BAGHDAD: The man in the bulky bomb disposal suit waved at a gaggle of awed children as he walked down a Baghdad street and sat outside a small cafe to drink tea.
But there was no bomb to defuse on Rasheed Street that day, and no armour inside the black suit to protect him from explosives.
Iraqi artist Hussein Adil designed the mock bomb suit — complete with huge helmet and visor — himself for this performance. “We had to make this one because there aren’t many bomb suits in Iraq,” he said. “We have to be one of the countries in the world that needs them the most.”
Adil, a wispy 20-year-old with a wild head of tight curly hair, is one of an ever growing number of Iraqi artists looking for new ways of tackling the violence they grew up with.
The inspiration for his “bomb suit happening” was the death last year in a suicide car bombing of his close friend Ammar al-Shahbander, a much-loved journalist.
Adil, Shahbander and two other friends were heading to a cafe to drink tea in Baghdad’s Karrada district when an important call came in on his mobile phone. “I told them to go ahead, that I would follow them in five minutes,” Adil said.
He heard an explosion moments later. After searching for them for hours, he found one of his friends with a head injury in hospital and was told that Shahbander had been killed.
Two weeks later, he dreamt that a bomb would go off near a square in central Baghdad and, after waking up, immediately called his friends and his father to tell them.
An explosion rocked the exact spot later that day. “My friends called me to ask me how I knew, it was a very strange thing,” he said, adding it was then that he started looking for ways to express his angst through art.
Baghdad has been rocked by hundreds of car bombs over the years, sometimes several in a day during periods when violence peaked.
Those blasts and other attacks have killed tens of thousands of civilians and left many residents with deep trauma that remains when violence ebbs, as is the case now in the city.
Adil thought of a simple performance, during which his friend Muslim would go about normal daily activities in Baghdad wearing a bomb suit. “I thought, why isn’t there some kind of outfit that can protect us? Other approaches produced no results so I looked at individual solutions,” Adil said.
The decrepit charm of the once glorious Rasheed Street’s ornate arcades and derelict theatres provides an odd backdrop for the dark figure casually walking in full mock ordnance disposal gear.
As they saw Muslim trudging along, arms sway and head ensconced in a massive ballistic collar, some passers-by seemed alarmed or amused.
Others barely turned their heads to look. “I suppose they have their reasons for doing this kind of art, but personally I don’t see what it’s going to change about what our country is going through,” said Abu Ibrahim, a local shop owner.
Followed by his friend Adil, Muslim walked into buildings to chat with people, ordered tea at a cafe and inquired about prices at a tailor’s shop.
After two people helped him out of his bomb suit, Muslim spoke of the many thoughts that rushed through his mind. “I knew it wasn’t a real suit… but at one point I actually felt it was protecting me and started imagining all the things I could do,” he said.
“I could feel people looking at me. Some were laughing, some were perplexed and others looked like they wanted to try it on.”
Adil will repeat the performance in various locations of the capital and wrap up his experiment with a photo exhibit. “I wanted to show the public what we have come to… and plant this question in their heads: what if we all looked like this?”