- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2004

BAGHDAD — The graffiti marking nearly every wall in Baghdad is obscene, inaccurate and often hilarious. Exercising a newfound freedom of political expression, Baghdad’s warring scribes scratch out each other’s manifestos and superimpose their own, turning miles of gray concrete walls into a cacophony of public opinion.

In a city where graffiti was once punishable by death, there’s barely a surface that doesn’t shout a political position, from the sacred — “We will return with the army of Muhammad” — to the vulgar: “Saddam, eat [expletive].”

“This is a very dangerous matter, this matter of the writing,” says retired army officer Amir Nayef Toma, 52. “Because through it, you can understand the entire feelings of a people — their suffering, their feelings and even their hopes.”

Mr. Toma is the Virgil of Baghdad’s graffiti inferno. A full-time scholar of the word, he wanders through the city transcribing the nocturnal tirades and translating them into English. For the price of a cup of tea, he will conduct a guided tour of the raucous new marketplace of ideas.

The journey begins in Bab al-Muatham, near Baghdad’s old city. “Everyone is erasing everyone else,” says Mr. Toma, pointing to a snarl of slogans in yellow, black and blue paint. “Look, what can you understand from this?”

“Saddam eats beans …,” begins a scrawl in dirty ocher.

“Iraqis, when they say this word, mean that he runs away,” explains Mr. Toma, delicately translating an offending verb as “gives air from someplace in his body.”

“It means he bluffed, but in the battle, he ran away.”

A yard or two further, the same ocher handwriting declares, “Death to the traitor Saddam Hussein.” Another writer has tried, unsuccessfully, to scratch out the word “traitor,” and lamely retorts, in blue paint, that “Saddam Hussein is more honorable.”

“The Ba’ath Party is the party of filth,” declares ocher.

“Long live Iraq, long live Saddam, and long live the honorable Iraqi resistance,” comes the blue Ba’athist’s frustrated reply.

“The Ba’ath is the party of pimps,” responds ocher. To this, the blue scribbler has no reply.

“Come out, you Ba’ath, 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 Mr. Toma, inspecting the ocher script. “Surely, he is not educated.”

A learned man, Mr. Toma condemns 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 Saddam, graffiti was strictly forbidden — most of the time. Before so-called “elections” like the one in October 2002, Ba’ath party cadres would press citizens into spray-painting pro-Saddam graffiti.

But those caught writing slogans of political parties other than the Ba’ath — especially the Shi’ite Dawa party — were often executed.

Today, Iraq has more political parties than fax machines, each party with its own trademark phrase. “A free country, a happy people,” is the willfully optimistic mantra of the Iraqi Communist Party. Naturally, the color of choice is red.

Green is preferred by both Islamists and Turkmen. “Long live the Turkmen of Kirkuk, of Iraq,” declares a sprawling green script with a wobbly star and crescent, the symbol of Turkey.

Each party vies with the others for space on the country’s walls — and much as they do for roles in its government.

“I saw a writing about this,” says Mr. Toma, gleefully holding up one finger. “It said, ‘The prostitutes have more honor than the parties.’ Very dirty.”

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