A book of contemporary writers from Iraq should be a welcome corrective to the bias our current notions of Iraq have created for us. Certain grand categories would just about cover what we know: cradle of civilization, vicious dictator, religious sectarianism, Shiite fundamentalism, covered women, hot…   Another sentence or two would exhaust the knowledge of many.

A world interlinked by trade and divided by war has not become a place of much common knowledge of each other.  This would simply be a pity and lost opportunity if ignorance of each other didn’t create great vats of ignorance into which we fall, either by assuming our own preeminence and their unimportance, our centrality and their peripherality, our normalcy, their irrationality.  Such presumptive ignorance has been a curse on mankind from Alexander the Great (Butcher) to the latest U.S. interventions in  countries far from itself, in geography, population and weapons capability; nor should lesser savagery be forgotten, from the Congo and Rwanda to Sri Lanka and Chechnya.  While those who know each other well may still storm to slaughter — cousins wars, they say, are the most savage– we can’t but hope that the stronger our image of their humanity is, the more difficult to reduce them to insects and vermin that need extermination.

Given the last 30 years of Iraq, beginning, say with the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, life in the country was been a virtual hell for many.  It’s a wonder anyone has been able to write anything other than death lists and prayers.  But writing there has been, and from a wide assortment of writers; some born in the 1930s, some in the 1950s, men and women, Muslim, Jewish and Catholic.  Many offered in Contemporary Iraqi Fiction from Syracuse Press, edited and translated by Shakir Mustafa, are in exile in Germany, the U.S. Israel and England.  A few were still in country at the time of the final edit.

Many of the stories included reflect in some way or another the trials of these years, whether of one of the wars, directly, or the penury and hunger caused by the twelve year embargo/blockade , or by exile — its loneliness and yet, resolution: this is what must be.

Of those offered the story that will remain with me the longest I think is an ironic fantasy of a man who has traveled the world seeking a home, being tossed out of one country after another.

Ibrahim Ahmed’s (b 1946) The Arctic Refugee opens with this promising paragraph: 

From the hole in the igloo at the top of the world I looked at the universal abyss widening in front of me. The moon and the stars danced at my side, and I thought Allah would be so close that I could see him. But my mind was elsewhere as I waited for the Eskimo chief’s decision. Would they grant me asylum, or would they push me over this icy edge into the world to come?

Countries kicked me around the way we played with a rag ball in the muddy alley back home.

Later, after he has listed the countries he has been in and the reasons they don’t want him he adds,

The land of the Eskimos was just one more frontier before the Bermuda Triangle.

When the Chief Eskimo is questioning him prior to granting him asylum he wants to know how the fish are treated in his home country. The answer comes with the traditional faux naivete of good black humor:

Very generously, sir. We feed them the flesh of our enemy soldiers, and our own.

The chief seemed disgusted and spat out the piece of raw fish he was chewing …

 

Nasrat Mardan, born in Kirkuk 1948 left in 1990s living in Genoa; Writes in Arabic and Turkmen contributes an enormously imaginative, and sly critique of totalitarian rule in The Bar of Sweet Dreams.  The opening line is,

The red flower wondered if I was actually going out an an hour like that….

After a reflective walk through the darkened streets he comes upon a house with the lights on.  A woman is standing at the open door and welcomes him in, has him sit and brings him tea. When he asks the couple who there are, the man of the house bursts out laughing:

Have you forgotten sir, I’m the main character of your new story…

The narrator “Felt like a deity meeting his creatures...

Very nice stuff, and a deft kick in the stomach when the main character turns the narrator over to the police for questioning…

 

Mahmoud Saed b. 1939 in Mosul has several short pieces, each of which grabs our attention.  Bitter Morning begins with a wonderful image of someone in bed trading glances with a nightingale.  She turns out to be a couple’s infant girl, the light of their lives — for whom, because of the long embargo– there is no milk, and little food.  The choice they are contemplating is between giving the child way or selling his kidney.

