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memri
May 1, 2006 No.
272

Magazines Iraqis Read

Introduction

In the wake of the fall of the Saddam regime in April 2003, Iraqis experienced a burst of freedoms that had been denied them during the decades of oppressive dictatorship. Within a very short period, there appeared no less than 165 new publication of various sorts - dailies, weeklies, monthlies, and periodicals (though fewer than 100 remained after a year) - as opposed to the four government papers, all of them more or less identical, that appeared in Saddam's time.

This freedom of the press has survived, despite all the problems and violence which caused some of the other freedoms to be short-lived.

Today, the Iraqi reader has access to a wide range of newspapers and magazines, subject to no government control or censorship, and reflecting every shade of the political spectrum - from classical Marxist views on the left to the most extreme nationalistic or Islamist views on the right. [1] Many of the newspapers and magazines are financed by political parties or even by sources outside Iraq, which may dictate their content and editorial policies.

While most of the significant Iraqi dailies are available on the Internet, most magazines are not. The following is a review, compiled by MEMRI's Baghdad office, of some of the Arabic-language magazines currently published in Iraq - publications that shed light on political, social and cultural characteristics of post-Ba'thist Iraq. [2]

Survey of Magazines

The magazines cover a wide variety of topics, ranging from a theological analysis of the significance of Ashura (a period of mourning observed by Shi'ite communities, commemorating the betrayal and death of the Prophet Mohammad's grandson Hussein in the 7th century) to a piece about the use of instant messaging for purposes of flirting - the latter being a significant breakthrough in a conservative society which favors arranged marriages.

No magazine reviewed identifies its ethnicity, although many of those reviewed are issued by Shi'ite affiliated organizations and foundations. These focus heavily on Ashura or display the photographs of one of the ayatollahs on their cover page.

Al-Ghad ("Tomorrow")

The magazine, published in Baghdad (its address is listed as "across from the Ministry of Agriculture"), describes itself as a general political weekly (issued temporarily as a monthly) dedicated to "youth development." The magazine is printed on glossy paper with high-quality color photographs throughout. The cover of the March 6, 2006, issue shows the mosques recently destroyed in Samaraa. The headline reads: "Shock of Samarra Tragedy Triggers United Iraqi Response" The inside flap of the cover features a cartoon showing a monster terrorist sitting in a tree and sawing through the branch on which it is sitting

In one of the magazine's columns, titled "The Opposition and the Dynamics of the Political Process," 'Adel Al-Rubai'i writes:

"The democratic opposition is necessary in order to ensure the inclusion of all forces in the political process, and to prevent harmful consequences such as obstruction and pressures arising from exclusion, marginalization, and the dominance of the majority over the minority."

There is also an article by Ahmad Al-Asadi titled "The Civil Society and Non-Governmental Organizations - Great Hopes and a Reality that Fails to Meet Expectations." The reader is reminded that, under Saddam's dictatorship, such organizations would not have been discussed; indeed, they would not have existed.

Al-Asadi maintains that the Iraqi society is experiencing "an intellectual crisis in terms of structures and the relationship between the individual, the society and the government." He argues that tribal mentality continues to dominate people's minds, saying: "It is true that we have shifted from a nomadic to an urban lifestyle, and from the village to the city, but we [continue] to carry in our minds the rustic and nomadic values." For these reasons, he says, we misunderstand the concept of civil society - as an instrument and the method of its implementation.

Al-Asadi's article also includes an interview with Mrs. Iman Al-Mousawi, head of the Iraqi Society for Women Prisoners. Mrs. Mousawi states, with remarkable optimism, that new concepts [about NGOs] have emerged in the country since the fall of "the extinct regime which was [based on] a single political party, a single association, a single name and a single leader." It has been replaced by a competitive system that can support the development of civil society.

Al Sedeqa ("The Virtuous Woman")

This magazine, published in Najaf, presents itself as a religious, social and educational magazine "for women [written] entirely by women." The current issue is mostly devoted to the death of Mohammad's grandson Hussein in the 7th century, which sparked the conflict between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites - a conflict over religious doctrine and the legitimacy of the succession of the Prophet Mohammad. For the Shi'ites, Hussein is a heroic, good, and just figure, who fell victim to betrayal, treachery and debauchery. As a religious magazine, Al Sadiqa carries only the Islamic date - Muharram 1427 - which corresponds to February 2006.

