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Conflicting Narratives: War, Trauma, and Memory in Iraqi Culture

[Cover of Arab Studies Journal (Vol. XXIII No. 1), Fall 2015] [Cover of Arab Studies Journal (Vol. XXIII No. 1), Fall 2015]

Stephan Milich, Friederike Pannewick, and Leslie Tramontini, editors, Conflicting Narratives: War, Trauma, and Memory in Iraqi Culture. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2012.

[This review was originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Arab Studies Journal. For more information on the issue, or to subscribe to ASJ, click here.]

Looking at Iraq from our current vantage point it is easy to forget the rich cultural history contained within the borders of a country that has been plagued by warfare for over thirty years, with each catastrophic event seemingly overshadowing the previous one. Iraq has had no shortage of writers and intellectuals. In the latter half of the twentieth century some of the Arab world’s most important poets emerged from the country; names like Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Nazik al-Mala’ika, and ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati—among many others—need no introduction for anyone with the slightest familiarity with modern Arabic poetry. Their stories are well known, and their contribution to the shape of modern Arabic literature is undeniable. Yet far less has been written, particularly in English, about the writers and cultural figures from the final quarter of the last century until the present day. What happened to Iraqi cultural production during the terrifying years of Ba‘thist rule, under the sanctions of the 1990s, or following the 2003 US invasion and occupation? What has been the role of the Iraqi intellectual since then, and how has Iraqi culture responded to the memories and traumas of recent, violent pasts? Moreover, who, for that matter, can speak in the name of Iraq at a time when the country is more fragmented than ever before and an increasing number of writers live abroad?

In response to these questions, in December 2008 a conference entitled “Cultural Voices of a Fragmented Nation: War, Trauma and Remembrance in Contemporary Iraq” took place at the Phillips-Universität in Marburg, Germany. Much of Conflicting Narratives: War, Trauma, and Memory in Iraqi Culture grew from this conference. The edited volume consists of four sections: “Cultural and Political Narratives”; “Poetics of Trauma”; “The Dialectics of Home and Exile”; and “Shahadat: Essays on the Poetic Semantics of the ‘Iraqi Place.’” The final section contains five additional essays translated from the 2009 collection of articles edited by Basran novelist and short story writer Lu’ay Hamza ‘Abbas entitled al-Makan al-‘Iraqi: Jadal al-Kitaba wa-l- Tajriba [The Iraqi Place: Debating Writing and Experience]. While the goals of the book are ambitious, it does an admirable job of introducing readers to contemporary debates about Iraqi literary production.

The book’s essays reflect important recent trends in scholarship on Iraqi culture, originating in scholarly works written primarily in Arabic by Iraqi intellectuals who critically treat Iraqi cultural production, especially literature, inside and outside the country from approximately 1979 until the present day. The most notable of these studies are Salam ‘Abbud’s Thaqafat al-‘Unf fi al-‘Iraq [The Culture of Violence in Iraq] and ‘Abbas Khidr’s al-Khakiyya: Min Awraq al-Jarima al-Thaqafiyya fi al-‘Iraq [Khaki: Documents of Cultural Crime in Iraq], both published in Cologne by al-Jamal in 2002 and 2005, respectively, and both of which are cited frequently throughout the book. They are scathing critiques of cultural production under the Iraqi Ba‘th Party, and if at points they seem overly caustic in their criticism (an arguably justifiable excess, given the level of fear that existed during Ba‘thist rule), they are nevertheless essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary Iraqi literature and cultural history. At the same time, much of the literary scholarship in Conflicting Narratives reflects more recent English-language studies of Iraqi fiction and poetry written by a younger generation of writers, including Muhsin al-Ramli, Hassan Blasim, Sinan Antoon, and Inaam Kachachi. Much of this material deals with the consequences of the US-led invasion and subsequent wars and unrest since 2003.

The first section of Conflicting Narratives, entitled “Cultural and Political Narratives,” consists of three articles individually written by cultural critic Fatima Mohsen, literary scholar Leslie Tramontini, and historian Hala Fattah. The ever-present problem of “inside” and “outside” writers in the Iraqi literary sphere stands out here as a common theme and one that is present throughout the volume. Fatima Mohsen, in what is perhaps the furthest-reaching and richest contribution to the volume, points out: “A rift opened up in Iraqi culture between those on the ‘inside’ and those living ‘outside’ Iraq….Out of this rift a new entity emerged, one that rested on what unites and separates two hypothetical places: one realistic and the other sentimental.” The mutual exclusion of “inside” and “outside” began with the 1960s generation of writers and only increased with time. Mohsen’s essay, along with others in the collection (Tramontini, Walther), makes it clear that the divide dramatically increased in the 1980s and 1990s during the long war with Iran and under the unrelenting brutality of US sanctions.

