|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
19 - 25 November 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
A literary passage to besieged Iraq
In the game of nations power interests override people's interests and official pronouncements are highlighted while the responses of the ordinary man and woman are dismissed or ignored. Thus the crucial importance of reading contemporary Iraqi literature if one is interested in grasping the dimension of the human drama unfolding there. Above and beyond the wounds of inner strife and regional war as felt by Iraqis for the last decades, American planes in the Gulf War managed to destroy the infrastructure that maintains the life of a population -- hospitals, water purification and electricity installations, schools, medical depots -- as well as demolishing monuments which carry emotional overtones for Iraqis -- mosques, churches and bridges. This barbaric wave, aimed not at military targets but at the sources of people's life -- material and symbolic -- was documented by American research organisations, including fact-finding reports by Harvard University among others. This mass destruction was complemented by an unparalleled siege of the people. For eight years Iraqis have been suffering hunger, lack of medicine and medical equipment, economic hardships and cultural isolation. It is also clear that the so-called sanctions are only punishing the subalterns and are neither hurting the political elite nor the affluent sector of society that can afford to buy, at exorbitant prices, what it needs. But the plight is maintained despite its catastrophic results on the most vulnerable sectors of society, and those who insist on maintaining it find no embarrassment in speaking simultaneously of their commitments to human rights. When Madeleine Albright was asked if she thought the sanctions on Iraq were worth what they have produced so far, namely the death of half a million Iraqi children, her answer was affirmative. This led one commentator to ironically refer to the situation in Iraq as a "worth-it genocide".
Images of sick infants in their mothers' laps in barren hospitals lacking medicine and equipment, pictures of children pale, emaciated and semi-starved, shots of sick old men and women unable to cope, have been occasionally shown on mass media channels though not in a way sufficiently sustained to raise the dozing conscience of humanity. Some documentary films have been produced depicting the miserable state of Iraqi children (including the film Calls: Children and Women in War, 1995, made by the International Red Cross and introduced by Faten Hamama, and the more recent film by the Egyptian film maker and anthropologist Hossam Ali, entitled Oras: A Love Song for Iraqi Children, 1998). Images speak but they offer only a glimpse of the misery perpetuated in Iraq in the name of thinly disguised political slogans.
But now, for the first time since the Gulf War, we have a corpus of Iraqi literature written by Iraqi men and women of letters who continue to live in besieged Iraq and witness the conditions of living at the edge. Thanks to a new non-governmental and non-political publishing house which was established in London with a branch in Cairo (with Bouthaina Al-Nasiri, the energetic creative writer and Cairo resident, as managing editor), and whose motto is borrowed from a verse by the Egyptian poet Amal Donqol, "a slit in the wall", we are allowed a view of Iraq from within. Four works (in Arabic) have already appeared (and more are planned): an anthology of Iraqi poetry of the nineties, entitled Qabl Al-Dokhoul 'Alaikum bi'l-Naba' (Before Bringing You the News), which includes 16 authors with names such as Hasab Al-Shaykh Jaafar and Sami Mahdi -- established voices in Iraqi poetry -- as well as Siham Jabbar and Reem Kubba, emerging women poets; an anthology of short stories by 24 writers, again combining well-known authors with new ones, entitled Heena Yahzan Al-Atfal Tatasaqat Al-Ta'irat (When Children Grieve Planes Fall Down); a retrospective of the most talented and challenging short story writer in Iraq, Mohamed Khidayyir, entitled Tahnit (Taxidermy), in which he selected stories from the different stations of his narrative trajectory, and which includes three previously unpublished early stories and one written in the mid nineties; and finally Infijar Dam'a (Tearful Explosion) by Warid Badr Al-Salim, with an explanatory subtitle "Life Under the Shade of Rockets" -- a 40-day diary of a man who experienced the events of the Gulf War, 16 January - 28 February, 1991.
What is striking in these four works is their literary sophistication and their appropriation of expressive freedom. What I mean by literary sophistication is the shunning of crudity and directness, the absence of bombast and manifesto rhetoric, and the avoidance of sentimentality even in scenes of pain and death. What I mean by appropriation of expressive freedom is a kind of writing that has eliminated the internal censor, not in that taboo-breaking stance that avant-garde writing exhibits, but in a nothing-more-to-lose attitude. This refreshing openness about social life and deterioration of humane values is tinged, however, with a touch of despair and at times with a philosophical contemplation. There are none of the slogans of victory and self-satisfaction of the official discourse, nor the soul-searching penchant that characterized Egyptian literature after the defeat of 1967. Instead, there is a clinging serenity and a desire to confront the deeper issues of Being, as death frames the existence of the authors and become a lived experience.
