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Where is the Iraqi War Literature? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Damascus, Asharq Al Awsat – With a few exceptions of Iraqi writers and artists, the continuous bloodshed in Iraq has failed to elicit any poetry or prose from the Arab men of letters. While political writers expounded and analyzed, the literary writers and artists did not channel this harrowing Arab tragedy into creativity, and neither did they attempt to engage with it. Some attribute this absence to the obscurity of the events taking place, while others fear that their expression might be misconstrued as advocating or commemorating the dictator’s bygone era [by writing against the occupation]. So many different reasons all converge into one question: Where is the Iraqi war literature? What is the cause behind this indifference and when will the pens start to actively recount all that is taking place? How is it that the 33-day war in Lebanon acted as a catalyst that inspired artists to express themselves staging plays, setting up exhibitions and publishing books, whereas Iraq has endured three years of seemingly endless suffering and yet has nothing to show for it?

Throughout the centuries, writers, artists and intellectuals have played a major role during times of war. Some glorify heroes and leaders, some express their suffering and outrage while others try to make sense of the events taking place. The Arabs who recounted the history of the tribal wars were responsible for preserving a period that would have disappeared into the folds of history had it not been for their written accounts. Given the region’s history of wars witnessed and suffered throughout the centuries, there exists a corpus of Arabic literature ranging from the ancient to the modern that was closer and more representative of the times it was written compared to the situation today where contemporary literature fails to mirror or even represent today’s wars. There was no shortage of written expression during wars of independence in the Middle East; Lebanon’s 1948 war had it’s own poets and writers, in fact, all the wars that were fought on its soil – including the civil war following the Israeli invasion in 1982 – gave rise to acclaimed literary and artistic contributions. Why have the Arab artists and intellectuals turned their back on what is taking place in Iraq?

Iraqi novelist Shaker al Anbari believes that there is a substantial amount of contemporary writing in Iraq, particularly poetry and novels, which are published in the daily newspapers. They deal with topics that range from human suffering in Iraq to emigration and the killing that takes place – but they do not reach an Arab readership. He explained that they were rushed and emotional for the most part because the writer inside Iraq does not have the suitable living conditions to continue his/her creative production. Al Anbari acknowledges that to this day significant novels that deal with the war in Iraq have yet to emerge. He added that perhaps it wasn’t too late since novels require more time than poetry. In response to the question as to whether he believed that Arab writers in general have failed to address the Iraqi events, al Anbari said, “Arab intellectuals do not understand the nature of the events taking place in Iraq because of the superficial mode of thinking prevalent in the Arab world. Arab intellectuals approached it using a naïve dualism and dealt with it upon the consideration that it was simply about the ‘occupation and people’. However, there are a multitude of complex threads and unresolved historical problems within the Iraqi society. The occupation has inadvertently triggered all the latent problems that have been dormant – but the Americans did not plan to unleash them. Dissolving the state, for example, and the collapse in security that ensued led to all these problems. The Arab intellectual cannot apprehend these details because he/she is distanced away from them.”

Commenting on the Arab writers’ more pronounced participation and activity during the Lebanese war over the one in Iraq, Iraqi poet Mohammad Mazlum believes that the type of ‘interaction’ differs in both cases; he states that “in Lebanon, a war is fought against Israel and its supporters using a blatant resistance that has its own course and conduct. It is also in defense of an issue that most Arabs agree on,” noting that the division only emerged in assessment. “This interaction and reaction to the war in Lebanon, with all its various manifestations, as expressed by Arab writers and artists was merely an outlet for passion and an ephemeral sentiment rather than a literature that recorded distinctive human experiences within this context. Regarding Iraq, the war broke out between a ‘dictatorship and an empire’, and the literary and artistic interaction that took place is different from that of Lebanon, as writers did not want to contribute to strengthening the dictator’s will [by attacking the US, the ‘empire’]. Agreeing with al Anbari, Mazlum believes that there has yet to appear a literature that overtly tackles the subject of war – barring a few exceptions that are mostly poetry. In this respect he mentions the poetry volume by Iraqi poet Sa’adi Yusuf entitled ‘Salat al Wathani’ (The Idolater’s Prayers). In terms of drama, some plays have been written, the most prominent of which is Jawad al Asadi’s ‘Hammam Baghdadi’. As for novels, Mazlum believes that not enough time has elapsed for the creation of novels that tackle the war seriously and effectively.

In terms of how Arab writers have dealt with the war, Mazlum sees that, “Arab writers viewed the war from a unilateral perspective, that is, the removal of the dictator. They did not see it from the more important perspective, which is the dangers involved in occupation and the price to be paid by the people. Most of them saw it as a war of salvation. But that is not the case, because after all – it was a war.” Mazlum also believes that on a general level, Iraqi intellectuals fell victim to a trap, ‘Iraq’s new delusion’, which was set by those on the other side of the Atlantic. But controversy still reigns between the intellectuals about this war – although they can all agree that it is unwanted. However, at the core of this absurd controversy, disputers forget that the war goes beyond headlines and the causes to become a rolling fireball that only becomes fiercer as it rolls. It is no longer merely images in the media or flashing news items; it is a daily war that victimizes everyone, even observers and intellectuals who do not know what attitude to adopt in confronting it.

