When Basra local, Nasser, purchased a small car recently, from another man who was leaving town, he didn’t pay much attention to the slogan painted on the back of the car.
He thought it was some kind of teenage joke because it had the name of a girl and the words, “you are the love of my life”.
“I drove my car almost every day and I used to take it to the market,” Nasser, who wished to remain anonymous because of legal issues around his story, told NIQASH. “Until one day I was stopped by some other people who threatened me and took my car.”
I put that sentence on the back window a few years ago and whenever it fades, I always get it repainted. It reminds me never to get married again.
The strangers belonged to a family whose daughter had the same name as was on his car. They believed that Nasser was having a relationship with their daughter even though Nasser insisted that he had never even met the girl. The issue escalated until the two tribes to which Nasser and the daughter belonged to, got involved.
“Tribal elders from both our clans solved the problem and I was able to get my car back,” Nasser says, “but not before I had paid them IQD2 million [around US$1,600] as well as the cost of all the meetings.”
Nasser also had to cover up the original slogan and instead he had a verse from the Koran painted on it, asking God to protect him from evil.
Nasser’s story is an unfortunate one. But the drivers of most of the vehicles in Basra that bear slogans don’t have such a dire tale to tell. In fact, some vehicle owners like to decorate their cars with football clubs’ logos, such as Real Madrid or Barcelona – two very popular European clubs with many fans in Iraq – or other ready-made décor.
Some of the slogans are funny, such as: "Do not follow me, I am engaged”. Others are utilitarian: Special stickers are now being used by owners to identify their cars if they are stolen. These include odd decals that show, for example, an apple core, a hanged man or a man urinating.
“Some drivers will go to a professional calligrapher to make their mark,” Halim Riad, a local sociologist, told NIQASH. “Drivers will meet in local parking lots and it becomes a competition to see who can put the best or most interesting words on their cars. Sometimes that competition results in slogans that offend public decency,” he adds.
You can often tell which vehicles are travelling on roads outside of the city often, where it is more dangerous, because these trucks and vans will be decorated with prayers, blessings or verses from the Koran asking for protection.
Behind other writing on cars, there are more personal stories.
“Our story is long,” is what Mohammed Mathoum, 36, has had written on his taxi. After years of joining demonstrations for better services and against corruption and sectarianism, Mathoum explains that he felt desperate and hopeless. So he had this written on his car, to remind him not give up.
“Soon Iraq will be at peace,” is what it says on Jassim al-Saedi’s Kia car. It refers to the general state of the country, al-Saedi explained to NIQASH, but it also has a personal meaning.
He is in love with a woman in another tribe and the couple were planning to get married, when a conflict broke out that involved not only their two clans, but two others as well.
“All of the people involved totally lost all sense of logic,” al-Saedi explains. “We don’t have anything to do with their fight but it seems that now we are going to have to wait a long time before we can be together,” he complains.
Another car NIQASH sighted had written on it: “All other girls are Saipas, but you are a Dodge”. The owner, who wished to remain anonymous, explained that the woman he loved was like a luxury car made in the US compared to the cheaper, Iranian-made Saipas in town.
In the centre of the city, an older car from the 1980s sports the following sentence on its rear window: “Marriage is a killer, it kills men”.
The driver of the car, Kathem al-Mayahi, 40, says he put it there to remind him of his failed marriage.
He says he divorced his wife in the midst of a number of legal and health issues because he discovered somebody else was in love with her, a local businessman with lots of money and political contacts. Al-Mayahi says his romantic rival tried to have him killed.
“So I divorced her, just to stay alive, because I knew I couldn’t defeat him,” the unhappy local says. “I put that sentence on the back window a few years ago and whenever it fades, I always get it repainted. It reminds me never to get married again.”