By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
BAGHDAD, Nov. 20 -- For the last three years, Walid Hassan had an impossible task. He had to make war-weary Iraqis laugh. Week after week, the comedian and broadcaster found inspiration in the turmoil and bloodletting. On his weekend television show, "Caricature," he poked fun at the poor security, the long gas lines, the electricity blackouts and the ineffective politicians.
In Hassan's world, nothing was sacred. And many Iraqis adored him. In a nation bottled up with frustration, he was their release. They would recognize him on the streets and uncork their plights. He would listen, and turn them into satire.
On Monday, Hassan, 47, a father of five children, became a victim of the war and chaos from which he drew his inspiration. A Shiite Muslim, he was found in the majority-Sunni neighborhood of Yarmouk in west Baghdad with multiple bullet wounds to his back and head, according to police. He was last seen by witnesses in a black car with a driver and two other passengers.
"He was a star in the galaxy of Iraqi arts," said Ali Hanoon, the show's director. "Now, he's another sacrifice on the altar of this slaughtered country."
Hassan, who also produced a political show, was the latest casualty in the Iraqi media world, which has suffered heavily since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 unleashed a wave of press freedom. So far, 133 reporters, cameramen and other media workers have been killed in Iraq, the vast majority of them Iraqi, according to Reporters Without Borders, a journalists advocacy group.
Hassan, described by friends as tall with gray-flecked hair and a warm smile, was the second employee of al-Sharkiya television, an independent channel owned by a London-based Iraqi businessman, to be killed this month. In January, a Sharkiya anchor escaped a kidnapping attempt by jumping out of the second-floor window of her apartment after masked men broke into her home.
On Monday, Hassan's family and closest friend struggled to comprehend his death. In today's Baghdad, filled with death squads and criminal gangs, there could be many reasons. Was he the victim of sectarian strife? Or was it a kidnap-for-ransom plot gone awry? Or did his broadcast cross one too many red lines?
What is clear is that Hassan was concerned about his life, said his friends. As he viewed the mounting death tolls, he often thought about when his turn would come, mirroring the views of many Iraqis, said Hanoon.
So, like most Iraqis, he made preparations for death. Last year he sold his car for $5,000 and used it to buy a piece of land for his family.
"I asked him, why you sold your car?" recalled Ali Jabbir, one of Hassan's co-actors on "Caricature."
"He said, 'If tomorrow comes and I die, at least I'll give a house to my kids.' And this was the concern of every Iraqi."
On Monday, Hanoon said he had spoken with Hassan's wife. She said her husband often reassured her that his fame would shield him from the violence unfolding outside.
"She told me he used to tell her, 'If people came and wanted to kill me, I would use reason with them. And I will tell them, why would you kill me? On what basis? And I would get out of it because I was so popular,' " Hanoon recounted.
After graduating from a fine arts college in Baghdad, Hassan worked as a civil servant in Nasiriyah. He took night courses in acting and art while working as a journalist for Iraq's state television. In the early 1990s, he came to Baghdad to pursue his dream of becoming a comedian. He got his break as a director of a candid camera program called "Tricks" that ran on state television, recalled Hanoon.
In the months after the U.S.-led invasion, when Iraq exploded with a constellation of television channels, Al-Sharkiya tapped Hassan and five other actors for "Caricature." In each 30-minute segment, the actors performed skits that often seemed like Iraq's version of "Saturday Night Live." Hassan's roles ranged from corrupt officials to brown-nosing bureaucrats.
One skit was about a family who moved their home and all their belongings to an unknown location. By the end of the segment, they had grown long gray hair, their faces wrinkled with age. That's when the television viewers learned that the family was waiting in one of Iraq's notoriously long gas lines.
Last week, in his final role, Hassan played a man who made his way to the top of his company through connections, only to find out he was the wrong person for the job. Many viewers interpreted that as a slap at Iraq's unity government, in which sect and tribal allegiances are clearly visible in many ministries.
"The feeling Hassan had is the same that most people have, that Baghdad is withering," said Jabbir. "So we dealt with the diseases of society."
There was one sensitive issue they never played with: the sectarian strife disfiguring Iraqi society. "We always hated this subject," said Jabbir. "We believe the media should not provoke such strife. The goal is to put down such strife."
Hassan, his friends said, didn't perform his job for the money -- he earned a meager $400 a month and always found it hard to make ends meet.
On Monday, some of his co-actors on the show reflected on what drove Hassan to work on a show that could anger many powerful people.
"This was his own way to serve his country and his people, and this is the reason why Walid and us took that risk," said Bushra Ismael, a co-actor on "Caricature."
Hanoon said he wasn't certain whether the show would stay on the air.
"Since the program is a comedy, the laughter that will come out will be soaked with blood," said Hanoon.
Special correspondent Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.