Haytham Bahoora, “Writing the Dismembered Nation: The Aesthetics of Horror in Iraqi Narratives of War,” in Arab Studies Journal (Vol. XXIII No. 1), Fall 2015: 184-209.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?
Haytham Bahoora (HB): The article came out of a conference at Haverford College, organized by Professor Zainab Saleh, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, titled “Shades of Occupation: Iraq After Ten Years.” I was interested in how Iraqi fiction and art have represented the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and its residual effects on the Iraqi population. Since 2003, Iraqi writers and artists have undertaken a wide-ranging cultural project of narrating their nation’s violent and traumatic recent history, historicizing experiences of dictatorship, embargo, war, and occupation from a range of perspectives and critical positions. I was particularly interested in the artistic and literary strategies Iraqi writers and artists have used to represent and narrate experiences of extreme violence—bombings, kidnappings, torture, decapitation—and how the ubiquity and continuity of this violence make its representation unavoidable.
One of the central questions I ask is how the fictional narratives I examine depict spectacles of violence, torture, and dismemberment when such extreme manifestations of violence exceed the power of description. At the same time, I was interested in how this literature dealt with the question of the absence of accountability—political, legal, and historical—for the thousands of Iraqi victims of war. In this sense, the article considers how cultural production intervenes to present us with an alternate historical archive that captures the untold, neglected, and deliberately silenced experiences of the Iraq war and its lingering effects on Iraqis.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?
HB: The article focuses on one specific, recurring literary strategy that appears frequently in post-2003 Iraqi fiction—the use of the supernatural, the uncanny, and the monstrous to narrate scenes of extreme violence. I examine these stylistic elements by considering how their use in Iraqi fiction functions as a variant of postcolonial gothic fiction, a literary genre that has historically explored the violence of colonial conditions in disparate locations, from the Caribbean to South Asia. Postcolonial gothic fiction explores the relationship between colonial conquest and the forms of violence such conquest produces. By understanding post-2003 Iraqi fiction as part of this gothic tradition, I explicitly situate the US invasion of Iraq as a neocolonial project. I insist that we understand forms of violence in Iraq, particularly sectarian violence, as historically linked to a genealogy of colonial policies and wars that orchestrate such sectarianism, rather than through the culturalist or religious explanations that see sectarian violence as timeless and innate attributes of Iraqi identity.
The postcolonial gothic genre rewrites the European gothic tradition, which has been linked by scholars to colonialism and the associated cultural and racial anxieties it produced within Europe. More significantly for my purposes, this genre explores the persistently haunting effects of colonialism on colonial subjects, manifested in the return of the repressed and the deliberately silenced histories of the colonial. For Iraq, a country that has experienced decades of war and violence, the question of how to give voice to the victims of this violence preoccupies many of the nation’s writers. The stylistic use of the supernatural, the uncanny, the grotesque, and the monstrous is but one literary strategy used by Iraqi writers, and it functions in multiple ways in the Iraqi fiction I analyze—it asserts that the horrors of such violence cannot be realistically represented, and it gives the victims of violence, even the dead, the ability to represent their experiences through characters who narrate their own violent, untimely deaths through acts such as decapitations.
Another major thematic preoccupation of postcolonial gothic fiction is the failure of the national allegory and, related to this, nostalgia for what now appears to be an impossible national politics. The Iraqi literature I examine thus confronts the possibility of Iraq’s dissolution as a nation, notably in the novel Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmad Sa‘adawi. The acts of bodily dismemberment in these fictional texts are an obvious metaphor for the dismemberment of the nation itself.
J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
HB: My previous work focuses on Iraqi literary and artistic production during the colonial period of the Hashemite monarchy (1921-1958). In terms of connections and departures, early- to mid-twentieth-century literary production in Iraq was diverse, but was nevertheless firmly embedded in the context of an anti-colonial national struggle for independence. In that sense, its themes and concerns were generally about the making of a new nation, the promise of new social relations and social reform, and a utopian national imaginary. In contrast, contemporary Iraqi literature chronicles and historicizes the unmaking of the nation and its dismemberment by social and political forces, both internal and external.
One would certainly expect texts from different periods of a national literary tradition to reflect different concerns, but I am struck by how contemporary Iraqi fiction is a literature of mourning and trauma that, generally speaking, does not look to the future. At the same time, just as during the Hashemite period, this literature has an essential political and historical function. In the context of a highly constricted, disappearing public sphere, cultural production intervenes to offer Iraqis a critical space where their histories and experiences can be narrated and reconstructed. In that sense, this fiction performs an essential function in cultural and historical continuity.
