Shala’ qala’

A colloquial expression in Iraqi Arabic, shala’ qala’, means “pulling and gouging”. It refers to the treatment that a dentist might subject you to: pulling firmly from above and then, if the rotten tooth proves stubborn, gouging from the bottom to strike at its root. In early 2016, pro-reform activists in Iraq spoke of shala’ qala’ when describing plans to escalate their street politics to place pressure on Iraq’s corrupt political elite.

In the context of mass demonstrations, sit-ins, and the symbolic infiltration of Baghdad’s Green Zone and occupation of the parliament in April 2016, shala’ qala’ offers multiple levels of meaning.

First, the rotten tooth symbolises the political elite. It sickens the body and must be removed. Second, the imagery of pulling and gouging clearly expresses the frustration of the pro-reform movement: it’s tried applying firm pressure to remove the tooth but it clings on, necessitating more serious action. Finally, there is an underlying message that pain might be unavoidable if longer term health is to be restored.

This simple phrase, shala’ qala’, holds meaning for Iraqi activists who since 2003 have offered a critique of their country’s political elite and the system that sustains it, risked their personal safety to take their grievances to the streets, and today are developing a coherent vision of an alternative future government for Iraq. To date, pulling has not been enough to dislodge the political class. It’s likely that activists are now searching for a sharp instrument that can be used for gouging.

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