His columns first appeared on the Iraqi online opinion website Kitabat in December 2005. They were written from the perspective of an everyday Iraqi living in Sadr City - or Al-Thawra, as he calls it, using the pre-Saddam name of the district. Shalash’s style was gritty, streetwise, brutally honest but extremely humourous. He uses colloquial and slang terms in his writing, which appealed to a wide section of Iraqi readers who identified with him.
The characters of his short stories ranged from his opportunistic uncle, Haji Shnawa, who danced for both Saddam in the past and now Sadr; the former sergeant in the Iraqi army on his street who became a corrupt Sadrist cleric; Khanjar, the local troublemaker; Khadija, the young teacher that he often daydreams about her paying attention to his romantic moves; the old lady who sells groceries and campaigns for the Shi’ite electoral list; pickpockets; porters; Mahdi Army thugs; and so on.
No one is spared of his sharp criticism. He persistently jabs Iraqi governmental officials, revered clerics, insurgents, militias, Arab leaders and Americans. Even Madonna has been a subject for one of his recent stories, in which he asks her to adopt him so he can be saved from the Mahdi Army and instead become neighbours with Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz.
His early columns were upbeat and he immediately garnered a huge following of Iraqis transcending religious, sectarian, regional and ethnic differences, mostly because he refused to align himself with any particular Iraqi group. Other writers desperately attempted to duplicate his style, but failed. Iraqi officials wrote to him and promised him rewards for writing certain stories but he turned them down, while militias and religious fundamentalists sent him death threats.
Shalash’s columns suddenly underwent a change in mid 2005 as a result of the murder of a friend. His writings turned darker and darker and there was increasing desperation and pessimism in his tone. His fans declared him dead and wildly speculated that some one else was publishing under his name. Shalash then disappeared for a few months, but has since returned and is now blogging here (Arabic).
For many Iraqis, Shalash is a sign that gives them hope.
Translations of some of Shalash's posts:
- Displaying strong nationalistic zeal:
I’m Iraqi, from Anbar. Believe me, I’m from Anbar, but I never allowed Takfiri Mujahideen into our house, waiting in line to blow themselves up in the midst of our elderly and children.
I’m Iraqi, from Diyala. Believe me. But I don’t behead my countrymen and put their heads in banana boxes.
I’m Iraqi, from Salah Al-Din. Yes, I’m from Tikrit, Samarra and Baiji, but I don’t blow up electric power stations and oil pipelines.
I’m Iraqi, from Erbil, but my beloved Baghdad will remain my capital and the Iraqi flag will fly from my rooftop.
I’m Iraqi, from Thawra, but I don’t form gangs to kidnap and kill people for vile sectarian reasons.
I’m Iraqi from Shu’la, but I don’t attack Ghazaliya and kill people for no reason.
I’m Iraqi, from Dora, but I don’t wear half a dishdasha and deport my people to Rusafa because they are of a different sect.
I’m Iraqi, from Basrah, but if Cyrus, Rustum, Bahshati, Balshati, Isfahani and the likes of them try to enter Ashar without invitation, I’ll break their legs and the legs of those who brought them.
- Regarding the missing American soldier in Baghdad:
Americans are everywhere. They lost someone and they’re looking for him. He’s just one soldier. What’s wrong with you? Haven’t you seen soldiers? If you lose a country, like we have, what would you do? Maybe you’ll be digging on Mars. Anyway, the problem is the lost soldier is one of ours. Poor guy. He fled to America and even there he didn’t stay put. He went and volunteered for the army. Such bad luck. In America and serving in the army. Why didn’t you go to Hollywood? Go and be a popular artist like our coloured brothers. There’s nothing easier than singing in America. Wear half trousers, tear your clothes and bring a few dark girls from Al-Gayyara and just shout “I Love You.” They’ll immediately put you in the 50 Cents band. If you don’t like 50 Cents, form your own band and call it 50 Fils. If they don’t accept Iraqi currency, call it “Half a $100 bill” You found nothing else except to be a deputy sergeant? And then you go and get lost here and we have to suffer for it. Baghdad has been besieged for a week and people are sitting home. Even the reconciliation conference has been moved to London because of you. They say the roads are open there. But isn’t this grand? We fight at Abu Al-Saifain and Al-Fadhl and then we go reconcile in London. We went to the Ka’aba and didn’t find a solution. Are we going to solve our problems in London?
