Once upon a time, almost 25 years ago, Mahdi Sahib al-Uqaili drew a bleeding heart on this Karbala wall. He was in love with a local girl and wanted to show the world how he felt. But this year he’s using the same wall for a completely different purpose. Today he makes his political affiliations part of his graffiti.
And al-Uqaili is not the only one. Iraq’s graffiti has changed. It’s gone from declarations of romantic intent, jokes and poetry to political sloganeering and religious rule making. And many locals see this as a somewhat unfortunate reflection of the way the country itself has changed.
When al-Uqaili was younger, he used to be proud of his graffiti. His drawings and writing on neighbourhood walls were his way of telling the young people who lived nearby about his love life. More recently al-Uqaili was a candidate in a recent election in Karbala, which is known as a relatively conservative and religious city. And he had returned to Karbala to try and drum up voter support for his candidacy.
Surprisingly as he was applying his slogans to the city walls, he chanced upon his much earlier, love struck graffiti. The love letters were fading away now; one can barely see the girl’s name anymore. But al-Uqaili, who admitted he never won the object of his affection’s heart, was still nostalgic.
"Decades ago I came here to express my love and desire,” al-Uqaili said. “Today I am here for something completely different. Past wants and desires are so different and what I’m doing today is so radically different from what I did here before,” he said, recollecting his more innocent youth. “But beautiful memories do last forever,” added the candidate, who, despite his best efforts, did not win the voters’ hearts either.
And Karbala’s walls are not so different from other walls in other cities around Iraq. They’ve become an open air forum for the expression of political and religious sentiments. But it wasn’t always this way.
Before 2003, a lot of the graffiti on city walls reflected the hopes, desires and the sense of humour of young Iraqis. Some were joyful, some philosophical, others were jokes. For instance, young Iraqis might write two lovers’ names or they might scrawl a slogan like: “love is death”. They might write strange poems that nobody understood, or silly jokes that everybody understood like: “Math + Algebra = dropouts”.
“The graffiti used to reflect a more innocent reality,” Ali Maash, a 24-year-old local, said, “especially compared to the slogans and graffiti now being put up by political parties and religious groups.” Maash felt the lack of romantic or humorous or even weird graffiti was actually an accurate reflection of what dominated in Iraq now.
Some Iraqis think graffiti is a bad thing, something which destroys the look of the city. However Maash felt that what local teenagers wrote was actually, “less disturbing than the writings of some political parties and religious groups.”
“The young people’s graffiti might have been provocative sometimes,” he said, “but what we see on walls now around the city seems basically to be instructions and rules.”
Recent examples exhort citizens to vote for a new prime minister. Next to that another slogan: “The Baath and terrorism are two sides of one coin,” which refers to the outlawed Baath political party headed by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Another piece of graffiti discouraged singing because, it said, it encourages “hypocrisy”.
Although some municipal councils have tried to prevent political or religious graffiti, there is no doubt that postings and banners increase at certain times such as on religious occasions or during election campaigns.
Sometimes the postings are expressions of gratitude to officials or religious figures. Some are threats. Often the postings are produced, not by individual fans, but by organizations. Even the local security forces have been known to have a go, posting sayings like “respect rules to deserve respect” and “no one is above the law”.
Interestingly, more than one Iraqi now bemoans the fact that their city’s graffiti has changed so much. As Latif al-Qasab, a Karbala poet and writer told NIQASH: “when those kinds of graffiti disappeared from our streets, it heralded a new era – one that replaced the former romantic era. The old graffiti was a reflection of pure, loving feelings and a kind of innocence.”
And did al-Qasab believe there might be a return to that kind of innocent graffiti, rather than the political slogans and religious rules, in the future? “It all depends on the social and political stability in the country,” he said. But, he added, cautiously optimistic, “in the long run, I think our walls will be full of that kind of graffiti again.”