The new Iraqi novel: documenting sorrow

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"Democracy is Coming" by Huda Lutfi

By: Hussein al-Skaff

Published Friday, December 12, 2014

Since the fall of Iraq’s dictatorial regime in 2003, the number of novels published in Iraq has exceeded the productions that appeared over the last century. These books document wars, death, prison cells, fear, and the confiscation of human dignity, and monitor the results of the occupation, terrorism, unnecessary death, and shattered dreams.

Copenhagen – The hegemony of poetry, which dominated the Iraqi cultural scene for years, has recently witnessed a dramatic decline. It is as if it was forced to relinquish its throne due to the overwhelming proliferation of Iraqi novels, which have appeared with full vigor – as the fall of the dictatorial regime – declaring a new identity born from the womb of tragedy. When the statue of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was toppled, Iraqi intellectuals found themselves facing many questions, namely about their role, presence, and relationship to their society, and the extent of their connection to it, in addition to their task of forming its collective memory.

But intellectuals faced a confusing question: where to begin from, how, and with what? Which fictional character can be created to epitomize the Iraqi scene? In answer to these questions, Iraqi intellectuals came to realize that they, as humans who lived through years of sorrow, should assume their due responsibility. The writers, who are “relatively liberated from chronic fear,” themselves became the protagonists in the majority of Iraqi novels published after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Since the US occupation forces entered Iraq in 2003 until today, published novels reflected a line of thought by novelists who have a full awareness of the scale and pace of developments seen in Iraq, and especially of the tragedy they lived through. Over the last decade, the number of Iraqi novels published may have exceeded or equaled the overall production of novels in the past century.

Most of the novels that have appeared in the past 10 years seemed intent on documenting “Iraq’s pain,” the pain resulting from wars, death, and prison cells, as well as fear, and the robbing of human dignity under the dictatorship and the tragic events that ensued: occupation, terrorism, free death, frustration, and shattered dreams in exile in the face of a conflicting reality.

Here, we ask: Is the Iraqi novel trying to establish a new phase titled “the phase of documenting Iraq’s pain through novels?” This question stems from an awareness of the pain deeply embedded in the narrative structure and recitative style of these novels. The fear, pain, ambitions, and aspirations appeared commensurate with the reality of the Iraqi citizen, who has experienced both the cruelty and dreams of this reality. This can be seen in novels such as “Back to Gardenia” by Fawzi Karim; “I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody” by Sinan Antoon; “Yassin and His Companions” by Hatem Jaafar; “Beautiful Country” by Ahmed Sa’dawi, and others.

It is a reality posed by the ideas and visions presented in the novels which appeared after the political change, as if it were an attempt to bring the victims back to life so they would retell the story of their death, and their last breaths that mixed with the soil of mass graves or the arenas of lost wars. These ideas are evident in many novels, including “The Worm” by Nassif Falak, who stresses the importance of giving life back to the victims of the former regime.

Some novels did not appear to be the product of change, but rather contained deferred ideas, or ideas that were actually written during the dictator’s rule and hidden until a margin of freedom was allowed. These publications constituted an important line of resistance, albeit a form of resistance with a personal dimension, that is “secretive resistance.” The heavy use of puns, ambiguity, and symbolism that characterized some of the novels prove this fact. The gloom and cruelty, as well as the bitter outcries and solitude included in the novels seem to be consistent with the gloom, brutality, and bitterness of the reality of the Iraqi people, who are still getting acquainted to the new national identity whose outlines remain blurred, but not to playing the role of the victim, which they have come to master.

Some novels carried significant research work with a clear vision, adopting a new philosophy based on a departure from recitative forms that lack a historical context, and relying on the novelist’s belief that the value of the novel lies in the ideas and visions that should be presented with great awareness and advanced novelist skills. This is why many novels posed philosophical questions about confusion and awareness, confusion about the reality on one hand, and the bitter awareness of its absurdity on the other. Questions about confusion and awareness can be clearly seen in novels like “The Baghdad Morgue” by Burhan Shawi; “The Rib” by Hamid Uqabi; “Ya Hadi al-Ays” by Saad Said; “Professors of Illusion” by Ali Badr; “Between Heaven and Hell” by Ahmed Ghanem Abdul Jalil, and others. The new novels show that Iraqi novelists posed the questions about confusion with complete awareness, and writing was preceded with investigation, research, and acknowledgement, and a rejection of ideas that do not conform with their own ideas, outlooks, and personal views, which gave the texts a highly particular narrative dimension.

In fact, the new Iraqi novel, in form, content, and narrative structure, freed the Iraqi novel from the formerly adopted conventional or classical style of writing, to embody the chronic pain or “literature of Iraqi pain” with exceptional beauty, while other novels were written in a compelling poetic language to depict reality. It was notable that most novels did not adhere to a specific ideological line of thought, or tend toward a narrow idea like nationalism. On the contrary, the authors appeared to be clearly inclined toward neutrality. They relied on a well-crafted narrative structure and impartial ideas, exhibited a tendency to document the daily lives of regular citizens of various social or intellectual levels, and expressed different levels of sorrow in an elaborate narrative style worthy of reading and reflection.

Iraqi writers often use their “narrative texts” to express their ideas explicitly without any ambiguity, ideas that are drafted by the human experience to guide them on a clear path void of partisan ideologies. This idea was present in a significant number of novels, such as “The Pomegranate Alone” by Sinan Antoon; “Sayyed Akbar Asghar” by Murtaza Kazar; “The Worm” by Nassif Falak; “Tracing My Trail” by Hamid Uqabi, and other novels that raise ideas that indicate that the time of partisan ideas has passed.

It is clear that the new novel adopted the idea of “the Iraqi person first.” It presented human images in various forms: a pursued person, a humiliated person, a human corpse that is sold and bought by brokers, a terrified person, an educated person who attempts to overcome disappointment through journalistic or literary works that may lead to imprisonment or murder – as in the novel “Americans at Home” by Nizar Abdel Sattar – in addition to images of the dead intellectual, who left behind books that tell us about the worries and conflict experienced amid the constant danger posed by the threat of the occupation army, and threats by fellow countrymen including politicians and terrorist groups – as in the five-book series “Mazes” by Burhan Shawi.

The Iraqi novel did not ignore the period of occupation, but rather portrayed its disastrous consequences on the people, the street, and the composition of the community. This seems like a form of resistance, not by resisting the occupation and its results through military means, but by resisting against forgetting the scale of the tragedy.

The new Iraqi novel refuted and dealt a painful blow to the term “internal literature and external literature.” A large number of novels introduced the readers to purely Iraqi productions, regardless of the place of production. Most novels published outside of Iraq made their way cautiously to the inside of Iraq, and found an adequate ground that allows the establishment of an Iraqi novel, which talks about an Iraqi time and setting. This is why most of the ideas in the novels revolve around Iraqis who lived in exile and decided to return to the homeland, either by departing or travelling, or through the memory and imagination – as in the novel “Little Air” by Jinan Jassim Halawi, “Behind the Earthfill Dam” by Abdullah Sahkhi, and “Peels the Size of the Nation” by Maytham Salman, and “Diaries of an Iraqi Dog” by Abdel Hadi al-Sadoun.

Finally, the fact that an Iraqi novel won the International Prize for Arab Fiction (IPAF) this year (“Frankenstein in Baghdad” by Ahmed Sa’dawi) proves the importance of the identity created by the novels of the new Iraq, now that writers have freedom, although it came at a high price the Iraqi person is still paying for until today.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


great news booka!
A gleam of advancement in the torrents of gloom

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