Iraq’s poetry of defiance

Iraqis are resorting to poetry and songs to vent their frustrations with those in power, writesSalah Nasrawi

One video shows folk poets mocking vote-buying candidates. In another a poet is cheered by a huge crowd as he scorns corrupt politicians, and in a third a popular singer laments Iraq’s decay in the post-US invasion era.
Eleven years after the US-led invasion that ousted former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s regime and promised a democratic and free nation, Iraqis are still struggling with a decade of a failed state.
Iraqi folk poets and singers are increasingly taking the lead in voicing their resistance to their incompetent leaders amid mounting popular frustrations over failures to restore security, rampant corruption and poor basic services.
The rising voices of protests in poetry and sung-verse also come ahead of parliamentary elections in April, which many Iraqis perceive as being crucial in deciding their country’s future as the Sunni insurrection and Kurdish pro-independence sentiments intensify. 
The protests reflect a growing anger among Iraqis over their leaders who are seen as useless politicians exploiting ethno-sectarian divisions in their favour to grab more power.  
On Saturday, the country’s election commission disqualified dozens of candidates in the April elections for having criminal records including, theft, drug trafficking, bribery and prostitution.
What is phenomenal about this emerging vocal expression of defiance to the Shia-led government of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is that the performers are mostly Shia and their criticism revolves around their politicians’ betrayal of Shia ideals.
Of the many reasons behind the frustration and anger is a new retirement law which was passed last week and allowed MPs to secure lavish benefits for themselves.
Many Iraqis believe the law is unconstitutional because it discriminates against the majority of Iraqis by exempting the privileged political elite from the government’s pension scale.
Only 166 MPs in the 325-member parliament endorsed the controversial legislation.
Videos circulating on Iraqi online media and social networks show clips of laughing audiences reacting to poets who mock sleazy lawmakers and politicians.
Their harshly-worded criticisms reflect growing anger over the nation’s presently wide wealth gap, created mostly by greed of the country’s political establishment. 
In one of the videos recorded in the southern city of Nassiriya two poets are seen engaged in a public poetry debate about the coming elections, which many Iraqis fear will bring the same corrupt politicians back to parliament.
The scene: a pavement in mid-town where the poet mimics a candidate who appeals to pedestrians:
For God’s sake, vote for me.
If you vote, you will receive a blanket,
A heater,
I will make you live like sultans,
I will send you up, up, up…
Vote for me!
The other poet in the debate, who emerges from the unconvinced audience, strikes back:
We don’t trust you any more,
Our votes will never be yours.
We abhor you.
If you ever come back we will burn you in acid,
You, cheater, liar,
You’ve eaten the flesh and left us the bones.
That’s not the worst of it, however. In a second video distributed widely over the social networks the “betrayal” of the Shias’ most revered imam Ali is how poet Hazim Jabir describes the excess of the country’s Shia politicians, and the designation is more than a rhetorical flourish: 
Are you not ashamed?
In the name of faith,
You’ve abandoned the faith.
You, rulers who pray,
You murder people and go to perform prayers in their blood,
To whom do you belong?
Your seats are more important than your people,
Haven’t you had enough? 
Tomorrow, doomsday, when you meet Ali,
What are you going to tell him?
He starved to feed the hungry,
And now we starve, and you are never satisfied.
Many of the poems have been turned into songs and performances that cut through the hegemony of patriarchal political discourse and are inserted into the fabric of daily life.
In one favourite song, singer Hassan Al-Rassam lambasts the politicians who are removed from the very people they have promised to serve: 
You are just worthless thieves,
Idiot who trusts a thief,
You’ve got the best of everything,
Leaving us with nothing.
If anyone raises a question,
A bullet hits him in the forehead.
Why has the world turned upside down?
By displaying the power of such verses and music to resist the country’s political class which is enriching itself at the expense of the rest of the people, Iraqi poets and singers are adding a powerful voice to a discontented public in a way that written expression cannot do.  
Throughout the present period of deep distress and national calamity, Iraqis have had the opportunity to express their limited freedom of expression through the independent media and online social networks.
But increasing pressure on the independent media and threats to writers has lent the opportunity to poets and singers to resort to older traditions of connecting with people and embracing social and political issues.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Iraq on Monday a bomb struck a newspaper office in Baghdad after its editor had received threats from Shia groups for publishing a cartoon of Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which was seen as offensive.
Last week, Iraq’s judiciary issued a warrant for the arrest of a columnist critical of the government who had allegedly libeled Al-Maliki.
The warrant against Sarmad Al-Taie, who writes a column for the Al-Mada newspaper, was issued under an article of the criminal code that prohibits defaming or insulting government employees.
Another warrant was issued for Munir Haddad, a retired judge who sentenced Saddam to death in 2006 and is now a private lawyer. The warrants are the first against writers or intellectuals since the US-led invasion in 2003.
Last week the Iraqi Ministry of Culture banned a play two days after its debut at the National Theatre in Baghdad. The play “Women Parliament” is critical of MPs who waste their time and public money in doing business, travelling and bickering.  
Critics have also accused the government of using public money to silence criticism and buy the local media.
Local news outlets reported last week that the government-controlled election commission had started funding a television network known to be critical of the government, twisting its reporting to a pro-government stance.
The allegations surfaced after the channel stopped its critical reporting and began putting a favourable spin on its coverage of government news.
The government has also ordered the reopening of the offices of the channel in Baghdad, closed last year after it was accused of spreading misinformation and exaggeration.
However, the government can hardly do anything to muzzle the often spontaneous and fleeting oral forms of expression dealing with Iraq’s dilemmas.
Fearing a backlash and a boycott of the April polling, Shia clerics have warned their congregations against re-electing the same politicians who have “betrayed” them.
On Friday, prayer imams in the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala denounced the lucrative retirement benefits for politicians and urged Iraqis not to vote for those MPs who had endorsed the law.
In a country that is terribly polarised and dangerously unstable, a large-scale boycott could erode the legitimacy of the already fragile political process and result in far more deadlock and even bloodshed.
Meanwhile, true to their traditions which, some say, go back to ancient Sumeria, Iraqi folk poets and vocal artists are expected to remain within the mainstream of political critique and mobilisation.

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