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

Signwriters Provide Final Flourish for Politicians

The election provided an unexpected boost for the art of calligraphy, as political hopefuls commissioned handwritten banners.
By Hazim al-Sharaa

Ahmed Mahanah says he made more money in the few weeks leading up to Iraq’s elections than he made in the previous six months.


Mahanah is a professional calligrapher, a trade still in wide demand wherever publicity material is produced using handwritten Arabic script.


“My shop was filled with the paint I was using to write banners that encouraged people to vote,” said Mahanah, puffing on a cigarette outside his shop in Dijla Street in the southeastern city of Amarah.


Much of the new business came from campaigners for the United Iraq Alliance, the list backed by prominent Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.


The boom came to an end on June 28, as campaigning drew to a close the statutory two days before the election. The next day, Mahana did not get a single customer, but he could afford to relax.


As well as calligraphers, the fabric and paint merchants who supply the basic materials for signwriting are counting the profits they made during Iraq’s first multi-party election in 50 years.


Now they are looking forward to the campaigns for two more polls expected later in the year: a referendum on a new constitution in October, and elections for a standing parliament to replace the current interim body in December.


The diversity of material the calligraphers were called on to write meant they were buying more of everything, and wider range of colours.


“Usually the calligraphers use white or yellow to write banners for funerals, but ahead of the election I was selling several colours,” said paint seller Said Muhaissn.


Haberdashery owner Abbas Shinndy said he was shifting fabric at a rate of 70 to 90 metres every day at the peak of the political campaigning.


”I didn’t make a huge profit because the political parties always chose cheap fabrics to use in their campaigns, but it [still] meant extra profits for me,” he said.


Shinndy thinks the December election will be even better for business, because there were be even more contenders, such as those parties which ran a boycott this time round.


Calligrapher Jasim Muhammed said things have certainly changed since the days of Saddam Hussein, when the regime forced calligraphers to produce banners for little or no payment.


Much of the material they were called upon to write consisted of diatribes against whichever country Iraq was fighting at the time, recalled Muhammed, adding, “They said that it was our duty to fight the enemy in our own way, and that we should do our best to gratify our leaders.”


This election was different, according to Muhammed, who said his colleagues have now regained their pride in their work.


“I don’t want to write about death, and I don’t want the Saddam era to be repeated,” he said. “I’m fed up of writing the names of young people who died in Saddam’s wars.”


Hazim al-Sharaa is an IWPR trainee journalist in Iraq.