Hamed al-Maliki: A Dream Hijacked by a Dictator

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As a child, al-Maliki’s favorite activity was projecting “poor people’s cinema” on the house curtains. (Photo: Marwan Bu Haidar)

By: Mariam Abdallah

Published Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Iraqi writer Hamed al-Maliki, unlike many of his colleagues, managed to build a rich career for himself in his home country despite the grim conditions of dictatorship, siege, and occupation.

In his childhood, Hamed al-Maliki used to stand in front of his house to watch the coffins of fallen soldiers be brought into the city. He would count 60 caskets every hour. Soon, the young boy realized that every minute, a young Iraqi man was dying in an absurd and futile war sparked by a dictator’s whims.

This sight left its mark on al-Maliki and deeply impacted his work as a scriptwriter. His TV series are often bitter depictions of devastation throughout Iraq.

Al-Maliki was born in al-Toubji, west Baghdad. His father was a soldier in the army of King Faisal II, and his mother was a housewife. They moved to Baghdad from Basra in 1947.

In primary school, al-Maliki was placed in a special class for students with learning difficulties, or depending on who you would have asked, for gifted students.

“To this day, I don’t know which type of student I was,” al-Maliki says.

Al-Malilki distinctly recalls the color black from his childhood. It was particularly popular in his town. Grief and sorrow were his mother’s daily bread. Like other Iraqi mothers, every Eid (holiday), she would buy new black clothes, as she was in a constant state of mourning.

“We lived in a city of war, oppression, and tyranny. Children would go to war and never come back, they would be sent to prison and never come back, and the lucky ones went into exile, and never came back,” he says with a weary voice.

War is constantly on his mind. Like other Iraqi young men, al-Maliki used to delay and defer his graduation from school and university so that he wouldn’t be conscripted into the army and sent to the front.

As a child, al-Maliki’s favorite activity was projecting “poor people’s cinema” on the house curtains. All you needed was a pierced cardboard box, a lamp, a magnifying glass, and the remnants of film thrown out by movie theaters.

“I was a child who lived a dream of lights and moving pictures, and that prompted me to become a filmmaker,” al-Maliki says.

He went on to study cinema at the University of Baghdad, but as the film industry deteriorated in Iraq, he was forced to veer towards TV.

While attending university, “we had to stay away from politics and avoid it at all costs...Half of the students were government spies and members of the student union worked for the secret intelligence service, dressed up as students,” explains al-Maliki.

In Saddam Hussein’s republic of fear, al-Maliki tried to compensate for politics with a growing interest in literature, though the government had a strong hold on that too.

According to al-Maliki, Miguel Angel Asturias’ novel Mr. President was smuggled in to the country while he was attending university.

The book “was about a president much like ours, and after the novel was smuggled in and a lot of copies were sold, the government published it, but with the deletion of some expressions,” says al-Maliki.

In 1993, al-Maliki began his compulsory military service. Also at this time he worked night-shifts as a photographer for Al-Jumhuriyya newspaper until he wrote his first play in 1996, Aarisan fi Mihna (Newlyweds in Distress). The play was a success – it toured several Gulf countries, marking the beginning of a rich career in writing drama.

Al-Maliki emigrated for the first time in 1997, fleeing a suffocating economic blockade and an unjust political system. Al-Maliki moved to Jordan because he refused to follow in his friends’ footsteps and request asylum in the US.

“I hesitated. My friends went to faraway lands. They left to cold Canada, to hot Australia, to bleak and dreary London, to scary USA, and to rigid Europe. But I returned to Iraq, circumventing death, arrests, and a despotic regime,” al-Maliki says.

In Baghdad, al-Maliki wrote scripts for the TV series Sarah Khatun and Rasafi, but soon after, he left to Jordan and then traveled to Syria in 2001.

Returning to Iraq in 2002, he anticipated the war and the toppling of the regime that took place a year later. “I decided that day to tear up my passport, but soon I found myself fleeing with my family,” declares al-Maliki. He first fled to the Hasaka region in Syria, and then to Damascus, which, according to al-Maliki, was like a second home.

“After the bombing of the two imams’ mausoleum in Samaraa, I realized, it was the end of Iraq,” al-Maliki recalls.

But when the killing frenzy and bloodshed eased in Iraq, he returned to his motherland once again with the idea of settling down there.

In his opinion, the Arab Spring began in Iraq in 1991 when most of the provinces revolted against the regime. They did not have the luxury of mobile phones and new media, and were met by media silence.

He is optimistic about the internet generation, which has taken over as a primary group which promotes change. He also believes that the Internet tackles issues using a humanitarian and universal logic “despite the fact that it is the puritanical Islamist parties that are benefiting from the change,” according to al-Maliki.

Baghdad Phobia (2007) was al-Maliki’s first work after the US occupation of Iraq. Written as a series of conversations between the dead and the living, the drama series tackled the topic of the persecution and murder of Iraqi scientists.

Rasail Min Rajul Mayyet (Letters from a Dead Man), starring Ghassan Massoud and Shatha Hassoun, was another popular work produced by al-Maliki. He wrote the script during his stay in Hasaka, addressing several topics, from that of Egyptian agents in Iraq in the 1970s to the atrocities and torture that took place in Abu Ghraib prison in 2006.

The filmmaker who was forced to turn to television has nevertheless managed to produce two movies. The first, Iraq Bayna Ihtilalayn (Iraq Between Two Occupations), is a documentary for Al Arabiya channel. It deals with the political upheaval that Iraq witnessed, from the era of British occupation to the US invasion. The third and final part of the documentary was screened on the eve of the execution of Saddam.

Al-Maliki personally wrote, directed, and produced his second movie Intihak (Violation), which is about the rape of five mental health patients on the night Baghdad was first occupied by United States forces. The movie won the Golden Pyramid award in the 2005 Cairo International Film Festival.

His two most important works, however, are Al-Dahana (The Painter) and Al-Hobb Wa Salam (Love and Peace).

The Painter, directed by Ali Abu Seif in 2010, is a television series about the rule of Abdul Karim Kassem and his troubled relations with Communists. As for Love and Peace, it was directed in 2009 by Tamer Isaac and was the first Arab television war series.

Last Ramadan, al-Maliki presented the controversial Abu Tabar television series, directed by Sami Janadi. It is the story of an Iraqi serial killer who spread terror in Iraq in the early seventies.

Al-Maliki has many new upcoming projects, including an overdue novel and a play about Mohamad Bouazizi – the Tunisian street vendor who sparked the Arab Spring – which will be shown in Baghdad in the near future.

Al-Maliki was not surprised by the uprising of Arab people, despite the fact that some sought assistance from the “barbarians” (i.e., the West), as was the case in Libya. Nevertheless he considers the barbaric ways of the US to be more merciful to the Iraqis than the “paternalism” of Saddam.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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