The Iraqi war canon has been overtaken by American military accounts. US military titles have been published and promoted with regularity while war literature by Iraqi authors has consistently been ignored or left untranslated. In Iraqi literature, the occupation is presented as almost an exclusively American event. Post-occupation Iraqi fiction, or post-2003 fiction, is largely absent from the literary accounts of the war in the US. This is why Ikram Masmoudi’s War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction, published this year, is a necessary and welcome intervention.
Masmoudi addresses this dearth by revealing how post-occupation fiction by Iraqis represents “their relation to war and sovereign power”, not only in relation to the “new Iraq” but also in a broad historical context. She reveals that the post-2003 Iraqi war canon is made up not only of US occupation literature, but also addresses the “Ba’athification” of culture, particularly since the seventies, the Iran-Iraq War in the eighties and the 1991 Gulf War, as well as the latest US invasion and occupation of Iraq. According to Masmoudi, this new crop of post-2003 literature taking on issues from decades past is a natural (albeit delayed) result of the Saddam era of censorship. And, while writers sometimes engaged in auto-censorship by cloaking controversial writing in mythology and symbols to get past the censors, much literature was effectively repressed until the fall of the Saddam regime. When the pressure valve was lifted, many past phenomena were given a platform, like accounts of desertion during the Iran-Iraq War.
Beyond novels featuring the deserter figure like Asātidhat Al-wahm (The Professors of Illusion, 2011) by Ali Badr and Hubūt Al-malāʾika (The Descent of the Angels, 2013) by Muhammad Óasan, literary excavations of the past also expose in the Gulf War “the myth of a clean, precise and bloodless war”. Masmoudi analyses a variety of novels, like Baghdad Mālbūrū (Baghdad Marlboro, 2012) by Najm Wālī, Mā baʿd al-aubb (2003, Beyond Love (2012)) by Hadiyya Hussein, and ¤ayāʿ fī Óafr Al-Bātin (Loss in Óafr al-Bātin, 2009) by ʿAbd Al-Karīm Al-ʿUbaydī, which resituate “the geographical horizon of this conflict from the virtual space of the monitor screen where the war was displayed and inflated into a worldwide war back into the forgotten real space—the desert of Óafr al-Bātin.”
There are moments, especially in the introduction, when the author delves for pages into Agamben’s theoretical concepts or topics like the development of the Iraqi novel, which could’ve really been collapsed into a few paragraphs. Often, she leans too heavily on theory without referring back to her own analyses and allowing the theory to serve her arguments in order to make a theoretical framework really hers. She leads with the Agambenian concept of homo sacer, or bare life, of the Iraqi individual as “‘he who can be killed and not sacrificed’ without his killing becoming a murder… abandoned by the law, exposed and targeted, having only their given natural life, their zoe,” in establishing four major figures of Iraqi narratives, like the war deserter, soldier, suicide bomber and camp detainee.
Yet, Masmoudi’s own discoveries and observations about post-2003 Iraqi fiction are far more intriguing. In Green Zone (Al-Mintaqa Al-khadrāʾ, 2009), she discusses the dangerous role of the Iraqi translator as native informant and marked traitor. She also explores the new power dynamics between the occupied and occupiers; through an analysis of the novel’s intense sexual relationship between a Christian woman who leads the division of translators in the Green Zone and a US colonel, she explores the new privileged and compromising relationship between Iraqi minorities and architects of the occupation. Moreover, we get a glimpse into some of the bizarre tactics of the Fallujah siege wherein “loudspeakers are attached to rifles, tied to the soldiers’ belts, hung from the towers, and tied to the Humvees” to play piercing heavy metal music, children’s cries, men’s screams in order to enervate the militants. Moreover, Masmoudi highlights the uniquely timely feature of this neglected war literature, wherein war novels are not written after the war (as is usually the case), but it is written during the war, thus “they look as though they come directly and immediately from the battlefield and the arena of killing; and this makes them closer to journalistic-style reports coming from the lines of fire.”
Exploring this neglected literature “wherein the sight of bodies piled up beyond the morgues’ capacity” is a regular feature is not only a necessary intervention amid the predominantly American narratives, but it begs the question: why haven’t most of the novels been translated? Considering the number of post-occupation novels published and distributed, let alone just written, why has most of the Iraqi war canon been left untranslated? In what ways do we, as writers and readers, participate in the same atmosphere of censorship under which Iraqis lived for decades by not demanding that the literary voices of Iraq be made at least minimally accessible?