Flying Elephants: A Conversation with Ali Al-Shaial

This piece first aired in July, 2009, as part of the show, “Up in the Air.”

Listen here.

    HOST: Since the US invasion in 2003, Iraq has struggled to keep its power grid running and to deliver electricity around the country. According to the Brookings Institute Iraq Index, as of March, 2009, Iraq’s provinces averaged 15 hours of electricity per day. But the hours are irregular, and many Iraqis get far less than that, even using private generators.

    Ali al-Shaial is an Iraqi writer, film maker, and TV producer. He’s fed up with the lack of electricity in Iraq – and so he’s applying to Mozambique for asylum. Or that’s what he wrote in an open letter on July 1st.

    The letter, titled “From Ali al-Shaial to His Greatness the President of Mozambique, asking for electrical asylum,” begins:

    LETTER (voiceover): Oh, beloved President, I have believed in all kinds of governments: national, democratic, liberal, communist, secular, religious, Sunni, Shi’a, Kurdish, vegetarian, and parliamentary – oh, the parliamentary governments. Do you know that the salary of an Iraqi member of parliament is worth that of two thousand retired employees?

    HOST: It goes on from there.

    LETTER (voiceover): Our electricity minister is a noble man. He doesn’t want people to die of electric shocks, so he decided to cut out the power.

    HOST: He even describes what he would do for a living when he gets to Mozambique:

    LETTER (voiceover): I can work as an elephant trainer – don’t be surprised. We actually do have a rare kind of elephant, one that the government launches every now and then. Flying elephants, especially before the elections. One of those flying elephants is a ship that produces electricity.

    HOST: In Iraq, a “flying elephant” is a huge lie – an unbelievable lie. Like when Iraqi politicians promise to fix the electricity, according to al-Shaial. We spoke with him about his life, his writing – and the summer heat.

    ALI AL-SHAIAL (voiceover): My name is Ali al-Shaial. I was born in 1974. I am a member of the Iraqi Writers Union. I am the Bureau chief of al-Fayhaa TV in Nasiriyah. I have directed one film, Sumerians, which received an award at the Rome International Film Festival.

    I wrote my article when the temperature was 45 degrees Celsius. I was in pain, I wanted to sleep. I screamed, “Oh prime minister, I want to sleep for just one hour!” This is like a dream.

    It’s been six years, and the electricity problem hasn’t been fixed. This just doesn’t make sense. People in Europe might think that this is an easy problem. It’s not that easy. It has caused a rise in unemployment, shut down factories and businesses. Our whole life has been placed on hold because of electricity.

    Now, men in Iraq are not willing to marry a woman, but they would definitely marry a generator. Acquiring a generator is more important than getting married. It’s more important than pursuing your M.A. or Ph.D degree. It’s definitely more important than all your hopes and wishes. Because electricity has turned our lives upside down.

    The temperatures are so high. At night, it reaches 50 degrees Celsius. These are not normal temperatures. Our climate has been completely transformed. It’s like a desert because of the dry seasons we’ve had, especially in the South. The South was an area full of rivers and marshes. Now, the marshes are almost dry and the rivers are shallow. This affected our climate and environment. Our city’s sky is dusty, our temperatures are so high that people collapse because of the heat.

    I don’t know why we don’t have power. Is it a political reason, do they want to humiliate the Iraqi people? We’ve had enough humiliation and hopelessness.

    Enough luxury, enough Iraqi politicians living in ivory towers, and looking down on us like Gods.

    I employ black comedy in my writings and works. My article “From Ali al-Shaial to his Greatness, the President of Mozambique,” is black comedy. I don’t know Mozambique, but it’s a tragedy for an Iraqi to apply for asylum. It’s really a comic letter soaked with tears and filled with pain to Iraq’s President because we have reached the level of applying for asylum in Mozambique.

    As we speak, I am also writing another article, “Two Amperes for the Ziggurat of Ur.” I will sell the Ziggurat for two amperes of electricity so that my children can sleep with a fan on. We don’t dream of sleeping in the AC, like our officials who sleep in the Green Zone and our luxurious local government. I am pretty sure they cover themselves even in this cruel summer. But my family and people in Nasiriyah spend their nights in utter darkness. Our city is gloomy, dusty, and very warm.

    I have a 5 year old boy. He was crying last night. “Father, I want to sleep,” he cried. It’s hard to sleep, and we can’t sleep outside the house, because it doesn’t cool down at night. I told my boy: you are in the new Iraq, and in the new Iraq, nobody sleeps.

    HOST: That was Ali al-Shaial, author of the letter, “From Ali al-Shaial to His Greatness the President of Mozambique, asking for electrical asylum.”

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