- At one of his desperate moments:
We hate the fall [of Baghdad], we hate the liberation, we hate the Sunni, and we hate the Shia, we hate turbans and sidaras and we hate Jihad and the Mujahideen, we hate the resistance and the resistors, we hate concrete [blocks], we hate the streets, we hate the pavements, we hate the ministries, we hate the institutions, we hate radio and TV stations, we hate news, we hate statements, we hate the parliament that has become a venue for oaths and nothing else, we hate songs, we hate advertisements, we hate newspapers, we hate cars, we hate garages, we hate conferences, we hate surprise visits, we hate neighbouring countries, we hate multinational forces, we hate the night, we hate the day, we hate the summer, we hate the sun that sends us hell, we hate sleep, we hate water, we hate electricity, we hate petrol and administrative corruption and theft, we hate sectarianism and sectarian quotas, we hate national accord, we hate the government of national unity, we hate the committees of integrity and absurdity and stupidity, we hate political parties and organisations, we hate gatherings and demonstrations and banners, we hate laughing, we hate crying, we hate work, we hate study, we hate each other, we hate ourselves, but – and this is a problem – we still love something that was called Iraq.
Will you save what has remained of this Iraq?
- Addressing Ammar Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim (SCIRI):
If the people of the centre, as you refer to them, want federalism, we, the people of the south, will not allow ourselves to be ruled again by the dynasty of treachery. And Ammar, if your grandfather was a supreme cleric, it was my grandfather who died diseased under the whips of feudal lords, who were the allies of your grandfather in the Khums and religious taxes. My grandfather died with his shovel in his hand and after deprivation and misery bent his back and delivered him to death, coughing a diseased Iraq. The illiterate man died and they found his body floating on the waters of the marshes. The poor man died and there was not enough money in his house to bury him beside the Prince of Believers [Imam Ali]. And here you come, as a mockery of fate, to deliver his land to Ettela'at. No, you Za’tout (childish fool), a thousand nos, you foster child of Ettela'at. I swear by God and the soul of my grandfather that you will not get one inch of a land that our grandfathers have plowed for centuries, and that we will plow until the day they are resurrected.
- On Iraqis in Eid:
I feel happy when I come across weddings in Karrada, and I see young people with their heads out of the windows, dancing and shouting. I can see a sort of revenge in their faces for the miserable conditions we live in. I’m happier when my friend Salim comes by and tells me he has a date with his girlfriend. I’m even happier when I see Hamoudi sitting in the Internet café, searching for porn sites, even though a sign above his head reads “Immoral websites are forbidden.” I feel happy not because I agree with Hamoudi, but because life goes on and it contains all this diversity.
- His most recent post, a tale full of metaphors. "Elephants flying" is an Iraqi idiom that is similar to "pigs flying":
When Naima’s elephant came out on the street for the first time, people believed what Nuwayra, Ghurab’s wife, used to say: that the reason for the annoying noise on their rooftops was a small elephant that she recently purchased. But Nuwayra, despite her efficiently detailed intelligence reports, was unable to find a plausible explanation for why Naima purchased this elephant. She was also confused when people would ask her where this elephant came from. And since we live in an area where facts are often confused with fantasies, some believed what Rahi bin Hanoon mentioned, that he saw a small elephant with wooden wings landing on Naima’s rooftop a year and half ago. Others believed the account of Bargouth Al-Fahad in which he says that because Bachai, Naima’s husband, had a habit of excessively swearing by the Prophet and the Imams, God morphed him into an elephant, and that he did not really travel to Syria, as Naima claims.
