speak, not listen to speeches or read newspapers. In this sense, Shalash is a very different kind of Arabic writer. For one thing, his use of an already ‘minor’ dialect is peppered with phrases and expressions used primarily in Thawra City itself. His language feels, from an Iraqi point of view, deeply authentic and deeply hilarious – things that most literary writing in Arabic has a great deal of trouble achieving.

There is a drawback to this authenticity, of course: it is ‘local’ almost to a fault. Shalash’s humour is not always a movable feast. His writing makes for uphill work to the prospective translator, being difficult at times for even non-Iraqi Arabs to follow. Marvel then at the easygoing, raffish, faux-naïve, rollicking tone of Luke Leafgren’s English-language Shalash – a remarkable achievement, and the fruit of many, many days and months working with Shalash himself, and with other Iraqis too: devotees of Shalash who were familiar with his language and Thawra City’s range of idiomatic idiosyncrasies.

I have said that Iraqis found – and find – Shalash hilarious. Who were the Iraqis laughing at? Themselves. That is the deeper source of his achievement; the beating heart of his ‘Iraqiness’. It is impossible to laugh at ‘Imperialism’ or ‘Zionism’ or ‘Arab Reaction’ – the subject matter of Saddam’s officially sanctioned cartoonists and storytellers. Real laughter comes from the inside; it is an eruption from the belly, not an emanation of the brain. Instinctively, Shalash understood that: one laughs and loves at the same time. And what is it that Shalash loved? Iraq: the very thing that the political elite installed by the American occupation were falling over themselves to forget. They chose to govern in the name of their sect or ethnic group, or as stooges for the Islamic Republic next door, never as upholders of that collective abstraction, that multiethnic mosaic of groups and religions held together in our imaginations by a name: Iraq. It is those very same factions, with their false and foreign allegiances pilloried by Shalash, that the youth of Iraq rebelled against in 2019; and they did so in the name of Iraq, toppling perhaps the most sectarian government of post-2003 Iraq, and the most beholden to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Shalash’s writings were the forerunner to those protests.

Shalash’s ‘Iraqiness’ is not jingoistic patriotism, but the kind of intimate, defensive and profoundly personal ‘love of place’ that George Orwell talked about, and that Jill Lepore tries to understand in a recent book (This America: The Case for the Nation). The writer calls himself Shalash ‘the Iraqi’, even though the word Iraq appears very rarely in his stories. He did not need to belabour the word; love of Iraq is implicit in all his writing, in every character he created, be she a housewife wrestling with her neighbour over a draft of the constitution, or a new user of the internet, trying to learn the mysteries of ‘Google Earth’.

At the time, Iraqis turned en masse, in a fever of urgency, to Shalash’s stories. True, there were only 25,000 users of the internet there in 2003. But that posed no impediment. People were printing them out, copying them longhand, memorizing them, talking about them, sharing them, telling and retelling them, plagiarizing them and bombarding Shalash with questions and opinions about them by way of the email address he always provided for his readers at the end of each post.

‘Ordinary people’ loved Shalash, but we all know that politicians are less than ordinary. Sad to report, none of Iraq’s crop of new powermongers had a sense of humour – with one notable exception. I have it on good authority that a Kurd, the fat President of the Republic Jalal Talabani, whose prodigious banquets are themselves pilloried in one of Shalash’s posts, was a fan. Talabani was the butt of some of Shalash’s jokes, but Talabani liked to laugh. It seems no one else in Iraqi politics did.

Of such delicious ironies is this remarkable collection of stories made. That should be reason enough to make them available to an English-reading public. But there is another reason. For thirty years the West has only known Iraqis through wars, occupations, Saddam Hussein and the brutal nature of the Ba’ath regime. Throughout that period the word ‘Iraq’ has appeared in newspaper headlines week after week, even replacing the former primacy of the Arab–Israeli conflict in the public’s imagination. Perhaps it is time to know the inhabitants of that sad and troubled land in a new and more human way.