Wafaa Bilal


On his book Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun (with Kari Lydersen)

Cover Interview of December 24, 2009

The wide angle

For Americans following media coverage of the past two Iraq wars, Saddam Hussein was something of a cliché, a ridiculous megalomaniacal figure whose very existence provided cover for two wars waged for oil and other geopolitical reasons. For me and my peers growing up in Iraq, Saddam Hussein was very much a reality, a man both pathetic and terrifying who defined our daily existence, shaped our routines, determined our futures and invaded our dreams.

Especially for an individualistic, expressive and anti-authoritarian artist like myself, life became a game—but a deadly serious one—of double entendres, hidden meanings, unspoken thoughts, furtive efforts. Most of my childhood and youth were defined by war and violence, from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s to the first Gulf War and following uprising, not to mention the violent repression of the regime against its own people. This naturally took a steep toll on my own family; I lost numerous relatives to war and political violence and our daily lives and relationships were determined largely by political realities.

But even so, regular life went on, something that many Americans forget when they see Iraq only as a chronically repressed and war-torn country. There was humor, beauty, love and mischief in my life and the lives of my friends and family. And we lived in a land steeped in history and natural beauty – Babylon. We grew up feeling ourselves in a historical epic, physically connected to the heroism of our Shia martyrs and the winding streets of the ancient city of Kufa.

Shoot an Iraqi is in many ways a universal story of loss, tragedy, guilt and hope. But it is also a story specifically about Iraq, and how the long arc of history and current geopolitical realities in Iraq play out in the life of an ordinary family. Readers will be forced to confront the impact of U.S. aggression and foreign policy in the Middle East, and see first hand the effects on everyday Iraqis of two wars, broken promises and devastating U.S. sanctions.

But I hope that readers will also gain an understanding of Iraq as a whole—through one man’s eyes and experience.  My country is about more than just wars; this book is also about ancient legends, cultures that long precede American involvement—indeed, the very history of the United States.