The legacy of the Iran-Iraq War looms especially large throughout the volume. Leslie Tramontini approaches the politically sensitive topic of Iraqi poetry in Ba‘thist Iraq. In her discussion of well-known Iraqi poets ‘Adnan al-Sa’igh, Hamid Sa‘id, and Sami Mahdi (the latter two were vital members of the regime’s cultural apparatus throughout the war), she posits the following thorny question: “Can a text written by someone who not only contributed to the repressive system but actively shaped it and drew personal advantage out of it, be viewed primarily as a text, without considering the author?” By not attempting to offer an absolute response she avoids a minefield, but she correctly concludes that “the close nexus between power and literature as can be seen in the works of the Baathist poets forms the main crux of the Iraqi cultural divide.” Similarly, Wiebke Walther writes about the war poets of the 1980s, teasing out the differences between some of the most bellicose voices who praised the war and profited from building the personality cult of Saddam Hussein and those who took more ambivalent stances toward the war, opting for a more mournful tone (i.e., Kamal al-Sabti). Walther’s reading of the poetry of this era is vast and sensitive to the contemporary Iraqi political environment. Yet she also ignores the abovementioned Iraqi critics who have taken harsher stances toward those who wrote the literature of “Saddam’s Qadisiyya,” as the state called the Iran-Iraq War, in reference to the decisive battle that led to the Arab-Islamic conquest of Sassanid Persia in 636. Implied in both articles is a position of openness to exploring the aesthetics of an era of literature that many, particularly Iraqi writers in exile, have largely written off as propaganda, hoping to see it relegated to the garbage bin of history.

Exilic cultural production is a more salient theme in the second and third sections of the book (“Poetics of Trauma” and “The Dialectic of Home and Exile”) than in the first, demonstrating how the bifurcation of Iraqi culture continues to cast its shadow over Iraqi literary production. Friederike Pannewick’s article “Dancing Letters: The Art of Subversion in Sinan Antoon’s Novel I‘jam” treats one of those writers who is at the forefront of Iraqi literature on the “outside” today. The essay places Antoon’s first novel in the context of a trend of writing that presents the individual in a nuanced way that eschews the blatantly ideological messages of politically committed literature, which played such an important role in the development of Middle Eastern literatures in the twentieth century. In “The Other Martyr: The Trauma of War and Exile in the Poetry of Kamal Sabti (1955–2006),” Stephan Milich focuses on the influential poet of an earlier generation whose subversive writings in the 1970s and 1980s drove him into exile in Western Europe. The article introduces the poet, whose writings remain largely untranslated into English. Significantly, Sabti stayed in the country throughout the war with Iran, managing to publish a number of striking poems that remained outside the hegemonic discourse of the Ba‘thist state.

Other chapters in the volume take up the work of poets, novelists, and playwrights who have continued to write in exile in the Arab world and Europe. Essays on the experiences of Iraqi novelists in Sweden as they look back at the 1980s and 1990s in their homeland (Astrid Ottoson al-Bitar) or others who have settled in Germany, writing about more recent traumas (Andreas Pflitsch), give a sense of the diversity of Iraqi writing today. Christiane Scholte’s article treats the poignant, post-2003 plays of Hassan Abdulrazzak and Jawad al-Assadi in comparison with contemporary English theater about Iraq following the 2003 invasion. Finally, Yasmeen Hanoosh’s fine translations of articles by five Iraqi intellectuals in the book’s final section, Shahadat, give readers a sense of the critical importance of memory that preoccupies much of Iraqi writing today. Dealing with the memory of cities (Najaf, Thawra/Sadr City, and Qal‘at Sukkar) and other sites of trauma (prisons, battlefields), the section underscores the complexity of Iraqi memory in the aftermath of all that has transpired between 1979 and 2009. The 1991 uprisings feature prominently in nearly all of these short articles. For these writers, the 1991 uprising—the nearly month-long series of revolts that took place mostly in the north and south of the country and that were brutally crushed by Hussein’s government, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths—clearly remains a lost opportunity that might have changed the course of recent Iraqi history.

Despite the volume’s wide-ranging scope, the authors admit that they were not able to include any articles from a Kurdish perspective, a problem that unfortunately seems to affect most scholarship on contemporary Iraq. Certainly, such an inclusion would have enriched the analysis and further diversified the voices in the book. Still, in terms of scholarship dealing with contemporary Iraqi cultural production, Conflicting Narratives is an excellent introduction to the four categories around which it is organized. It is also perhaps the most comprehensive resource in English on Iraqi literature and other cultural productions from 1980 to 2010, a historically important period whose cultural legacy risks being overshadowed by the horrific events occurring in the country today. 

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