In an article titled "At the Heart of the Matter," Ghufran Dikan Abbas, from the Kufa University Law School, addresses the issue of children born with deformities. The author explains that the problem can often be avoided if the married couple follows the "culture of marriage" [thaqafat al-zawaj] dictated by the Prophet Mohammad and by later imams. The author advises the groom that, before the marriage is consummated, he should ask Allah to bless the union and protect it from the devil's intervention.

The author dwells at great length on the advice given by the Prophet Mohammad to his son-in-law, Imam Ali, about the dos and don'ts of "[sexual] union." For example, a man should not look at a woman's vagina, for if a son is born, he will be blind. A man should not read the Koran during the sexual act, because fire from hell might burn the couple. Mohammad warns Ali not to perform the sexual act during the afternoon, for if a son is born, he will be cross-eyed, which would please the devil. In contrast, a son conceived on a Friday night is likely to be an orator, and a son conceived on a Friday evening is likely to become famous.

Female readers are instructed to eat a melon, because it is aphrodisiac.

Fatima Rahim Nasser comments on the wearing of the veil (hijab), saying that Allah did not ordain it as a punishment, "as understood by people with sick minds," but as a way "to respect a woman's chastity and honor."

Rihab Rahim from the College of Culture (no location given) writes about women's employment, bringing arguments about the division of labor, but stating that, in the case of men and women, this division of labor is ordained from heaven: the women serve society in the home while the men serve society outside the home.

Bushra ("Glad Tidings")

Another monthly magazine "for women by women," published in Karbala.

The January 2006 issue (Issue No. 85) contains two articles on controversial practices: the custom, practiced in some parts of Pakistan, of offering of a young girl as "compensation" [sawara] in resolving tribal conflicts; and the so-called "honor killings." The authors argue forcefully that neither practice is sanctioned by the Koran or has a basis in the Shari'a. The author of the piece on honor killings, Iman Abd Al-Rahim, suggests that the practice is tribal in origin, and argues that the punishment for fornication should be applied equally to men and to women.

Al-Tab'a Al-Jadida ("The New Edition")

For westernized Iraqis, men and women, there is the illustrated glossy weekly Al-Tab'a Al-Jadida, published by the Rafidain Information Agency. On the cover of its March 13 issue, the magazine lists the three most important qualities of the ideal man in 2006-a well-padded bank account, a potbelly, and a smooth tongue. The front page brings advice on how a woman can make her lips "as tasty as chocolate."

Inside, however, the magazine offers a number of reasonably well-presented interviews and articles. One is an interview by Kamal Muhammad with the unpredictable young cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr. Al-Sadr states that the Americans offered him the Iraqi presidency, but that he turned it down (though he fails to mention when the offer was made and by whom). There is also an interview with General Mark Kimitt, Deputy Chief of Planning and Strategy in the U.S. Central Command. In the article, General Kimitt states that the U.S. is willing to talk with all the armed groups in Iraq, except for Al-Qaeda, which represents an ideology "founded on misinterpretation of the Koran" and a distortion of Islam which is "a religion of tolerance."

The magazine also addresses economic issues. One of the pressing issues is the rising prices of basic commodities, which drive "millions [of Iraqis]... to starvation, [and which are] caused by lack of government control over pricing." This problem highlights the conflict between pricing control and the shift toward a market-based economy.

Another article discusses the phenomenon of instant messaging on mobile phones, which is becoming increasingly common as a form of communication as well as entertainment, since fear of Islamist violence keeps people off the streets. One message quoted in the article states that three groups of people will not enter heaven: "the Zarqawi group, the broadcasting team of Al-Jazeera TV channel, and the Cork [telecom company] group." The article also discusses romantic messages.

A large portion of the magazine is devoted to women's fashion and grooming. A picture of a veiled woman is not likely to appear in this magazine.

