Baghdad Sign Maker Adapts to New Iraq

Aba Dhar Muhammad Salih is a Baghdad sign maker who used to make signs for small businesses and professionals. Now he designs obituary banners for victims of Iraq's chaotic post-Saddam period.

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In many parts of Baghdad, banners hang outside homes and businesses, signs with the swooping curves of formal Arabic scripts. They're obituary signs, many of them made to remember relatives killed by sectarian death squads. They're the work of professional calligraphers.

NPR's Corey Flintoff has the story of one of them.

COREY FLINTOFF: When he learned his craft nearly 40 years ago, Aba Dhar Muhammad Salih had pleasanter work--doing ads for businesses and signs for professionals, doctors and lawyers. These days, though, most of his work is generated by the growing sectarian violence in Baghdad.

ABA DHAR MUHAMMAD SALIH: (Through translator) Our work is mostly dedicated to doing black obituary signs, especially for those killed in what's called a treacherous act. Some people prefer to have the sign say the death was from sectarian strife, without naming the party responsible for the killing.

FLINTOFF: Aba Dhar says people avoid being too specific about the cause of death on their banners for fear of reprisals from the killers, who've been known to attack funeral processions.

The writer, though, hears most of the details, because his customers seem almost compelled to tell him.

DHAR MUHAMMAD SALIH: (Through translator) We feel that bitterness, especially when the relative of the dead person waits in the workshop for the sign to be written. While the calligrapher is doing his work, the customer starts telling how his relative was killed and how many children he left behind, or that he was newly married, or that he supported a big family.

FLINTOFF: Aba Dhar's brush swirls and flourishes over the lines of a verse from the Koran. He's in his early 50s, slightly built but intense. He practices his craft in a crowded workshop, stacked with banners and brushes, redolent with the smells of ink and paint.

Aba Dhar says that he sometimes has to make signs for people he's known and loved. The sadness is hard to take.

DHAR MUHAMMAD SALIH: (Through translator) There was this one, that was so painful for me. It was of this man, such a good man, and so dear to us. He was supporting the orphans left behind by his dead brother. His death really broke my heart. Then, there was the other shop owner I worked for when I was a child. He was an old man in his 60s. They killed him as he was preparing breakfast. I couldn't write his death sign. I just couldn't do it.

FLINTOFF: The troubled times bring Aba Dhar other kinds of work, such as repainting the shop and office signs of people who want to erase anything that could identify them as Sunni or Shiite Muslims.

DHAR MUHAMMAD SALIH: (Through translator) They all resort to changing their titles or names. Like when they come to us to omit a name like Abdul Hussein(ph) or Abdul Padr(ph), names that glaringly indicate the sectarian affiliation of that tribe.

FLINTOFF: Because of the scarcity of work, Aba Dhar and his family also make metal signs for businesses. But that field too has been affected by the deteriorating security.

DHAR MUHAMMAD SALIH: (Through translator) It was very much affected since nobody is willing to do a big sign today only to have it blown up by a car bomb explosion two days later.

FLINTOFF: In any case, Aba Dhar says that most of his customers are poor. He can't charge much for his work or even take the old satisfaction from doing it well.

DHAR MUHAMMAD SALIH: (Through translator) No matter how much money you earn out of this job, it's always a joy marked by bitterness - the bitterness of the death and the sad stories you hear from customers. To be frank with you, you can never enjoy the money you earn.

FLINTOFF: Aba Dhar goes to a cabinet to look for a drawing tool. There's not much room anymore for bright banners and brilliant paints. That's material for joyous inscriptions, material that will have to be saved for better times.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.

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