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Whilst the invasion of Iraq shaped US’ foreign relations, popular Iraqi literature regards the war as merely one facet of the nation’s intricate history.


It’s been a little over 20 years since the United States invaded Iraq. Some Americans have largely forgotten about the invasion, despite the fact that the September 11 attacks that preceded it still loom large in US national memory. Even in the heart of the war in 2006, most young Americans couldn’t find Iraq on a map.

Many Iraqis, however, have a more nuanced, deeper understanding of the country’s recent history: an understanding that can be traced back to their literature—particularly to contemporary post-invasion literature. scholars like me study.

Over the past two decades, Iraqi literature has one in particular deep excavation of its recent past, far beyond the confines of the American invasion.

Iraqi literature sometimes reflects on the dictatorship of Saddam Husseinthe Iran-Iraq war in the eighties and the experience with immigration to Western countries – in addition to 9/11 and the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 after false claims that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction.

In other words, while many in the US have focused on Iraq through the lens of the 2003 invasion, these events are not at the heart of contemporary Iraqi literature.

Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim appears at a book event in 2015.
Niklas Maupoix/Flickr, CC DOOR

Literary Timelines of Iraqi History

The short stories of Hassan Blasim And Dia Jubailitwo modern Iraqi storytellers, both of whom have received critical acclaim in Western media, provide a way to understand some of the literary narratives of recent Iraqi history.

Blasim, a filmmaker and writer born in Baghdad in 1973, currently lives in Finland. Born in 1977 in Basra near the border with Kuwait and Iran, Jubaili has remained in Basra.

Their stories present the US invasion and its fallout as part of a longer history of foreign occupations and internal political violence in Iraq.

This history of violence, their fiction suggests, has its roots in the mid-20th century. During that time, successive governments of the newly independent Iraq and their foreign backers tried to chart a path forward for the country.

Blasim and Jubaili show that it is the intervening decades, as opposed to just the US invasion in 2003, that have come to define modern Iraq.

Several of their short stories have even been written about Iraq’s previous wars and Saddam’s dictatorship, without reference to the US invasion. When their stories do refer to the invasion, it is often as one of a litany of violent events.

Somewhat improbably, many of their stories creatively tell a broad swath of Iraqi history in just a few short pages—an undertaking that could make a historian or political scientist break out in hives.

How on earth could you reduce such complexity to a few pages?

Nasty quote Jubaili: “It is not necessary to write a story with many words if the idea behind it can only contain a few lines.”

Simple ideas

Jubaili’s themes – the disorientation caused by cyclical wars – seem to be summed up in a single line in one of his stories, ‘The Frog’.

In this story, an enterprising man realizes that he will make a big profit by selling frogs he catches in Basra’s Shatt al-Arab River to East Asian oil refinery workers. One day he catches a “giant frogman” who has been living in the river since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Disoriented, the frogman panics and asks the frogcatcher, “Is the war over?”

Which war exactly? Due to its geographical location, Basra was at the epicenter of the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s.

But Iraq has also experienced it political revolutions in 1991in which armed Kurdish and Shia minorities tried to depose Saddam. Iraq also invaded Kuwait in 1990 due to territorial ambitions. This led to the issuance of the United Nations crippling economic sanctions for the next 13 years.

Like the frogman, the lives of Jubaili’s characters are marked by many of these events.

A middle-aged man with brown skin looks straight into the camera.  He wears a dark blue shirt and sits in front of a dark background.
Iraqi author Diaa Jubaili is an example of a writer from the country who mentions the US invasion but does not pay too much attention to it.
Diaa1977/Wikimedia Commons, CC DOOR

A closer reading

While Jubaili’s stories are often absurd and vaguely humorous, Blasim’s award-winning short stories are difficult to read. His prose fearlessly describes all forms of violence and human suffering.

In the Short story from 2014 ‘The Hole’, a man on the run from masked gunmen in Baghdad stumbles and falls into a deep pit. He soon realizes that he is not the only person trapped there. There is another man: one who claims to be a jinn – or spirit – who fell while fleeing persecutors during the Abbasid Caliphatewho ruled the area that is now Iraq from 750 to 1500 AD. Also, the hole shares the corpse of a Russian soldier from the Soviet-Finnish Warconducted from 1939 to 1940.

After a few pages, a woman covered in electronics on the run from a dystopian, futuristic robot also falls into the hole. The hole becomes a metaphor for a chain that links “bloody battles, repetitive and disgusting” across time and space, according to the story.

It seems that history acts as “a copier that makes copies” on which is printed “the same face, a face shaped by pain and torment,” as Blasim writes.

In another Blasim short story, “The Madman of Freedom Square,” a man considered insane by the people of his town recounts three generations of his family history against the backdrop of the ebb and flow of competing political and religious ideologies in the 20th century.

In the final lines of the story, set in the present, a stranger persuades the unwitting narrator, “the madman of Freedom Square,” to strap on a vest with explosives.

Ultimately, these stories encourage readers to elevate the importance of human lives over the events that are said to define them.

This literature opposes stories of the American invasion as a supposedly exceptional event. It also opposes the symbolized testimonies of the occupation survivors: those faces that are the usual focus of media coverage, academic scholarship and political savvy in the US.

And even in the stories’ emphasis on ever-present death, whether in the macabre and violent tones of Blasim or the sometimes humorous, sometimes absurd tones of Jubaili, this literature becomes a metaphor for the immense determination that is to survive and give. meaning to one’s world.

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