In light of this bloodshed and the scattered ruins that remain, literature seems to be turning its back on the war, which no longer concerns Iraqis alone as some would like to believe. It is a war that overshadows the whole region and looms over the world. Its catastrophic magnitude and the hefty price paid on the humanitarian level jolts the world into realizing its moral responsibilities for finding a practical and direct solution.

Syrian Literary Responses to the War

Syrian poet Jawdat Hassan says that when the war first broke out, he felt as though it was being fought in a remote place, “I heard about the war from other people and it seemed limited, but it soon became clear that it was much bigger than that.” Regarding writing about war he said, “I’m against the war and against writing about it.” But he also says, “I believe that the mere act of writing is an act of resistance in one way or another, regardless of the subject you write about, provided that the writing is of the highest aesthetical standard.” Syrian novelist Fawwaz Haddad believes that all the novels written today about the war in Iraq or Lebanon have no value, a ‘literature of occasions’ as it were. He opines that this does not apply to other genres in literature such as poetry and short stories, nor the visual arts, because he believes that a novel needs a substantial amount of time for contemplation and scrutiny.

Although many agreed that novels require time to be written, Syrian poet and critic Wafiq Khansa, who published various poems about the recent Lebanese war believes that there is a blatant disregard of the Iraqi tragedy by Arab poets. He says that he cannot find a reason for what he called ‘a shameful disregard’, which he attributes to a decline in conscience and awareness, “as if the Arab poet means to say that he/she only writes poetry for courts to win favors and reward!” He mentions Khansa’s [a 7th century female poet who was one of the Prophet’s contemporaries] poetry volume entitled ‘Ode to Iraq’, which she dedicated to Baghdad.

Syrian poet Abid Ismail sought to find reasons for this estrangement between Arab writers and the unfolding events in Iraq, he says: “Indeed, with the exception of Iraqi writers, no one seems to care! You find yourself trapped in a lose-lose situation; if you condemn the war [the resistance], you will be accused by the majority of Iraqis as advocating the oppressor, and if you support the war, you will be supporting the occupation! The Iraqi issue is obscure – unlike the situation in Lebanon. In Lebanon there is no dictator that the US sought to remove, and the identity of resistance in Lebanon is clearer than it is in Iraq.” On writing about the war, Ismail says, “For Iraq, sufficient time has elapsed and there should have been a literature that deals with the war – not just a literature that rises out of particular ‘occasions’. So far we have not heard of any work that has had an impact outside of Iraq. The Iraqi writings that reach us mainly tackle the humanitarian aspect and are mostly emotional, political and lacking in focus. In my opinion, there is no [literary] work, poetry or narrative, that was of artistic elevation and that left an impact.”

Still, there remains the issue of the Iraqis who fled in terror when the war broke out, or in its duration. It seems logical to presume that those who write from first-hand experience, both Iraqis and non-Iraqis, those who are living in the center of it are the ones more capable of describing and conveying what they are living through. But where does that position those writing from outside Iraq? Does their distance from the events that take place make their writing and engagement any less sincere or honest? There are quite a few Iraqi immigrants and refugees who have departed the country and who continue to convey their observations and experience but is it fair to compare their contributions to those who live that reality on a daily basis? And wouldn’t this claim refute the possibility for there to be any solidarity between mankind on a general scale, and between writers in particular, despite all claims that there are no barriers between humans throughout the world in this ‘age of globalization’?

“But the war isn’t over yet,” in the words of Iraqi writer Hassan Mutlaq on living and writing about the war experience. In an essay entitled “Aesthetic Testimony of the War,” he said “I open this door for you and through my humble experience and my country’s experience you can glance through this file for the war, set beside the files of existence; the ontological and metaphysical… And Being itself amidst files of literary writings and criticism, in addition to plots, and essence, styles, themes and surrealism. Let the accurate concept of literature and the notion of war commence here and now…” The reader can discern the literal from the figurative in this passage. Mutlaq continues to write, “After that, the story I wrote and dreamt has yet to be realized and cannot be equal to my experience because the war, in its actual sense, is still not over – but it has sprouted inside us.” He also writes, “There is something else I came to realize through this experience of the war; I knew that we are never serious, neither in our writings nor in our readings. What we wrote and said does not even come close to expressing a shard of this tremendous pain, the pain of a fatal, exposing shock, the blow of a war and coming face-to-face with death…”

Indeed, there are rhetorical poems, published in official and semi-official Iraqi newspapers that express resistance to the occupation and that regard the war from an ideological aspect that fails to take into account other more essential dimensions. This renders much of these writings ineffective and thus they do not inspire or influence their readers. There are exceptions, however, such as Syrian writer Nadia Khost’s ‘Min Mantiqat al Khatar al Jawi’ (From the No-Fly Zone), in which she writes about an Iraqi woman whose house is targeted in an air strike in which she loses her daughter, her home and some of her neighbors. Through this woman, and the author’s use of a delicate narration, the story conveys a real element of the Iraqi tragedy.

It remains to be pondered: What has become of the land that gave rise to the Epic of Gilgamesh? What of the literary legends Abu Nawwas and al Siyab? Iraq is going through an intense period of transformation – where is the literature that can reflect this experience?