Zuhair al-Jezairy: Books Without Borders

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Jezairy feels a sense of despair today but the fighter inside him lives on.

By: Hussam al-Saray

Published Thursday, July 26, 2012

Iraq novelist Zuhair al-Jezairy, like most of his contemporaries, blossomed in his native country before Saddam Hussein’s era, which forced him into exile. Now he has returned, hoping to positively contribute to his broken nation.

There are very specific things that Iraqi novelist Zuhair al-Jezairy remembers from his childhood in the city of Najaf in southern Iraq. He remembers his “secular father who did not turn his back on his religious culture,” whose library contained both secular and religious books. And he remembers his mother’s temper.

The Iraqi novelist has not forgotten his communist maternal uncles’ influence on him. His uncles were involved in major leftist activism, which in the city of Najaf had its own unique practices that even entailed religious rituals, like organizing processions during Ashura.

Religious occasions inflamed his enthusiasm, especially when they were interspersed with poetry readings. “Recitations of rhymed poetry, religious stories, and attending Husseini commemorations shaped the beginning of my literary imagination,” he says, grateful for having grown up in an environment steeped in folklore.

One of the oddities of his youth is that his elementary school was surrounded on three sides by the Najaf Cemetery [the largest in the world]. When he looked out of his classroom window all he could see was an endless horizon of graves and continuous funerals.

He attended Salam School, which was the site of demonstrations in the 1950s.

Getting accepted at the College of Languages in Baghdad put him on a new path. He studied German, deepening his relationship with the 60s literary generation.

He lived between three creative genres – fiction, poetry and painting. It was a huge leap to go from Najaf’s rhymed poetry, stories, and tales to the existentialist literature that was dominant in 60s Baghdad.

Most of the people he met at that time had either come out of a failed experience with communism that ended in prison, or a failed Baath or nationalist experience. Their output was borne from these disappointments in light of “a spirit of vagrancy and rebellion that characterized the 60s generation,” he explains.

Although some find the statement “we found ourselves fatherless” a cliche, Jezairy makes that claim “because we truly did not have contact with the previous generation,” he says, before describing the 60s youth as “a generation of coincidence that came after an ideological build up in which intellectuals dove deeply into political life.”

He adds: “We came from poor backgrounds and a low social class, but we did not care about this social entity, we focused instead on the character of the existentialist intellectual.”

The young man from Najaf came to Baghdad at the height of a literary movement characterised by experimentation and interest in the inner self in an environment dominated by existentialist and absurdist literature. Jezairy, however, was the least prolific among his contemporaries. He says: “I lacked the diligence of a writer, although I frequently wrote day-to-day accounts.”

With the outbreak of the student rebellions at the end of the 60s, Jezairy joined the Palestinian resistance. “I went for the first time to its centers in Damascus, Beirut, and Amman as a journalist. After that, I resigned from my job and joined the Palestinian resistance.”

In 1974, his first novel, The Cave and the Plain, about the Black September massacre was published, followed by other books on the Palestinian resistance, such as Al-Fakhani (1981), The Papers of a War Witness (2001), in addition to a book about Tel al-Zaatar that has not yet been published.

With the disintegration of the resistance movement in 1970, he returned from Beirut to Baghdad. He renewed his connection with the Iraqi Communist Party and joined the staff of the Radio and Television Magazine. He also worked for some time in communist newspapers before the assassinations of the leftist youth began at the end of the 70s.

He then found out that he was banned from traveling and had to go into hiding. During the seven months he spent hiding in al-Sayyida neighborhood in Baghdad, he read epic books like Kitab al-Aghani by al-Isfahani and War and Peace by Tolstoy.

He was able to get a forged passport and left Iraq in 1979. Back in Lebanon, he rejoined the Palestinian resistance where he worked in its press until the Israeli invasion, when he had to leave Beirut for Damascus.

In 1990, the author arrived in London. He spent 11 years in the smoky city writing The Tyrant (2006), followed by The Edge of Judgement Day, The Frightened and the Frightening, and finally Mountainous Papers (2011).

In these works he chronicled one-party rule and the social psychology it leaves behind. “I used to feel that this dictator was present inside of me, governing my behavior, monitoring me, and following the movement of my pen on the paper; that is why today I write about the effect of the dictator on his victims.”

With the fall of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square in Baghdad, nostalgia lured Jezairy back to the capital. He would tell his friends, who were opposed to his return, “London is a built and completed city, what can I add to it? Whereas Iraq, which is starting from scratch, needs me.”

Jezairy feels a sense of despair today but the fighter inside him lives on. And because he is “addicted to Iraq,” he goes out with protesters to Tahrir Square in Baghdad, demanding reforms and condemning corruption.

An MP enters the restaurant where we are sitting in Area 52 in Baghdad. Jezairy stares at the man and his flock of bodyguards, then says: “I don’t think [sectarian] quotas in government will remain forever. We will witness the collapse of sectarian parties due to their internal contradictions and inability to offer solutions to people’s needs.”

The Iraqi novelist and journalist who spent his life searching for freedom and condemning tyranny appears optimistic about the Arab Spring. “The young people who went out in protest and brought about change are able to do more.” Before he leaves, his parting words are: “Sectarian divisions prevented the fulfillment of the Arab Spring in Iraq.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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