Figure in Repose uses actions and fears we are familiar with in many books and movies of  totalitarian behavior, whether by police, small time gangsters or full dress Nazis — the early morning knock …

“Don’t be afraid. Open the door.”
“Who are you?”
“The Presidential Office.”
His heart shot hot, fresh blood through his body, and sweat banished the freezing cold. His wife leaned against him to control her shudder.  She tried but could not repeat what the voice had just said.

 

…the being taken away in a black car, blindfolded, the reassurances — never believed– that everything will be all right, the walk through long, empty, twisting corridors, elevators, the strip search. Here, he is eventually led by a blind warder to

…a massive hall.  In the middle of the room a man in dark green silk pajamas was stretched out in a rocking chair.   He was watching a wrestling match between two giants on a wide-screen television. The reclining figure was rocking quietly, its eyes closed.  When he looked carefully at it and recognized it, he nearly froze.

The President has a simple question to ask, the answer to which most of us would know.  Being the President and having no one he can trust he must bring in, in the dead of the night, someone without a stake in the answer. The story ends well, well that is as a story filled with terror can end.

A very sweet story, The Returnee by Mahd Isa al-Saqr,  about the death of a beloved wife, with whom the bereaved had discussed death and its possibilities, ends marvelously.    He had told her

no human being or object ever leaves this world as long as the world continues going around and that living things simply keep returning, only changing their outward appearance.”

“…so I’ll be back once I’m dead?”

“Perhaps as a tree blessing the ground with a dense shade or as a bird filling the sky with happiness.

She thinks about this and says, “I’ll come back like a cat and go places with you. Scratch my body against your legs as you read or sit absent-minded.

 

The mourners are milling around, some there for reasons other than real sorrow at her death.

This is how a companion who had filled his life with mirth turned into a mere memory.. For others, her departure was just a social occasion. They’d linger a while, but eventually leave the funeral gathering… His legs ached but he had to observe the conventions… Nothing so far was lessening the pain of her loss

… He kept staring in front of him refusing to accept her absence. Then he saw her coming,. He hadn’t seen her before in the neighborhood before – a small white cat strolling quietly over the green grass.. His face lightened up as she approached, and his heart came to life when she stopped under his chair. She sat on the grass, and a little later she scratched herself against his leg. He smiled and bent to pick her up…and left the funeral assembly. His back was turned to them all as he walked toward the house, his arms around the cat.

Not all the stories are as successful as these.  Some are downright difficult to make out what is going on, speaking to the problem faced by all translators that it is not only words that are being translated but cultures — in which the background assumptions of one are unknown in another.  Certain references awake no recognition.  In other cases their is just lack of a judicious edit.

In one story a “twelve tier stone house” is said to be going up.  It seems actually to be an office building.  The character is described as “walking into the house,” misleading at best.  In another, a man is referred to as “a light being, superhuman…loaded with unfathomable commodities.” [what is a ‘light being?’ ‘unfathomable’ connotes depths (fathom) and is usually used with knowledge, or lack of it; and ‘commodities,’ instead of things, or ‘packages’ or something in keeping with the story.  Or, “I told her that unlike in the old days I felt no hunger or thirst and that I was fully liberated from all materialistic obligations.”  [Wrong register… maybe ‘from all my senses.’] “I felt his rugged complexion on my neck.”  [Complexion for us is color, not texture.] At one point a line  reads “His mother thinks that Nisreen’s voodoo was controlling him.”    Perhaps “voodoo’ is used around the world to mean a suspect kind of magic, but it seems  a very pejorative use of a religious set of beliefs in North America. There are several instances of this, in which a word that is very culturally specific is used in a plausible but not an elegant way.  Siesta is used for the afternoon nap, for example.

While some of the stories could have been told better on the whole Contemporary Iraqi Fiction is a welcome addition to the mind-shelf.  Much tighter in focus than other recent collections I’ve read, both in numbers and in regions of the Middle-East/North Africa.

more to come…

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