Al-Shabaka Al-Iraqiyya ("The Iraqi Network")

This is another elegant illustrated weekly published by the Iraqi Information Network, a government agency. The fact that a glossy 81-page issue is sold for 500 dinars (about $0.35) suggests the price is heavily subsidized. In sharp contrast to the publications of Saddam's days, which were heavily adorned with portraits of the leader, this magazine hardly features pictures of Iraqi leaders. The cover of the third issue, from February 20, 2006, shows two young boys with the headline: "The kidnapped children."

Kidnapping of children is so common in Iraq nowadays that the magazine describes it as "a profession that is not subject to the fluctuations of the dollar."(This refers to the fact that the kidnappers ask for the ransom in U.S. dollars.)

The epidemic of kidnappings has even spawned special terminology. According to the magazine, gangs rely on inside information supplied by a "fallas" ("sniffer") - an individual acquianted with the financial status of the potential victims. And of course, there are also the intermediaries who volunteer, "out of the love of Allah," to mediate between the kidnappers and the victim's family. In one case, the intermediary demanded and received, in return for his services, a computer to help him with his studies at a religious school.

The February 20 also issue includes an interesting investigative piece about the 1,000-year-old cemetery in Najaf, which is believed to be the largest, if not the oldest, cemetery in the world. It is known as Wadi Al-Salaam ("the Valley of Peace"), and is the final resting place of Shi'ite Muslims from all over the world. The size and design of the grave reflects the financial status of deceased's family. The cemetery is located near the burial place of Imam Ali (the fourth Caliph and Mohammad's son-in-law). According to the article, it is a common belief among the Shi'ites that "no one suffers the pains of the grave as long as [his resting place] is located in proximity to the grave of Ali."

The article describes many stories connected to the burial of the believing Muslims. A common occurrence is for the mother to visit the grave of her son a week after the burial, because she has seen him alive in her dreams, beseeching her to come and dig him out of the grave. No amount of argument will convince her that this is merely a dream. Grave diggers often have to exhume the body in order to convince her that her son "has had a full measure of death."

In an article titled "Public Incitement," Nadheem Al-Zubeidi calls upon women to cease accepting a world dominated by men, and urges them to rebel against "backwardness, ignorance and deprivation." In another article, Dr. Sandes Abbas, head of the Women's Leadership Institute, expresses concern that the newly elected Iraqi parliament will be dominated by religious extremists, and that women's issues and human rights will not be given priority in the political process.

The issue of Al-Shabaka Al-Iraqiyya (of March 13, 2006) features an illustrated article about the restoration of the marshes in southern Iraq. These marshes were drained by Saddam as revenge against the marsh dwellers, who sheltered rebels against his regime in 1991. Anyone who knew the marshes in their days of glory will not easily forget their majesty and beauty, or the environmental harmony which Saddam turned into an environmental disaster. Saddam's draining of the marshes may be one of the most heinous environmental crimes of all times.

Another article in the March issue deals with the exploitation of children as beggars, and with the unconscionable practice of drugging babies and toddlers so they will sleep while their mothers beg.

The magazine includes an interview with Radhi Al-Radhi, head of the Commission for Honesty in Government. Al-Radhi maintains that Iraq has been struck by "a severe virus of administrative corruption. Some of the viruses [that infect it] are imported, others are home-grown. They have combined to turn Iraq into a corpse floating on a lake of government corruption."

Finally, there is a piece bearing the title "Look for the Jews," an allusion to the well-known French expression "cherchez la femme." The article discusses the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad published in Denmark, moves on to the destruction of the Buddha temples in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime in 2001, and ends with the destruction of the 1,000-year-old mosque in Samarra last February which triggered considerable violence. In discussing the latter incident, the author, Naseer Al-Zubairi, urges patience, wisdom and deep faith in order to avoid further bloodshed. He warns against those who seek to ignite internal strife (fitna) among the Muslims for their own evil purposes. The author does not suggest or imply that Jews have anything to do with the three acts of sabotage that he mentioned; he nevertheless concludes his article with the blessing:: "May Allah bless the one who said 'Look for the Jews."

