Iraq learns to laugh at itself again

Al-Karook means a baby's cradle in the Iraqi language. It is also a new weekly magazine the likes of which the Iraqis haven't seen in more than three decades: a satirical magazine using the language of the street. MENASSAT spoke to Al-Karook's funder and publisher, Dr. Kazem al-Mokdadi.

MENASSAT: Your are an Iraqi academic who studied at the Sorbonne University and lived in France for 14 years. What brought you back to Iraq?

It was destiny. Do you believe in destiny?

MENASSAT: How did you land in satiric journalism?

I’m a satirical journalist. In 1980, when I was living in France, I wrote a column about an Iraqi’s view of Paris. I wrote this column for 20 years. I am an ironic spirit.

MENASSAT: Tell us about al-Karook.

We are all aware of the current situation in Iraq. The previous satire newspaper in Iraq, entitled al-Moutafarej (The Spectator) was shut down in 1971 after it published a caricature attacking the ruling al-Baath Party. Our newspaper is a weekly publication, and is my own rebirth [as well as the rebirth of satire.] Its name means a baby’s cradle. The movement of the cradle represents our government and the childhood is a message to our officials to remind them that they were once weak and hopeful, just like the Iraqi people. All I wanted was to have a decent newspaper, and one that spoke the language of the street. In order to get away with that you have to be either a cartoonist or a satirical journalist.

MENASSAT: Who are your readers?

The intellectuals as well as the common citizens. I own a cultural club that represent the crème of the Iraqi population; it is called Nadi al-Alawiya. Of what I hear, al-Karook reaches the crème of the society. We also have a number of subscribers. In short, Al-Karook is a popular newspaper read by the intellectuals.

MENASSAT: How do you get your funding?

I fund the newspaper with my own money. I stay away from external funding, especially foreign funding so as not to lose the independence of the newspaper. Also, I attack companies just like I attack officials. Recently, I attacked the main telecommunications company, Zein. How do you imagine I could get funding after that. I open fire on everybody.

MENASSAT: Is it true though that you have accepted money from Iraqi president Jalal Talabani?

Of course, it is true but it was a one-time thing. This man has a sense of humor. Under Saddam, he was the only one who understood satire and accepted irony. This is why I accepted the funding before. Fortunately, I have what I need now me to carry on independently. I don't need to make a profit. The newspaper is self-sufficient and is running properly.

MENASSAT: What about harassment? You don't show mercy to anyone.

Every successful journalist has to study his environment. The media landscape works when politics are all tied up. This is the case in Iraq, which means our work is prosperous. Today, everyone is waiting for his turn to be my target, without crossing the lines or fabricating news. We say the truth, in the street language with a lot of irony. Until now, we haven't been attacked. We don't fear the government itself; we fear the extremist groups, whether religious or political. All kind of extremism is scary.

MENASSAT: Have you attacked the extremist parties and their leaders?

Yes, but my messages are not continuous. I know how to deal with their issue. I'm a secular liberal individual. I can't bare ignorance.

MENASSAT: Who works at al-Karook?

You won't believe it but there are only two of us. Only two. The cartoonist and I. I write the titles and he draws. We didn't even have an office until recently. I have a friend who owns a printing house, and he gave me a 50 pct. discount. So al-Karook doesn't cost much. We can continue working like this for a long time.

MENASSAT: What does al-Karook give to the Iraqi people today?

Iraqis tend to make jokes in order to forget their worries and the violence they witness daily. Today, we enjoy a wide margin of freedom, but I won't deny that we are living in a very dangerous situation. Nobody defends press freedom. They use silent guns and it's over. We've created a press that is not based on courtesy, after 35 years of politicized press. Al-Karkook offers a real free platform, accepting all kinds of street language. We created a newspaper with a style, and that's a giant leap for Iraq. But it is only the beginning.