J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
HB: I hope that anyone with an interest in the impact of US wars on Iraqi society will be interested in this article. In the US, the majority of popular and critical engagement with fiction on the 2003 Iraq war has largely focused on a set of novels written by American soldiers who served in Iraq. These narratives of the Iraq war, which have won numerous literary awards, tell the story of the war and occupation entirely through the experiences of the occupying American soldier; Iraqis are a backdrop, sometimes threatening, sometimes victimized, to the consciousness and perception of the American soldier, who retrospectively narrates the ethical dilemmas Americans in Iraq faced. Not surprisingly, post-war Iraqi cultural production has not received similar attention, despite much of it being available in translation, including the novels of Sinan Antoon and the short stories of Hassan Blasim and Lu’ay Hamza Abbas. My hope is that the article generates some interest in this war fiction, if only to center the long-lasting effects of these wars on their Iraqi victims.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
HB: I am working on an article on modern Iraqi art that also considers how experiences of war and violence pervade the visual arts. I’m particularly interested in why many Iraqi artists have turned to abstraction in their work. I’m also completing a book manuscript on cultural production, particularly the development of modernist aesthetic forms in different literary and artistic genres, during the Hashemite period in Iraq.
Excerpt from “Writing the Dismembered Nation: The Aesthetics of Horror in Iraqi Narratives of War”
For contemporary Iraqi writers and artists, whether still in Iraq or forced into exile, the violent post-2003 national landscape is a constitutive thematic concern of their artistic production. The centrality of representations of dismembering violence to the narration of post-2003 Iraqi identity raises a series of questions about the role narrative fiction plays in constructing a history and experience of structural violence for which there has been no political, legal, or historical accountability. Absent this accountability, post-2003 Iraqi literary narratives intervene to articulate the unspeakable, lost, repressed, or deliberately silenced historical narratives of victims of this structural violence. What kinds of aesthetic strategies do Iraqi writers use to narrate these experiences of extreme violence and their effects? How do they attempt to depict spectacles of violence, torture, and dismemberment in fictional narratives when such violence exceeds the power of description? How do these narratives stage the violent spectacle in such a way as to highlight the terror of the everyday and the residues of unspeakable acts of brutality in those who experience or witness them? Finally, how does the textual staging of these acts of dismembering violence directed at the individual body intervene in historical and political understandings of the nation itself, in particular to the possibility of Iraq’s national dismemberment?
The dismemberment of Iraqi bodies in fiction can be read as a metaphor for the viability of Iraq’s cohesion and the possibility of its very national continuity. In the process of staging spectacles of extreme violence, these texts produce a historical ontology that locates violence as a consequence of the political, legal, and material legacy of decades of war and dictatorship. In stark contrast to pervasive popular representations of violence in Iraq that locate it as a product of age-old religious animosities, this narrative genealogy of violence does not simply seek its representation or to “reflect” an increasingly inscrutable reality, but to historicize the many manifestations of violence and to intervene in dominant discourses that suppress or misrepresent the roots of such violence.
The Aesthetics of Horror and the Postcolonial Gothic
The post-2003 period in Iraq has seen an unprecedented proliferation of novels and short story collections that seek to narrate the war’s impact on Iraqis. The outpouring of narrative fiction by Iraqi writers, both novels and short story collections, can be partly attributed to the fall of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship and its strict censorship practices. But there is also an urgency to narrating the silenced, repressed, and untold experiences of Iraqis that accounts for this surge in literary production. Moreover, the burden of representation placed on cultural production is more pronounced in the context of a constricted public sphere and the dissolution of a coherent national space as occurred in Iraq after the dismantling of state institutions and the introduction of a sectarian political system by US occupation authorities. The proliferation of post-2003 Iraqi fiction may be productively compared to Lebanese literary production after the beginning of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. That period that saw a significant increase in novel writing, the novel genre being perhaps most suited to narrate the intensity of the horrors of Lebanese civil war and its impact on the individual, who often served as a metaphor for the broken nation. Iraqi writers do not write of the post-2003 period in isolation from previous decades, but rather as the culmination of the events of prior decades. These include the years of Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule, encompassing the 1980-88 war with Iran, the devastating 1991 Gulf War in which Iraq’s civil infrastructure was heavily damaged, and the long embargo years of the 1990s, which was characterized by starvation, impoverishment, and an exodus of the middle class from the country. The pervasiveness of violence during these decades has meant that contemporary Iraqi fiction can scarcely avoid its representation.
