The assassination of a leading Iraqi novelist and poet in the middle of a street in the holy Shiite city of Karbala on February 2 has sparked outrage inside and outside Iraq, raising speculation that he was the latest victim in the targeted killings of prominent figures that started last summer.
Alaa Mashzoub was fatally shot 13 times by two assailants on motorcycles outside his home in the neighborhood of Bab Al Khan. According to Amar Al Massodi, head of Karbala’s Literature Group, a branch of the Iraqi Literature Association of which Mashzoub had been a member, the writer was returning home from a weekly meeting when he was ambushed. On February 3, intellectuals and artists from Karbala staged a sit-in in protest. News media throughout the world continue to report and comment on the writer’s death.
Mashzoub’s murder comes in the wake of last summer’s spate of killings against women professionals and social media activists, raising speculation that the Iraqi writer was targeted for his outspoken views and for broaching political and religious taboos. Mashzoub was also well-known for blunt criticism against sectarianism, radicalism, corruption, ISIS, Iran’s politics and its sponsored militias.
According to a security source in Karbala who spoke with Asharq Al-Awsat, the London-based newspaper, “security forces discovered near [Mashzoub’s] body leaflets that accused him of apostasy.”
One of Mashzoub’s more recent novels discusses the deteriorating aspects of life in Karbala, which leads some to suspect it factored in his assassination. “His writings probably bothered some of the people he had referred to in his book under false names,” said journalist and writer Nasser al-Yasseri in an article in Asharq Al-Awsat. According to recent press reports, Mashzoub himself took part in last year’s protests against poor public services and unemployment. Mina Aldroubi in an article for The National quoted Mashzoub’s brother Qassim Mashzoub as saying, “anyone who spoke out against corruption in Iraq was liable to become a victim of “free speech.”’
Other speculations raise the likelihood of militia involvement. Mashzoub had made no secret of his dislike of Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's 1979 revolution, in a January 17 Facebook post. The symbolism behind shooting Mashzoub 13 times is not lost on Yasseri, “which is how many years Khomeini had spent in Iraq in opposition to the Shah’s rule in Iran. Mashzoub had mentioned this figure in his writing.”
Mashzoub’s killers remain unknown, as security forces have been ordered to refrain from giving details. Ahmed Saadawi, author of “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” wrote: “Shame on the murderers – and shame on the authorities, if they don't find and judge them immediately," adding, “You really have to be a coward to fire a gun at someone who only has words and dreams.”
Assailants involved in last year's assassinations have yet to be apprehended by security forces.
Mashzoub graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts at Baghdad University in 1993 with a Ph.D and went on to publish over 20 books on Karbala’s history and culture, Iraqi Jewish minority, and how wars and violence aged Baghdad prematurely, among other topics. His first book, a collection of poems titled “In the Homeland and Nationalism” (2008), criticized foreign interference in Iraq and the role of religious clerics. He also penned “The Chaos of the Nation” (2014), “Crime on Facebook” (2015), and “The Jewish Baths” (2017).
In December 2017, Mashzoub was interviewed by kitabat.com on a wide range of literary issues, including two of his novels, “The Jewish Baths” and “The Aging of Baghdad.” Talking about “The Aging of Baghdad,” Mashzoub goes back to the mid-20th century, revisiting tragic events his country went through even at its early post-independence age, starting with the bloody military coup that overthrew the ruling royal family in 1958 to be followed by counter-coups, wars, invasions, sieges, civil wars, and terrorism. Despite the wickedness of these events, the catastrophic one in his view emerged in the Iraq-Iran War, when "life stopped," and everything was used for the sake of war. Perhaps, what Mashzoub wanted to say is that Iraq aged prematurely due to the bloody events which succeeded each other within a short historical period.
As a novelist, Mashzoub might best be remembered for his bold approach to the question of co-existence. "The Jewish Baths," which is set in 1918, tells the story of a Jewish man who settled in Karbala and went into business opening a public bath. Aware of the sensitivity of the theme, kitabat.com wanted to know Mashzoub's thoughts on the question of Iraqi Jews, once a major component of Iraqi society, especially in Baghdad. "Being an academic familiar with the many critical schools, I am indebted to Jacques Derrida in deconstructing the many closed structures and on shedding light on the grey distances between the basic colors." He adds: "And because our time is the time of the marginalized, the weak, those lying in the back streets, and the time of religious minorities and small nationalities, and because the Jews are part of the components of Arab peoples, I wanted to prove that the city of Karbala which is publicized as a city of one exclusive religious community, is in fact a city of all religions, sects, and nationalities and not exclusively of one sect."
Having said this, Mashzoub continues to explain the oversensitivity toward the discussion of Iraqi Jews to the lack of distinction between the Zionists as occupiers of Palestine and Judaism as a monolithic religion. He courageously addresses a topic avoided by many Arab authors, Christians and Muslims alike, a phenomenon common in Arab nationalist and Baathist discourse. Steering away from the Jewish question in Arab societies is justified under the cloak of sectarianism and a misguided approach to Judaism. This denial is equivalent to negating the Jewish existence in Arab countries. As Mashzoub put it, minorities, Christians, Yazidis and Turkomans and other religions are part of the people of Iraq who most recently suffered or were displaced by ISIS. In short, the novelist wanted his book to affirm the Jews as part of Iraqi history and culture, including his city, Karbala.
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