This search for the essence of being leads the writers to uncover moments of epiphany against the background of global inhumanity and internal degeneration. As Lutfia Al-Dulaimi expresses in the words of one of her characters, who feels that "the whole world" has hurt him (in her short story "The War of the Porcupines"): "As if I am touching the core of life, as if the tremor of freedom is running through my body". Most of the episodes in the narratives present unbearable conditions and unspeakable pain healed momentarily by personal intimacies and tenderly erotic encounters, as if the only way to resist the enormity of death is to create life, the way to overcome isolation is to seek fusion. When the mask of civilization is torn asunder in the works of Joseph Conrad we find the essential horror unveiled, but for the Iraqi writers who have experienced the unmediated horror of "civilization", they seek to reclaim spots in this hell where they can come in touch with sources of humane life. This unconscious search for symbolic survival in a country turned into a wasteland is exemplified in the short story by Abdel-Ilah Abdel-Razzaq, "A Man Writing his Autobiography", in which the principal character is forced to use his deceased father's shoes and clothes -- given his abject economic situation -- only to find himself looking more and more as his aging father looked just before his death. Only reaching for the pen to write about it postpones his own death. In the story of Ibtisam Abdallah, translated below, the dehumanization of Iraqis by the sanctions is expressed both realistically and allegorically.
The claustrophobic effect of the blockade on Iraqis is represented in one of the best short stories in the anthology, "Rooms of Sorrow" by Abdel-Khaliq Al-Rikabi, through a gender prism. The protagonist, a poor young woman, is a member of a family who lives in one room sharing with other families a house in an impoverished neighborhood. She is constantly warned by her parents about young men. One day, as she is shopping a young man slips a letter in her bag. She is barely literate and tries to decipher the love message from the stranger in the toilette -- the only place where she has privacy. Just the same her brother informs on her and she is not allowed to go out of the house any more. As she is climbing the steps to go up to her room one day, a male neighbor harasses her sexually, and she falls down creating a scandal. This time she is not allowed to leave her room (except in the company of a family member to the water closet). Mixed with vague erotic longings as expressed in the only outlet she has, the TV, she begins to imagine that the male-speaker on the screen is eyeing her. Accordingly, she decides to veil herself from head to toe, in a context where no covering is needed, finding solace only in confining herself to her restricted body. The regression into ever-narrowing circles of existence is masterfully portrayed.
The other complex and multi-layered short story is that of Mohamed Khidayyir in his collection in which Borgesian games of language and number combine with Sufi allusions. The popular game of Dama (the tri-literal root also means "to last/persevere/persist/continue") is the basis of the story. The game is played in three different ways by three types of players, with a fourth type of player who can combine the three ways, named respectively dama, dami, damu. The endings of the game's dam -- a, i, u Ð are the three vowels in Arabic. The game itself uses the 28 letters of the language on a board that resembles that of chess. The story is very intricate, using techniques associated with hermetic narration typical of alchemical works and Sufi parables, with a message that I read to mean that there are combinations of letters which constitute a metaphoric "philosopher's stone" that can transform the base into the precious in due course and after certain rounds in the game. This interpretation may be further extended if one is familiar with Ibn Arabi's mystic lexicon which equates letters with nations.
The recent Iraqi poetry also calls on Sufi traditions, not so much in terms of intertextual references, but in its opening on all kinds of belief systems. Because Iraq has been excluded from the world, confined to itself, a poet such as Siham Jabbar embraces the world with its many cultures and beliefs in her poem, "My Journey": "....I shall hang the world around my neck/And walk/I shall adorn myself with innocent cities/....And stroll in Wisdom/ Buddhist Spartan Hindu Zoroastrian/ Wounded, my heart is inundated with memory of the future." Even the apocalyptic diaries of the Gulf War by Al-Salim seem to gush in poetic prose punctuated by daily dialogues and comments. It is as is if the Book of Revelation of Saint John the Divine stopped short of the climactic ending and was encrusted with realistic anecdotes instead of symbolic episodes. Again the only instance of transcending the apocalyptic drama are moments of beautiful intimacies between the couple who succeed in shutting off the torrents of bombs, and thus once again pointing that the only way one can resist death is by nurturing life.