Once forbidden, graffiti flowers in Baghdad

From Baathists to Islamists to humorists, Iraqis are airing their views - with spray paint

If these walls could talk, they would never shut up.

In a city where graffiti was once punishable by death, there's barely a surface today that doesn't shout a political position, from the sacred - "We will return with the army of Muhammad" - to the profane.

The Arabic script that crisscrosses almost every wall in Baghdad is like American talk radio writ large - obscene, inaccurate, and often hilarious political abuse. Like shock jocks, Baghdad's hundreds of anonymous new pundits even interrupt each other: At night, warring scribes scratch out each other's manifestoes and superimpose their own, turning Baghdad's miles of gray concrete walls into a cacopho ny of public opinion.

"They write from the heart to the wall, without any hesitation," says Amir Nayef Toma. "And they usually write in the night, in the shadow of darkness. So you can guarantee that all of them express the real thoughts and feelings of the people."

Mr. Toma is the Virgil of Baghdad's graffiti inferno. A retired Army officer and full-time scholar of the word, he wanders through the city transcribing the nocturnal tirades and translating them into English. For a cup of tea, he'll take you on a guided tour of this thriving new souk of ideas.

The journey begins in Bab al-Muatham, near Baghdad's old city, with a snarl of slogans in yellow, black, and blue paint.

"Saddam eats beans and breaks wind," sneers a dirty ocher scrawl.

"Iraqis, when they say this word, mean that he runs away," explains Toma, delicately translating the offending verb as 'gives air from some place in his body.' "It means he bluffed, but in the battle, he ran away."

A yard or two further, ocher throws down the gauntlet, declaring "Death to the traitor Saddam Hussein."

This salvo flushes out ocher's enemy. An unseen hand tries, unsuccessfully, to scratch out the word "traitor" and lamely retorts, in blue paint, that "Saddam Hussein is more honorable."

"The Baath Party is the party of filth," exults ocher.

"Long live Iraq, long live Saddam, and long live the honorable Iraqi resistance," comes the blue Baathist's frustrated reply.

"The Baath is the party of pimps," retorts ocher. To this, the blue scribbler has no reply.

"Come out, you Baath, and let the hate wash over you," taunts ocher, perhaps a little disappointed. But blue is silent; the battle is over, at least on this wall.

"It seems the same man is writing these things," observes Toma, inspecting the ocher script. "Surely, he is not educated."

A learned man, Toma claims to condemn the obscenity of Baghdad's vulgar nighttime scrawlings.

Yet he can't resist writing them down, carefully noting each in a series of grubby notebooks. When he recalls a favorite, he recites it with relish.

Did he ever, in a moment of weakness, put his pen to the wall? "Never," he says primly. "I am old enough not to do this thing. Because I think most of these people are not educated - they have some defects which cause them to do this."

Under Hussein, graffiti was strictly forbidden - most of the time. Before "elections" like the one in October 2002, Baath Party cadres would press-gang people to spray-paint pro-Saddam graffiti. But those caught writing slogans of political parties other than the Baath - especially the Shiite Dawa party - were often executed.

Today, Iraq has more political parties than fax machines, all hustling for space. "I saw a writing about this," says Toma, gleefully holding up one finger: "It said, 'The prostitutes have more honor than the parties.' Very dirty."

Each party sports its own trademark phrase. "A free country, a happy people," is the wilfully optimistic mantra of the Iraqi Communist Party. Naturally, the preferred color is red.

Green is the color of Islamists and Turkmens. "Long live the Turkmens of Kirkuk, of Iraq," declares a sprawling green script with a wobbly star and crescent, the symbol of Turkey.

Ahmed Chalabi, the Pentagon's favored exile, enjoys little popular support in Iraq. But pro-Chalabi slogans crop up in certain neighborhoods. "Chalabi is the engineer of democracy" is a common inscription near his headquarters in the upscale neighborhood of Mansour.

But these graffiti sound bites can bite back. "Chalabi, symbol of sacrifice," proclaims one Chalabi supporter - in Arabic, "Chalabi, Ramz al-Ikhlass." Underneath it, some wit adds "Chalabi, Ramz al-Ikhtilass" - changing the meaning, with the addition of one syllable, to "Chalabi, symbol of embezzlement."

But the wall that leads to Jumhuriya Bridge has the last word on Iraq's embarrassment of new political leaders. "No Hakim, no Chalabi, I just want beer and lablabi," says one wit, comparing the two political leaders, unfavorably, to beer and chick pea soup.

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