In Iraq, going viral can bring fame, and the threat of violence

Ali Adil at his home in Hilla, Iraq, on July 24, 2021. In Iraq, the fame of going viral has come with the threat of violence. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
When Ali Adil, upset over another electricity outage during a sweltering summer, stomped up the stairs to the roof of his family’s home and recorded a video appealing to President Biden for help, the teenager did not expect a response.

So he was elated when he got a reply from a senior US State Department official. And he was excited when he was invited to meet Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi.

But, in Iraq, the fame of going viral has come with the threat of violence. And now, the teenager says he is afraid to leave his home.

“I used to go out to the street, and it was normal for people to take photos with me without a problem,” he said, sitting with his father in the living room of their home in Hillah, 70 miles south of Baghdad.

“Now I am afraid,” he said. “I don’t go out with my family. When I go out with my friends I wear a hat and a mask so no one will recognise me. Some people hate me now.”

It started simply enough.

Ali, 17, who has been video blogging since he was 13 and has a devoted following on TikTok, Facebook and Instagram, set up his phone on the dusty roof, positioned a camera light and started recording.

“Peace and the mercy of God be upon you. How are you Biden dear heart?” he says on the video. Dressed in baggy knee-length shorts and a tan T-shirt, he spoke in a mélange of Arabic and English before he got down to business:

“Biden — if you don’t help me, I will jump,” he says, a bit of mischief in his voice. He plays it straight in the video, saying he is not joking. (Sitting in his home last week, he said he would never do that.)

Then he starts to list his troubles. His troubles, it turns out, are the troubles of a nation.

“Biden! Fire in hospital, the weather in Iraq is hot,” he says, referring to a recent fire at a COVID isolation ward that killed dozens of people, and suffering through Iraq’s 120-degree summer with constant electricity cuts.

When there is gunfire in the distance — probably celebratory — he waves it off.

“Not a problem. It is OK, this is normal,” Ali says with eloquent hand gestures emphasising it is completely normal for children to grow up hearing gunfire in the middle of town.

Since posting the video on July 15, the number of people “liking” his Instagram page exploded to more than 4.2 million. He now has more than half a million TikTok followers.

The buzz prompted a video response from Joey Hood, an acting Assistant Secretary of State, and a 10-minute meeting with Iraq’s prime minister. And that is where Ali’s trouble started.

After the meeting, he got 20,000 comments — more than half of them negative — on his social media sites.

Ali said that when he met with Khadimi, the prime minister encouraged him to keep doing videos and keep criticising the government.

But then the prime minister’s office released the photo of their meeting. And it came in the aftermath of an attack by the Islamic State group in a poor Baghdad neighbourhood, killing dozens of people.

A wave of public anger against the government and its security forces followed and, without any evidence, some people thought Ali had been co-opted by the government.

“When I met al-Kadhimi the criticism of me increased because some thought that Kadhimi gave me money and told me ‘don’t shoot any video any more, don’t talk about Iraq and what is happening in it,’” he said.

His video resonated, it seems, because it was both so genuine and so simple. And obviously drawn from his life.

Outside Ali’s family home, trash is piled up in an empty lot and along the potholed streets.

But inside, it is immaculate. The family is trying, but rowing against strong currents.

The electricity at his home is on for two hours, and off for two hours. When there is no city power, the air conditioner goes off, the temperature rises instantly and it is Ali’s job — even in the middle of the night — to go outside and switch on the small generator that keeps a fan running.

Mornings, he sets off to buy fuel for the generator.

“In other countries people my age would study, and then go swimming,” he said. “I go out to buy fuel for the generator.”

Iraq, which has some of the largest oil reserves in the world, is also considered among the most corrupt countries in the world. Rampant corruption, years of conflict and dysfunctional government ministries have left Iraqis lacking reliable public services and, particularly among young people, faith in the future.

Adil Hwedi Aziz, Ali’s father, is open about his history as an interpreter with the US military in Iraq. Despite the hardships that have come since the invasion of his country, he maintains faith in America.

“I think the Iraqi people got fed up and no longer can bear this situation and the Iraqi people have begun accepting the idea of the Americans or anyone to save them,” he said.

He travelled to Texas in 2014 under a special visa program to resettle Iraqis who worked with the US military but his wife, a computer programmer, did not want to leave Iraq at the time. Aziz lasted just four months in Fort Worth without his family.

“My family cried and convinced me to come back,” he said. “I missed them.”

Today, he describes returning to Iraq before he obtained a green card a mistake. His wife and three children are now waiting to hear whether they can move to the US under the special visa program.

Ali, who is in 11th grade, said his dream was to study medicine — preferably in California — which is why he was so moved by the response from Hood, the American diplomat who was previously posted to Baghdad.

“My dear Allawi, don’t jump from the roof, please,” Hood says in the reply video.

“We in America love you,” Hood tells him in English and Arabic. He tells Ali that life is precious and that they can make it better together for Iraqis and Americans. Hood invites him, when he visits Iraq again, to sit down together to eat pacha — a typical Iraqi dish of stuffed sheep intestines.

Ali had been hoping for an invitation to the United States.

“I was so happy,” Ali said. “I said, ‘Oh God, my voice was heard.’ I thought I would travel or something like that. But then he said, ‘because of the coronavirus we can’t invite you,’ and I was crushed.”

Ali said he was still thrilled his voice reached Washington. And he has not given up hope that, one day, he will fulfil his creative dreams in America.

“Here it is very difficult,” he said. “There you can make anything. You are free.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company