Post-2003 Iraqi fiction engages a range of issues, including the post- invasion transformation of Iraqi civil institutions and the disappearance of a coherent public sphere, the condition of exile experienced by millions of Iraqis, the reordering of public space in Iraqi cities through sectarian ethnic cleansing, the ways that the violence of war is gendered, nostalgia for the multiethnic Iraqi past in relation to the contemporary fate of Iraqi minorities, the presence of US occupation troops in the country, and the fragmented, inscrutable reality Iraqis inhabit. Post-2003 Iraqi fiction is stylistically varied. Some narratives deploy an incoherent narrative style, others dark comedy, and others have revived a realist aesthetic. Yasmeen Hanoosh writes that the diverse post-war Iraqi literary landscape includes writers like Mahmud Sa‘id and ‘Abd al-Khaliq al-Rikabi, whose literary output echoes and extends Iraq’s social realist tradition. Moreover, Hanoosh observes that the post-2003 literary scene is characterized by experimental texts that have forged a new path. A particular expression of this literary experimentation utilizes the supernatural, the uncanny, the monstrous, and the surreal to construct an aesthetic of horror that narrates unspeakable forms of violence. The use of these stylistic conventions suggests that for some Iraqi writers, literary realism, which depends on verisimilitude in rendering an accurate representation of reality to the reader, cannot adequately convey the violence Iraqis have experienced. Recourse to the supernatural in fiction is thus used to parallel the “unreal” experiences of gruesome violence experienced by Iraqis.
The aesthetics of horror that Iraqi writers have produced is a variant of postcolonial gothic literary expression. The gothic, as Walter Scott described it in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, a seminal text of the genre, is “above all the art of exciting surprise and horror.” Its European practitioners used gothic stylistic techniques as a dark counter-narrative to European narratives of progress and to “explore the role the irrational could play in critiquing quasi-rationalistic accounts of experience.” In its earliest manifestations, gothic fiction critiqued Enlightenment notions of an objective reality that could be apprehended rationally. As a “literature of nightmare,” the gothic found its appeal through “explorations of mysterious supernatural energies, immense natural forces, and deep, dark human fears and desires.” As Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert argues, from its earliest expressions, the European gothic tradition was “fundamentally linked to colonial settings, characters, and realities as frequent embodiments of the forbidding and frightening.” With the geographic expansion of the British Empire came a “vast source of frightening ‘others’” who would populate the gothic genre. “With the inclusion of the colonial,” Paravisini-Gebert writes, “a new sort of darkness—of race, landscape, erotic desire, and despair—enters the gothic genre.” Indeed, critics have associated some of the early seminal texts of the genre, from Dracula to the Island of Dr. Moreau to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with the colonial project and the anxieties, primarily cultural and racial, that accompanied it.
In its colonial manifestations, the gothic in narrative has been closely linked to fears of racial miscegenation and slave rebellion, with the Caribbean as the preeminent geographic site of its expression in fiction. Gothic literature, in its exploration of the violence of colonial conditions, “focused on this region’s African-derived belief systems as symbolic of the islands’ threatening realities, of the brutality, bizarre sacrifices, cannibalism, and sexual aberrations that filled the imagination of authors and their audiences with lurid, terror-laden imagery.” European writers instrumentalized colonized spaces and their ‘others’ to populate their fiction in order to both entertain and register anxiety about aspects of the colonial enterprise and its consequences. But colonized writers wrote back, transforming the conventions of the gothic to rewrite the canon itself, to reclaim indigenous practices, and to narrate the terrors of colonial violence from the perspectives of its victims. The colonized space, with its violence and cruelty, was thus the “locus of horror necessary for the writing of gothic literature.”
Contemporary expressions of colonial and postcolonial gothic fiction span a wide range of geographic settings, manifested in various national and linguistic literary traditions. Nevertheless, despite its diverse geographic settings, the postcolonial gothic has explored a set of questions related to colonialism and its persistently haunting effects, focusing on the relationship between colonial conquest and its unspeakable manifestations of violence. The many expressions of postcolonial gothic literature respond in particular to questions of the postcolonial domestic space, focusing thematically on “questions concerning legitimate origins, rightful inhabitants, usurpation and occupation, and nostalgia for an impossible national politics.” Indeed, the appearance of gothic stylistic features in postcolonial fiction has been linked to the failure of the postcolonial national political project, exposing the “unsolvable nature of political and historical conflicts” and ultimately the failure of the national allegory. Moreover, the postcolonial gothic, as a literature of horror that intervenes to narrate national failure and disintegration, is defined formatively by a historical sensibility that is manifested in the return of the repressed and the deliberately silenced histories of the colonial. The emphasis on the gothic’s historical sensibility is critical in the context of Iraq, where competing, silenced, and suppressed histories manifest themselves through horrific and spectacular uses of violence that are meant to call attention to the ways the victims of the past continually haunt the present.