There are many stories about Naima’s elephant. Personally, I am not bothered by any of them. What is important to me is the pleasure brought by the presence of an elephant in Thawra. Deprived children can crowd around it, joyfully singing and clapping and cracking jokes. The elephant is their mobile zoo.
As to Naima, despite the relatively high expenses for the elephant, she insists on providing care for it, even with her difficult circumstances. And if we learn that Naima’s elephant is armored and cannot be affected by the largest car bomb in the world, we would excuse Naima for keeping this huge animal. The elephant wanders in Thawra from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and then it goes out again from 6 p.m. until the curfew hour, and sometimes even after that by an hour or so, because the police fear it and no one can stop it.
Naima was seen in her Hawdaj (a curtained seat) on the back of her elephant during the last Sha’bani ziyara ritual, in the midst of the crowds walking to the shrine. The elephant extending its trunk and pushing forward while Naima was dozing on his comfortable back as if it was a bed. That was why the clashes between the pilgrims and the terrorists were named the “Battle of the Elephant” because people protected themselves from the heavy fire exchange by hiding behind Naima’s elephant.
Naima was also seen several times riding her elephant for shopping excursions, visiting friends and relatives, and for her trips to the health centre. Many eyewitnesses talk of the explosion of roadside bombs under the giant feet of the elephant, but Naima was never hurt. Even her elephant is unaware that it has stepped on roadside bombs that can destroy American Hummer vehicles.
The government heard about the elephant and sent a delegation to negotiate with Naima to use the elephant’s services for the transport of officials who are deprived of meeting with their people. Naima repeats the same thing for anyone who tries to open this subject, that this elephant is a form of divine care to protect her from the danger of terrorism that is reaping the lives of everyone. The cunning Talibani offered for Naima and her family to reside at his luxury resort in Dokan in return for his using the elephant for a month, because he wanted to go out to see his people as their elected president. Naima agreed and she moved to the resort. The elephant entered the Green Zone amid the jealousy and envy of the speaker of parliament, the prime minister and other officials who wondered how foxy Talibani got this armored elephant. The prime minister visited Talibani’s house and begged to be taken with him on a tour of the streets of Baghdad on the elephant’s back. Mashhadani heard about it and went to ask Mam Jalal [Talibani] for the same thing. Since Talibani was always known to be generous, he agreed and the three hopped on the elephant’s back. As the elephant was crossing the Jadriya Bridge, Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim saw it and his heart was full of envy. He offered to give up his plans for a federal southern and central region in return for riding with them. The three agreed and he boarded the elephant, surrounded by a bulletproof glass cage, and the elephant rushed ahead.
The four toured the Rusafa side of Baghdad. People were shocked and confused by this strange scene. They were not surprised by the elephant on the streets of Baghdad, but by witnessing the four promised officials leaving the Green Zone.
During the tour, Mashhadani asked Talibani where he got the elephant. Talibani laughed and said it was a Kurdish elephant flying above the mountains of Kurdistan, captured by the Peshmerga. Mashhadani laughed, and Maliki laughed. Hakim heard it and also laughed in a manner that deeply disturbed and disgusted the elephant. It lifted its trunk and let out a high roar. Then it spread its wooden wings and flew in the sky. The crowds watched this strange scene until the elephant disappeared in the thick clouds that suddenly gathered in the city’s sky. They only left after a thunderstorm of the scale that Baghdad had never witnessed before.
The next morning, when the rain had stopped and the sun had shined again, the spokesman for the Iraqi government, Ali Al-Dabbagh, appeared on Iraqiya TV to announce the flying of the elephant and the disappearance of four symbols of the nation. He opened his statement with the Quranic verse “Hast thou not seen how thy Lord dealt with the owners of the Elephant?” He concluded by stating that joint forces were interrogating the suspect, Naima, on charges of planning a military coup against the democratically elected government.