Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Sun (Wafaa Bilal and Kari Lydersen)

Yeah, how about that title? Can you imagine walking into a bookstore and saying, “I’d like Shoot an Iraqi“? (For the record, I ordered online from an independent bookstore so I didn’t actually have to say the words.) It was the original title for an exhibition Bilal staged at a gallery in Chicago. The gallery owner wisely nixed the title, fearing (in part) that some might see it as a real invitation. The new title was “Domestic Tension.” Although I understand rejecting Bilal’s original title, I don’t think the new one quite captures what Bilal was doing.

For one month, Bilal installed himself in the gallery and invited viewers, via the internet, to shoot him with a remote-controlled paintball gun. Viewers could watch the impact of the shot or shots online. The paintball pellets were yellow. Always yellow.

The project was inspired when Bilal learned that some of the destruction wrought on his home country of Iraq by the US was initiated by someone in the US who couldn’t see the impact of what they were doing. From Colorado, the war had become a video game. Bilal wanted to make it personal to remind people that they were human beings on the other end of guns, bombs, drones, etc.. The reactions he reports, from visitors to the gallery (including people who had already scheduled to have their weddings there) to the online community are staggering. People hacked the gun so they could operate it like a machine gun. Another group that connected via the internet scheduled shifts to try to control the gun so the shots would never actually hit him. The online posts he shares are filled with hate, hope and loneliness.

Bilal also recounts the physical, mental and emotional toll that the experience took on him, and it’s harrowing. I imagine I would have been one of those people pushing him to end it early. Given that a subsequent video exhibit was him being filmed as he was waterboarded, he is clearly more resilient than me.

And he’d have to be. Intertwined with a kind of journal of his experiences in the exhibit are his experiences both in Iraq and during his efforts to escape it. Between the two narratives, I think Bilal accomplishes with this book what he sought to accomplish with the exhibit. Whatever else we want to say or study or learn from the US wars with Iraq, we have to remember to think of them not in terms of policy decisions or oil, but human beings.

I find myself staring at the subtitle of the book even now. “Art” comes first, ahead of “Life.” Based on his story, it always did for Bilal, and it always will.

This is a beautiful story of human endurance and the urgency of art. I’d like to think that while I may have watched and may have joined online that I would not have fired a shot. I’d like to think that.

I will remember this book. And I will always be haunted by all of that yellow. Look at that cover. All that yellow. And no face.

Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake

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