Al-Kawther ("Abundance")

This magazine described itself as a cultural magazine published in Najaf by a Shi'ite religious foundation named "Ahl Al-Beit Foundation for General Education." [3]

One article in the January 2006 issue discusses hunger in Iraq and ends with a powerful comment: "The previous regime put cotton wool in the mouths of the Iraqis so that they would not talk; today the [government] officials have taken this cotton wool out of our mouths [and put it] into their ears so they would not hear our complaints."

Another article lists the external challenges facing the Iraqi government:

a. Some countries, chiefly Iran, are not comfortable with the presence of the multinational forces in Iraq.

b. Syria, which shelters the leaders of the previous regime, has provided them with money and weapons to harm Iraq.

c. Turkey's concern about Kirkuk and any expansion of Kurdish autonomy.

d. Kuwaiti concerns about Iranian infiltration of southern Iraq.

The magazine also devotes an article to the famous secular Syrian poet Nizzar Qabbani. The author, Abd Al-Jawad Jaber Al-Husseini, states that because of his secular poetry, Qabbani's path to Allah is blocked.

Al-Sharrara ("The Spark")

A journal on education and politics published in Najaf by the Iraqi Communist Party. According to the editor, the magazine is named after Iskara, the first secret Marxist newspaper, which was established by Lenin in Russia in 1900. The inner flap of the cover bears the Communist slogan "Workers of the World Unite!" It should be pointed out that the secretary general of the Iraqi Communist Party, Majid Hamid Mousa, was elected for parliament as a member of the Iraqiyya party, headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

Al-Sharrara takes the classical Marxist view on political economy, arguing that unless all means of production are owned by the people, the relations between workers and their capitalist employers will be relations of exploitation, discrimination, and control. The January 2006 issue dwells at length on the principles of Marxism, but does not state explicitly that they are applicable to Iraq. It does, however, include an article against privatization.

It is a matter of curiosity that the magazine is published in Najaf, center of Shi'ite indoctrination and scholarship.

Al-Beiragh (colloquial form of "Al-Bairaq," meaning "The Standard")

A monthly published in Najaf, devoted to popular culture. The issue February 2006 is devoted entirely to male poets. The poet Ahmad Al-'Adli describes poetry as "a meadow of flowers in which every poet represents a flower with a specific color and unique fragrance."

Among the materials published is a short poem against smoking tobacco, by an unnamed poet:

I smoked my first cigarette and I relieved my pain

I smoked my second cigarette and I nursed my wounds

I smoked my third no smoke rose

The cigarettes have ended up smoking my soul [4]

Other Magazines

There are also a number of magazines devoted exclusively to religious and theological issues. Al-Bassira ("Keen Insight") is a monthly Islamic magazine on education. It is most likely sponsered by Iran, since the November 25, 2006, issue prominently features a picture of a group of girl students, reporting that they excelled in their studies and were rewarded with a school trip to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Al-Nabaa Al-Adheem ("Striking News") is presented as a monthly devoted to spreading Islam. The print on the cover seems more Persian than Arab in style, suggesting that, like Al-Bassira, its funding probably comes from across the border.

*Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.


[1] Readers of Arabic may review an article on www.elaph.com on the new Iraqi magazines, titled "The Linguistic Desert Storm and the Invention of Countries: New Iraqi Magazines": http://elaph.com/ElaphWeb/ElaphLiterature/2006/3/132006.htm.

[2] The magazines reviewed here are all written in Arabic. Publication in Kurdish or Turkmen are not included.

[3] Sayyed Ayad Jamal Al-Din, a cleric and religious scholar, informed this author that the title is taken from the Koran, verse 102, and relates to abundance of children. According to the ta'weel, i.e. the Koranic interpretation, the verse was meant for the benefit of Fatima Al-Zahraa, the wife of the Prophet Mohammad who did not bear him sons.

[4] The poet uses the colloquial word yishrab, which means "to smoke" but also "to drink." This distinction is particularly significant in the last line, since "smoking my soul" could also mean "drinking my soul."