Selfies With Death

For more than a decade now, Death has stared out at Iraqis from every direction, every waking hour. Snapshots from a fatalistic new culture, from Assafir al-Arabi’s Omar al-Jaffal:

Ask any Iraqi and he will count off on his fingers for you the number of times he has escaped seemingly certain death.

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Four works from Widow Nation series. Ayad Alkadhi.

When people start swapping stories about terrifying episodes, he will tell you his tales of deliverance, polished like a professional storyteller, with every striking scene and killer detail. He will graphically describe the spectacle of the flames erupting after a car-bombing, vividly evoke the humming buzz that overwhelmed his hearing after the roar of the detonation. When language fails him, he will put his whole body into service of the story of the blast: how his legs started running, how his eyes toured the bodies that were scattered around him and how the blood poured, blazing, on the asphalt.

It is as if, here in this land of darkness, we were all sentenced to never again meet anyone who has not stared death in the eyes. It is as if death, available on tap anywhere and at any moment, has lost its special glitter of terror, has receded into banality.

And as terrible as things are, they are only getting worse.

Whatever tiny portions of hope are left, they are being finished off, swallowed day by day, in this country where nobody even bothers anymore to count the years since things were normal, since the mere task of getting through the day did not feel daunting, impossible.

Violence is everywhere increasing, and the zones of open war are expanding, in this place where a third of the territory is now controlled by a terrorist organization that never restains itself from new abominations, even as our insane politicians fight one another to keep control of what’s left of the country.

Our parents and older siblings never had to talk about death so frankly in their day. Back then, burials were blanketed in whispers and admonitions, deaths were discussed in closed and quiet circles by our elders. The women would strain to listen while the men would murmur verses from the Quran. Talk of death was fenced in by apprehension; death itself was a mighty thing, cloaked in secrecy, never discussed out in the open. An object of dread, it inspired talk of those last instants before someone was buried, details about the face or feet of the body. Your breath would stop in your throat, faces would blanch as if all the blood had drained out of them.

There was plenty of death in the 1990s, but death back then never achieved these heights of fame, never overflowed into everything as it does today. Back then, death had a sanctity about it; deaths were not documented publicly, people did not post pictures of the coffin or the pallbearers; the dead went quietly to their last home, without too much commotion.

Today death comes into Iraqi homes roaring and raging, every day. Death inhabits the jokes you hear on the streets and on the social networks. It has lost its aura of secrecy, and nowadays every child knows the rituals that attend it: how to wash the corpse and how to wrap it in its burial shroud, and what kind of hole to dig to stack the body in forever.

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Widow Nation, detail. Ayad Alkadhi.

Everyone knows the names of the grave-diggers in Najaf’s cemetery, the largest graveyard in the world. Most know by heart the geography of this place, how the graves are laid out to map the tribes to whom the dead belonged and the year they were killed; although the scale of all those we have lost in the last ten years has blotted out the memory of those who died in previous decades.

When an explosion occurs nowadays, the people in the area will call the ambulances, the firefighters, and then they will ring up a cellist, Karim Wasfi maybe. Then everyone whips out their mobile phones, wipes the lens of the camera with a sleeve, and snaps some selfies. A selfie with the open grave, perhaps, or with the coffin. A little while back, a photographic souvenir of two young men embracing beside a coffin got a lot of publicity, along with a second picture taken soon after, the surviving one standing beside the grave of his friend.

It has gotten easier to contact a gravedigger directly when you need one, through Facebook. One of them, Ali Alamya al-Kabi, achieved a kind of notoriety when he started posting photographs of the graves he dug on his Facebook page, along with phone numbers for contacting him.

A few years back, a famous Iraqi writer jokingly suggested that the entire population should just pick up and leave the country to the politicians for twenty years, so they could loot and pillage until they had gorged themselves. After that, he said, we could all return, take the country back and rebuild it. It was an appealing idea: hope for salvation from these people. The problem, what we all seemed to forget, is that these people, bunkered in the fortress of the Green Zone while they run our lives as if they were playing roulette; these people’s appetite would never be sated even if you gave them a century to pillage Iraq’s resources.

On the contrary, they will always find ways to root themselves deeper in the soft soil of this land, determined to keep undermining us until they have toppled the last Iraqi, no different in this than Saddam Hussein, the despot who so long strangled this country with his chains of fake medals.

Today, the remaining ground for hope is shrinking like never before. Seeding despair in the hearts of Iraqis is, it turns out, a fruitful investment for our supposedly “democratic” politicians. They advertise, and sponsor, the idea of death, even while they make it real with their failed security programs and corrupt weapons deals. All while they pretend to smooth out the human loss with the awards and privileges they hand out to the surviving relatives of the dead.

And today, they have found in the existence of DAESH [ISIS] a brand new investment opportunity. Even as it threatens them, this organization helps them survive in power.

It is a brand new project, one that will take in mountains of money, through weapons deals and the creation of supposedly ultra-modern militias.

And at the same time, its existence means that there will be no popular uprising in spite of a poverty rate that has climbed above 30 percent, in spite of the three million Iraqis, displaced, who are living on the streets. No one will be revolting while this beast awaits at the edge of the cities, drawing ever nearer, surpassing any other option in its monstrousness.

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Widow Nation, detail. Ayad Alkadhi.

I can think of at least a dozen friends and relatives who used to think they would like to have a family of one or two children at most, so that they could afford to give them the easiest upbringing and the best possible education. All of them now want to have as many children as they possibly can, because they live in daily dread of watching one of them snatched away by an explosion or murdered at the hands of the militia when they are too old to have any more.

Can there be any fate worse than living in a world where thoughts of death come before birth?

Omar al-Jaffal Translated from Arabic by International Boulevard