Barack Obama

Anti-US Tehran mural links Obama and Shemr, villain of Shia

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2013, 4:21am


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For connoisseurs of political symbolism, Tehran is a feast. Government-sanctioned murals of ayatollahs and "martyrs" of the Iran-Iraq war are everywhere. A skull-faced Statue of Liberty decorates the wall of the former US embassy, and a parody of an American flag, with skull-stars and bomb-dropping stripes, overshadows a major road.

Last week an Iranian website showcased photographs of a dramatic new anti-Obama mural near the city's busy Valiasr Square. The image is of Barack Obama beside Shemr, a villain in Shia Islam, with a caption attributed to both men, the loaded phrase: "Be with us, be safe."

The message is rooted in Shia theology and the fact Obama was initially admired by some in Iran. Obama's 2008 campaign even inspired a rumour that he had Iranian roots, with fans citing his middle name "Hussein", which he shares with the central martyr in Shia theology, the Prophet Mohammed's grandson. Others made an omen of his surname because it sounds like Oo ba ma'st, or "He's with us", in Farsi.

The mural turns these portents on their head and makes Obama a sinister figure. Shemr earned his notoriety at the Battle of Karbala in 680, which split Muslims into Sunni and Shia. Shemr offered Hussein's supporters a "letter of protection" to betray him, but they refused.

In the mural, Shemr extends a similar letter to the viewer, as he and Obama utter the words Ba ma bash - "Be with us" - playing on the president's name, and insinuating that anyone who still likes Obama in the wake of tightening sanctions, or who advocates meeting demands over Iran's nuclear programme, is a traitor. Obama, it insists, is a "Hussein" unworthy of loyalty.