Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Saddam Purged From Kids' Books

Principal publisher of children's literature jettisons Saddam-era propaganda.
By Salaam Jihad

In Saddam's day, it published books like "Tanks in the Night" or "Men of our Country", replete with illustrations of smiling Iraqi officers standing over a group of huddled, miserable, scruffy-bearded Iranian prisoners, and chatting about how one Iraqi was worth ten of the Persian enemy.

Or, youngsters could read about "The Story of Nationalisation", portrayed as Saddam Hussein's gift to coming generations, and they could even peruse photos of oil refineries and the Iraqi leader surrounded by smiling children.

Today, however, the Children's Culture House - Iraq's lone publisher dedicated to young readers - can put cartoons on its covers of a girl and her pet cat playing with a garden hose on a hot summer day, and there's nary a president in sight.

At last, officials at the press say they can shed the tastes of the old regime - horses, factories, and soldiers - and publish stories that their audience wants to read.

In the days of Saddam, says publications editor Riyadh Salem, "We printed stories from the Iran war to mobilise the child for war."

The centre, formed in 1969, publishes book and comics, and puts on plays, festivals and other shows for children.

Organising youngsters' art contests on major national holidays was among the most important of its functions.

Children were encouraged to draw pictures of the Iraqi masses surging to the polls to vote "Yes to Saddam" on election day or pledging him support on Allegiance Day. The youngsters even portrayed soldiers being sent to heaven on Martyr's Day.

When money and materials ran short during the period of United Nations' sanctions, however, the publisher closed down some of its publications, while the Magic Lantern children's theatre was rented out to the private sector, which put on money-making adult comedies.

A year before the recent war, the centre lost another of its facilities when a unit of the Iraqi intelligence services - after discovering it was a target on US bombing lists - commandeered its library.

Today, the publisher is once again getting on its feet, though its budget from the ministry of culture is barely sufficient to put out the three magazines - Sindbad of Baghdad, My Magazine, and the Trumpet - filled with comics, games, and stories.

At 100 dinars (6 US cents), the price of the magazines is still high. Centre officials say children still spend their money on sweets, or worse, cigarettes, and they want to reduce the cover price to a more competitive 50 dinars - just under the price of chocolate.

Although the magazines mostly contain tales of children and animals, or re-adaptions of Arabian folktales, they sometimes still do carry a political message, although of a much different type than before.

One issue of Sindbad tells the tale of 19th century Swiss businessman Henri Dunant, who, horrified by what he saw on a northern Italian battlefield, founded the Red Cross.

Summing up the paper's editorial changes, as well as its neatly reversed priorities, the same issue of Sindbad also published a cartoon of a tank forced to halt at a railroad crossing as a train speeds by - full of balloon-waving children.

Salaam Jihad is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.

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