Literary haunting by the uncanny, the supernatural, or the monstrous thus becomes symbolic of the past intervening in the present in order to confront what has been suppressed or cast aside. In the political context of a perpetual US war on terror, gothic literature, which Robert J. C. Young has termed a “literature of terror,” “has the unique ability to not only represent terror, to mediate it through narration, but also to produce it.” As primary targets of the US war on terror, Iraqis have been and continue to be subject to spectacular forms of violence, including most infamously a “shock and awe” military campaign aimed at instilling fear and terror in the Iraqi population, and the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The spectacular nature of such displays of violence, staged to exhibit and impose forms of domination—both political and bodily—are only the most notorious incidents that triggered, as with the art of Alfraji and Bilal, the appearance of gothic thematics in Iraqi art and fiction. The Iraqi narratives I analyze here portray the routine nature of violence in Iraq—from the everyday bombings in Baghdad and their scores of dismembered victims, to brutal sectarian kidnappings whose victims’ decapitated bodies litter Baghdad’s streets, to scenes of public execution. These narratives instrumentalize the horrific and the gruesome to narrate how unspeakable forms of violence are reconstituted, but never consigned to the past. In these narratives, the appearance of postcolonial gothic literary techniques and themes—from the stylistic use of the grotesque and the supernatural, to an engagement with themes such as the possible failure of Iraq’s national allegory—is overwhelmingly characterized by a persistent haunting of the present by the past.
 Notable novels that address the condition of exile include Shakir Nuri’s Kilab Jiljamesh (2008) (The Dogs of Gilgamesh), and ‘Abd al-Hadi Sa‘dun’s Mudhakkirat Kalb ‘Iraqi (2012) (Memories of an Iraqi Dog). Novels that seek to reconstruct and reimagine the Iraqi past include Mahmud Sa‘id’s nostalgic al-Dunya fi ‘Ayin al-Malaʾika: Riwaya (2006) (The World Through the Eyes of Angels), which depicts a multi-ethnic Mosul during the 1940s, and ‘Ali Badr’s Haris al-Tabgh (2008) (The Tobacco Keeper) which traces Baghdad’s lost Jewish identity. Notable texts depicting American occupation soldiers include Shakir al-Anbari’s Bilad Saʿida (2008) (Happy Country), in which vivid descriptions of American soldiers and their equipment and behavior are narrated in a graphic, unfiltered style utilizing a straightforward realist aesthetic. In‘am Kachachi’s al-Hafida al-Amrikiyya (2008) (The American Granddaughter) also depicts American troops, telling the story of an Iraqi- American woman who is part of the invasion force and must reconcile her identity as an American with her desire to have a relationship with her grandmother in Baghdad.
 Yasmeen Hanoosh. “Beyond the Trauma of War: Iraqi Literature Today.” Words Without Borders.
 As a subgenre of postcolonial theory, critics have located literary manifestations of the postcolonial gothic to a wide range of texts from varying geographies and histories, including the slave plantations of the Caribbean and the American south, the struggles of indigenous peoples from the Americas to Australia and New Zealand, the apartheid system in South Africa, and legacies of British colonial rule in South Asia and the Middle East. See, for example, Howard L. Malchow, Gothic Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996); Alison Rudd, Postcolonial Gothic Fictions from the Caribbean, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010); David McInnnis, “Re-Orienting the Gothic Romance: Jean Rhys, Tayeb Salih, and Strategies of Representation in the Postcolonial Gothic,” ARIEL 39, no. 3 (2008), 85-105; Gerald Gaylard, “The Postcolonial Gothic: Time and Death in Southern African Literature,” Journal of Literary Studies 24, no. 4 (2008), 1-18; Jack Shear, “Haunted House, Haunted Nation: Triomf and the South African Postcolonial Gothic,” Journal of Literary Studies 22, no. 1-2 (2006), 70-95; Transnational and Postcolonial Vampires: Dark Blood, Eds. Tabish Khair and Johan Hoglund (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
 Walter Scott, “Introduction to the Castle of Otranto,” in Horace Walpole: The Critical Heritage, Ed. Peter Sabor (London: Routledge, 1987), 91.
 Andrew Smith, Gothic Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 2.
 Ibid., 3.
 Fred Botting, The Gothic (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001), 2
 Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, “Colonial and Postcolonial Gothic: The Caribbean,” in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, Ed. Jerold E. Hogle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 229.
 See, for example, Stephen D. Orata, “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization,” Victorian Studies 33, no. 4 (1990), 621-645.
 Ibid., 234.
 Ibid., 233.
 Julie Hakim Azzam, “The Alien Within: Postcolonial Gothic and the Politics of Home,” PhD dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 2007, 2.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 4-5, 33-4.
 Ibid., 7, 36.
 Robert J. C. Young, “Terror Effects,” in Terror and the Postcolonial, Eds. Elleke Boehmer, Stephen Morton (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 310.
[Excerpted from “Writing the Dismembered Nation: The Aesthetics of Horror in Iraqi Narratives of War,” by Haytham Bahoora, in Arab Studies Journal (Vol. XXIII No. 1), Fall 2015, by permission of the author. © 2015 The Arab Studies Journal. For more information, to view the full issue, or to subscribe to the journal, click here.]