Get The Lithub Daily
Follow us on TwitterMy Tweets
As I write this, I am reeling from the latest immigration announcement from our ricocheting president saying he wants to restrict “certain” Iraqis from coming to our shores. He has promised to ban many other refugees outright, including desperate and suffering Syrians, but this one cuts me particularly deep because of the war we inflicted on Iraq, the Iraqis I have met, and the Iraqis I have read.
Seven years ago, I began work on two novels about the Iraq War and its aftermath from the point of view of both American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. As part of my research, I sought Iraqi refugees to interview, as well as all the books and poems by Iraqis I could read. That was when I discovered how difficult it is to find Iraqi literature in translation, at least in America—a fact I consider shameful, given that our war killed some half a million Iraqis and displaced a fifth of the country. That said, I did discover a few books of prose and poetry that have managed to filter through the barriers of American suspicion and indifference, mostly thanks to independent and university presses. These are a few of my favorites.
Riverbend, Baghdad Burning
The first contemporary Iraqi writings I found in English were on a blog written by someone calling herself Riverbend, a 24-year-old woman who began sending dispatches from Baghdad during our “shock and awe” bombing campaign in March of 2003. A computer programmer fluent in English, she reminded me of my students: smart, articulate, funny, irreverent, and full of heart. Her voice was the most potent antidote I could find at the time to the growing Western view of Iraqis as incomprehensible religious extremists. One of the delights of reading a daily blog is that, like the diaries of Samuel Pepys, it chronicles life in real time. Riverbend describes how the quotidian grows increasingly more difficult in Baghdad as power outages multiply, people disappear, and the US disbanding of civil servants and police allows looters and kidnappers to rampage unchecked. She shows readers how her sympathy for American soldiers broiling in their body armor under the blistering Iraqi sun turns into a bitter anger against those same soldiers as they kill and maim. She describes the increasing cynicism among Iraqis as the US puts in one puppet government after another. When Riverbend and her family were eventually driven from Baghdad to Syria, she stopped writing (with the exception one farewell post in 2013, when the war was a decade old). But her entries were eventually collected into the book Baghdad Burning, published by the Feminist Press in 2005, so they remain available to all.
Sinan Antoon, I’jaam, an Iraqi Rhapsody
(trans. Rebecca Johnson and Sinan Antoon)
By 2007, a handful of other Iraqi writers had finally found their way to translation in the US. Although they had fled Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship or earlier wars and were not yet writing about the current war, their voices were essential to my research. One of these writers was Sinan Antoon, a poet, novelist, and filmmaker who left Iraq in 1991 and now teaches at New York University. I’jaam, an Iraqi Rhapsody, his first novel, was published by City Lights in 2007 and reads as much like a surrealist parable as a satire. Dreamlike, chilling, and ironic, the story follows a student who is thrown into an Abu Ghraib-like prison for no reason, where he is brutalized and subjected to an irrational set of interrogations straight out of Kafka, and where his nightmares and reality uncannily converge. Antoon, who opposed the US invasion of his country in 2003, has tackled the current war since, publishing more novels and several books of heartbreaking poetry, my favorite being The Baghdad Blues (Harbor Mountain Press, Vermont, 2007).
Hasan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition
(trans. Jonathan Wright)
I’ve only found two contemporary Iraqi books from a major US publisher—Penguin—and both were originally published elsewhere and in Arabic. The first of these was the chillingly titled collection of stories The Corpse Exhibition by Hasan Blasim, which was published here in 2014. Part Kafka, part Orwell, part magical realism, the stories deal with not only the brutality and cruelty of men, but with questions of how art and compassion can survive war. They are so powerfully written that even as they wrenched me from sympathy to horror, from reality to fantasy, they left me enlightened, moved, and infuriated all at once. I saw Blasim read from his book in New York, and I remember him telling the audience that reality in the wake of the Iraq War is like a giant mirror that has fallen and shattered into a million shards. “Each one of us picks up one shard and thinks he sees the whole picture,” he said. Blasim’s stories actually came out of Iraq’s earlier wars, Saddam’s invasion of Iran and the Persian Gulf War of 1991, but the bitter wisdom here pulls many of those shards together into a mirror of war everywhere.
Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad
(trans. Jonathan Wright)
Frankenstein in Baghdad won several international prizes in Arabic, including the Arabic Booker, before making it into translation this year—it’s due to come out in 2018. A Mary Shelley-inspired parable, the novel captures the chaos, absurdity, and inhumanity of the recent Iraq War, leaving readers, like the characters, stunned by constantly detonating bombs and the deep irrationality that war brings out in human behavior. Americans barely matter in this book, in marked contrast to so many US war stories, where American soldiers stand squarely in the foreground that their shadows either blot out most Iraqi characters altogether or reduce them to clowns, villains, or background blur. Nor is anybody in this novel reliable, whether a talking painting of Saint George, a monster made of many corpses, a grieving Christian mother, a police chief, or a junk dealer. And yet, they all make perfect sense, because in war, nothing makes sense at all. As in Blasim’s and Antoon’s books, Frankenstein fuses the fantastical with realism. But, as Blasim has said about other Iraqi fantastical literature, when a country has been brutalized by multiple wars, invasions, and dictators, how else to tell its story but through the allegory of fantasy?
Haifa Zangana, City of Widows: An Iraqi Woman’s Account of War and Resistance
Aside from Riverbend, women are glaringly absent from most of the translated Iraqi fiction I’ve read, as both authors and characters. An exception to this is Haifa Zangana, who has written several novels, memoirs, and essay collections that have been published in the UK, and yet who remains virtually unknown in this country. This is a pity, not only because a woman’s view of Iraq is badly needed—the UN recently reported that more women and children die in today’s wars than men—but because her perspective is so multifaceted. Zangana was imprisoned and tortured for taking up armed struggle against Saddam Hussein’s regime, after which she fled to London, where she had to deal with the daily humiliations and disorientation of being a refugee. Now she writes as someone who has had time to analyze what this all means. In City of Widows, published here by Seven Stories Press, she offers a history of Iraq, as well as political and philosophical analyses of how it has been systematically destroyed by the British and Americans, and, unfortunately, by itself.
Flowers of Flame: Unheard Voices of Iraq
The remarkable and moving poems in this anthology are all by Iraqis—both women and men—living in the midst of war. Edited and translated by a group of Iraqi poets, Flowers of Flame was published by Michigan State University Press in 2008, and I find myself returning to it again and again. One poem, “The Heart of a Woman” by Lateef Helmet, draws a moving picture of a woman’s heart as an open country that has no need for weapons, borders, passports, or war. Another poem, “The Prey” by Adil Abdullah, talks of the vulture of war feeding upon the flesh of what turns out to be its own children. Not all the poems in the collection are directly about war, but they are all filled with a passion that is both tragic and inspiring, even as they ask, as a poet does here, “How can you extract poems and shrapnel from your chest at the same time?” The answer can be found in all the writings I’ve mentioned here, for every one of these authors and poets clearly writes to protest, to retain their humanity, and to survive.
Helen Benedict’s new novel, Wolf Season, is out now from Bellevue Literary Press.