As demonstrations continued last week in the southern province of Nasiriyah, Ihsan al-Faraj was moved to join the protests in the central Habboubi Square. The local cartoonist, who is in his 60s and employed as a civil servant, has since decorated the walls around the square, an area where demonstrators have gathered, with all kinds of pictures. He recently celebrated his 200th drawing and locals have started to call him “the protests’ painter”.
In an interview with NIQASH, al-Faraj said that he had loved to draw and paint ever since he was a child and that he is particularly fond of cartoons because of the way they can be used to comment on contemporary society and politics.
“They always gave me an outlet by which I could express my opinion, when things were bad,” al-Faraj explained, even when this was particularly dangerous, pre-2003, when Saddam Hussein was still in power here. “I was afraid to display my pictures during Saddam’s era and only showed them to close friends. Today I am with the protests in my city, without fear,” he proclaimed.
Al-Faraj drew his first caricatures during demonstrations in Dhi Qar in 2015 and he got great responses from the local community. His first cartoon tackled the issue of deterioration in state services, topics like a lack of electricity supply and the salaries of senior ministers.
Al-Faraj has addressed all kinds of issues with his drawings, everything from the death of fish in Iraqi rivers to arson attacks at local wheat farms, as well as politics. Sometimes he has drawn pictures that reflect his own personal situation too.
His materials are not expensive, al-Faraj says, and he uses mostly thick white card and coloured pencil. Often his wife and two daughters are the first to see his new works and he takes their constructive criticism onboard, sometimes altering the art before presenting it to the general public.
As he spoke, al-Faraj wanted to point out that anti-government demonstrations have been taking place in his province for years. It is only the number of people and their strength that has varied, he notes. “This great movement has prompted the government to try and accelerate real reforms,” al-Faraj says of the current momentum of protesters right around the country.
One day, the “painter of the protests” has hope that he won’t have to draw his cartoons on a Friday anymore. Instead, he says, he’d like to draw some beautiful pictures that show “the wonderful reality of this country”.