Twelve years ago, literature on and from Iraq developed a strange and heavy shadow. Even before the US-led invasion in March of 2003, Americans began writing and publishing an enormous body of work that creates and re-creates “Iraq”. Iraqi writers also grappled with the same landscapes and general events. But while there are points where the two literatures meet, their effects could hardly appear more different.
Up through the late 1970s, Iraq was known for its large numbers of readers, its publishers and its poets. After all, Iraq is not just the birthplace of al-Mutanabbi, but the land that produced genre-shaking modern poets like Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Saadi Youssef, and Sargon Boulus. After the 1970s, however, things began to fall apart. The modern Iraqi publishing industry suffered during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and after an embargo was imposed in 1990, the country saw much of its publishing infrastructure collapse or move abroad. Sanctions and some forms of censorship were finally lifted in 2003, just as the US-led occupation began.
Many Iraqi publishers still remain outside the country, such as the prominent Dar al-Jamal, run out of Berlin. Major Iraqi authors are also scattered across Germany, England, Belgium, the United States, France, Finland and Canada. Still, Iraqi writers, whether in Iraq or abroad, have been grappling intensely with questions of identity and memory, often in fictional forms. Poetry continues to be written, but Iraqi literature’s centre of gravity has been shifting — from poetry to prose.
Throughout this process, many Iraqi writers have also been conscious of the looming shadow of US story-production.
Prose that remembers
Increasingly, Iraqi literature has seen a prose-ward shift. Poet Sinan Antoon published his first novel in 2003, and has since written two significant fictions set in the post-2003 era, The Pomegranate Alone (published in English as The Corpse Washer) and Ya Maryam. Short-story writers like Hassan Blasim and Luay Abbas have also worked to depict a changing Iraq, as have dozens of novelists, ranging from established writers like Abdel Khaliq al-Rikabi, Hadiya Hussein, Ali Bader, and Muhsin al-Ramli, to emerging ones like Ahmad Saadawi, Nassif Falak, and Duna Ghali.
Some of these writers have remained in Iraq, such as al-Rikabi and Saadawi, while many more live abroad. But, wherever they are, these writers are focused on a similar range of issues. According to Dar al-Jamal publisher Khaled al-Maaly, in the context of Iraqi literature, “residence means nothing”.
“We are experiencing a true upsurge in Iraqi fiction,” Iraqi novelist Inaam Kachachi said last year. Kachachi, who lives in Paris, has seen two of her books shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). In her view, it’s “as if we, the [Iraqi] writers, are striving to capture the shocking events taking place in Iraq and monitor their reverberations from our own perspective.”
But recent Iraqi fiction has done more than simply capture events; like in Lebanon’s civil-war writing, it has been the site of experiments and innovations. Short-story writer and filmmaker Hassan Blasim’s work has been criticized and lauded for its use of “un-beautiful language,” multiple genres, and stitched-together forms. Blasim is also the force behind Iraq + 100, a bilingual science-fiction collection. Ali Bader’s Kings of the Sands (2011) borrows from detective stories, while Ahmad Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, which won the 2014 IPAF, has aspects of horror and magical realism. Duna Ghali’s Orbits of Loneliness (2013) is a ground-breaking feminist novel told in a diary form, exploring a mother’s relationship to her son.
Still, despite their differences, many of the recent Iraqi novels foreground memory, identity, and violence. Some follow Iraqis as they move abroad, while others remain in Iraq. They are largely anti-nationalist and anti-sectarian, zooming in on the lives and fates of individuals.
Critic Hussein al-Skaff, writing last year, called Iraqi fiction of the last twelve years a way of resisting the shadow of forgetting. The new Iraqi literature, “seems like a form of resistance, not by resisting the occupation and its results through military means, but by resisting against forgetting the scale of the tragedy.”
The shadow: A literature of forgetting
While a large number of works have been written by Iraqis since 2003, they are nonetheless dwarfed by the thousands of books about Iraq that have been mass-produced in the United States. Some of these have been written independently, such as Elliott Colla’s detective novel Baghdad Central. But many more have been written with the institutional support of US government organizations, which have extended financial help to veterans in their creative-writing endeavours.
In most of what Colla calls this “embedded literature”, individual Iraqi people are erased. The same is true of surveys of Iraq war literature in prominent spaces like the New Yorker and New York Times, where readers can find Iraq stories written almost exclusively by Americans, foregrounding Americans.
Some of these works have reached huge audiences and cast a massive shadow. Chris Kyle’s American Sniper, one of the best-selling titles, was turned into a popular movie that was shown not just in the US, but in Iraq and around the world. The US critical establishment, meanwhile, has been wowed by books like Kevin Powers’ Yellow Birds and Phil Klay’s Redeployment, which won the 2014 National Book Award.
If there is a memorializing aspect to this literature, it focuses on remembering the lives and difficulties of US soldiers. For the most part, Iraqis are forgotten. Those who do exist are in the background, or on the unfortunate side of a sniper’s sight.
In Colla’s words, this is a partly organic, partly funded “forgetting project”. The canonization of soldiers’ literature, he writes, “needs to be understood for what it is: an attempt to forget the many other stories that could be told about war”.
Going forward, a model of remembering
Sinan Antoon, who teaches at New York University, is more conscious than most of the swelling body of American literature on Iraq. But in his talks on “Translation as Mourning” last year, Antoon focused on remembering.
Antoon’s own books have active memories: They represent not just what exists now, but where it came from. Yet his talks centred not on his own writing, but on his work translating the poems of Sargon Boulus, who died in 2007. Boulus’s poems, Antoon said in a talk at the American University in Cairo, are “a model of mourning”. One “can read these poems as a model for an ethics of mourning or remembering".
In Boulus’s poems, Antoon said, “there is no demand for vengeance or retribution”, which he said is very important in the Iraqi context. The poetry speaks “to, not for its ghosts”, and doesn’t attempt to “exercise or exploit them”.
Something similar could be said for Iraq’s best novels of the last decade. And as Iraqi literature continues to move forward, there will be many more ghosts to carry along, shadows to acknowledge, and a heavy burden of remembering.