/ 25 September 2007

Hands up! Satirical paper takes aim at Iraq’s woes

An Iraqi man stands with his hands up in surrender, surrounded by an American soldier, Iraqi security forces, a militiaman, an al-Qaeda fighter and a faceless thug.

”Hands up! Legs up! Head down!” they all bark at him as the cartoon takes a satirical swipe at how poorly ordinary Iraqis are treated by those who are meant to protect them as well as by insurgents and common criminals.

The cartoon featured on the front page of a recent edition of al-Karouk (The Cradle), a new, fortnightly satirical newspaper circulating in Baghdad. Such a publication, with its sharp observations of life in Iraq and biting political cartoons, would have been unthinkable for much of the past three decades.

Kadhim al-Muqdadi, al-Karouk‘s chief editor and publisher, sees his newspaper as filling a void in Iraqi life. It has a tiny print run of 1 500 copies and has published three editions.

He chose the name because of its association with childhood and innocence, and because cradles are rocked, just like Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government appears to be as it stumbles from one crisis to another.

”Shaking represents our government and childhood is a message to our officials to remember that once they were weak and helpless like the people of Iraq,” said al-Muqdadi, who was educated at the Sorbonne and lived in France for 14 years.

Journalists have paid a heavy price for their work since the 2003 United States-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, with media watchdog Reporters sans Frontières saying 201 journalists and media workers have been killed since then.

Knock at the door

The last similar newspaper was shut down in 1971 after it ran a cartoon criticising Saddam’s Ba’ath party for Iraq’s lack of services.

Telling a joke at another’s expense can still be risky, but Muqdadi said there is a need for an acerbic look at Iraq. ”Under the former regime our mouths were plastered so that we couldn’t talk. Nowadays we can talk loudly, but the government is blocking its ears,” he said.

Al-Muqdadi, who says he has been told his paper is being read in government circles, said he has not received any threats. ”Now we have much more room for freedom to express ourselves, but I am still afraid that one day there will be a knock at my door,” he said.

He said his paper reflects the way Iraqis deal with the unrelenting violence and hardship that haunts their daily lives. ”Iraqi people always tend to tell jokes which make them forget, even for a moment, their agonies and the daily violence.”

Leading Iraqi lawyer Tariq Harb said al-Muqdadi’s newspaper is not breaking any laws under Iraq’s new Constitution, provided it does not stray into libel. ”It’s a nice paper because we all need to have fun and laugh in these tough times,” Harb said.

Ahmed Salman, a lecturer in Baghdad University’s media centre, sees the newspaper as a symbol of Iraq’s new democracy. ”In such a life plagued with violence and blood here, making Iraqis laugh is a remarkable victory,” Salman said.

Al-Maliki’s embattled government and US President George Bush are two of al-Muqdadi’s favourite subjects. Another cartoon showed a smiling Bush at the wheel of a shiny new car, complete with cow horns on the hood, after he crashed into the back of a broken-down jalopy driven by al-Maliki.

Al-Muqdadi writes all the news stories and commentary in al-Karouk and employs two cartoonists, using his salary as a university professor to fund the eight-page paper.

He says he does not accept outside funding for fear of losing control of his newspaper, although he admits he has accepted donations from President Jalal Talabani because Talabani has a good sense of humour. — Reuters