Wafaa Bilal


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

Cover Interview of December 24, 2009

A close-up

Here in the U.S. we read and watch the news of countless deaths in Iraq and other war-torn countries around the world. We briefly take note of the incidents, sometimes we might even read a name or glance at a photo. But it is rare that we ever visualize the death, the moments that led up to it and follow it, the way it ripples out across families and even down through generations.

I myself had this same experience when my brother Haji was killed in Iraq.  It was shattering and at the same time remote. It wasn’t until three years later, in the midst of my Domestic Tension performance art project, that the loss really hit me. Take these excerpts from the book:

I can’t hold it in anymore. In a wave of despair, I realize I truly will never see my father or brother again. I crawl over to the desk behind the paint-splattered plexiglass screen so I can cry without them seeing me. I set my video camera, recording everything, on top of the desk aimed up at my face, determined to document myself even as I am sinking into a black hole of grief. I sob. Tears stream down my face and catch in my beard; my face contorts in pain; small moans like a child’s escape from my twisted lips. I haven’t cried like this since they died. With all the physical and mental exhaustion, I can no longer keep up the barriers that had been holding everything back.

To the camera, I say, “This project has allowed me to deal with things I had avoided for a long time, the loss of my brother and my father, my family, I miss them terribly. I miss home!”

My brother had his entire future in front of him. He was only in his mid-20s, and he had gotten married just a year ago. He was supporting the family with the thriving business he had started with a cousin. They sold gravel and sand from our family land in the dry Sea of Najaf to construction contractors. The Bilal family owned a large tract of land in this ancient sea, now a barren flatland too rocky and parched for farming, abutting the famous Najaf cemetery. Our relatives had refused to give our immediate family our rightful share of the land. Haji was so tough and strong, much more so than me and the other brothers. He walked with a swagger and literally had his gun on his hip at all times. So he confronted a top man in the tribe and convinced him to turn over the land. My family lived in a really rough neighborhood, it made the south side of Chicago look like a picnic. Even before the war, you would see people shot and slaughtered on a regular basis. So you had to be tough to survive there, and Haji was one of the toughest.

Moqtada al Sadr’s headquarters were in Kufa and Najaf. As U.S. troops were advancing toward the city, his Mahdi Army put out a checkpoint of tough guys on the other side of the river to stop them.  Al Sadr’s people came to the house and put pressure on Haji to man this checkpoint at the Kufa Bridge. My mother and Ahmed said there’s no way you’re going. But there was a lot of pressure on him to go out and man that checkpoint. He was close with al Sadr’s men, and he didn’t want to appear weak. When I had talked to him on the phone he was using words I could tell would lead to no good, talking about the “invaders” – the U.S. – and how he would resist them. I had told him to stay away from al Sadr’s people, but of course he didn’t listen.