By Annelle Sheline / Daily News Egypt October 29, 2009, 2:00 am
Virginia Woolf once famously expressed her hope that one day the female writer would no longer be classified as such; instead, the basis of perception for her work would be its quality alone, rather than viewed through the distorting lens of the author’s sex.
Reading works by a collection of contemporary Iraqi writers, I wonder whether the same will ever be possible for them, that one day they could be judged simply as writers, rather than colored by the world’s perception of their country and its conflict.
I speculate whether they would want to be, or if ignoring the reality of sanctions, multiple wars and occupation would minimize the significance of their ability to create art out of destruction.
“Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology calls itself “the first anthology of its kind in collecting works by 16 of Iraq’s fiction writers. Unless already familiar with the Iraqi literary scene, the reader is highly dependent on editor and translator Shakir Mustafa.
Although his introduction for each writer provides useful context, his biases, interpretations, and editorial choices color the reader’s experience. In Abdul Rahman Maeed Al-Rubaie’s “The Tattoo, for example, Mustafa has compiled excerpts from chapter 10 of the novel “Al-Washm (The Tattoo). In the resulting disjointedness, the reader finds it difficult to distinguish the editor’s cut-and-paste from what might have been the author’s intent.
While it may be the author’s right to confuse, it is the editor’s responsibility to clarify; left unsure, I resented slightly Mustafa’s influence upon my reading of Al-Rubaie’s otherwise excellent work.
For the most part, however, Mustafa serves as a trustworthy guide, introducing this ignorant reader to the country’s significant authors. Some are excerpts, others complete short stories, each mini chapter offering a brief glimpse into the author’s style and oeuvre.
The works themselves balance universality with a perspective that could only be Iraqi. In Samira Al-Mana’s “That Thing We Call Age, two older women in a park eavesdrop on a lovers quarrel. As the quarrel subsides, their “vague diabolical joy fades to boredom and they move away, in the manner of busy-bodies the world over.
In Mahmoud Saeed’s “A Figure in Repose, a doctor is woken in the night by the police and taken to the presidential palace. Like the doctor, the reader feels disoriented in the maze-like complex and humiliated by his nude physical examination, dreading his apparently imminent torture. Instead, the doctor is taken to a “massive hall where “a man in dark green silk pajamas was stretched out in a rocking chair. when he looked carefully at it [the figure] and recognized it, he nearly froze.
Readers can guess the identity of the “figure in repose, and imagine their own reaction if confronted with him, a man who would rank alongside Hitler in an “International Hall of Infamy.
Yet the experience of Iraqi writers is as much about exile as about midnight interrogations. Salima Salah, in “Those Boys, tells of a mother watching her son grow up in an alien culture, a tale that any member of a diaspora could relate to.
“A Dormant Alphabet, by Samira Al-Mana, illustrates the power of a word to unite those who understand its meaning. In this case, a group of Iraqi émigrés in London laugh over someone they describe as tgabat, (a derogatory Iraqi term for someone with faltering judgment), while the narrator’s British wife struggles to comprehend an indigestible nugget of Iraqi culture. Enjoying the exclusivity of their native tongue seems one of the few enjoyments left to those banished from their homeland.
The specific loneliness of the Iraqi in exile comes through in “A Belly Dancer from Baghdad by Shmuel Moreh, when an aging belly dancer in a London bar recognizes a fellow countryman by his habbet Baghdad, (identified in the helpful glossary as a skin infection afflicting Iraqi children as recently as the 1950s that left a round scar the size of a US quarter).
The belly dancer joyfully spots the mark, saying, “A stranger sees all natives as his own family. This mark helps Baghdadis recognize each other abroad and helps them draw closer. Interestingly, like his autobiographical character in the story, Moreh is Jewish, which he reveals to the dancer. “So what? she replies, “We are all alike since we all drink from the waters of the Tigris.
Mustafa is careful to include the non-Muslim Iraqi experience with authors Samuel Shimon (Christian) and Samir Naqash (also Jewish), reminding the reader of the diversity of the country and its once vibrant plurality.
Many of the stories touch on less lighthearted aspects of the refugee’s experience, such as in “Good-bye Hippotamus by Abdul Sattar Nasir, the reader experiences the narrator’s agony as he waits for the plane that will carry him and his family to safety. Nasir is famous for his year-log imprisonment after publishing “Sayyidna Al-khalifa (Our Master, the Caliph), which parodied dictatorial power.
Yet life seems worse for those who remain behind; Jalil Al-Qaisi’s heart-wrenching “Zulaikha tells the story of two detainees about to be executed. Their banter is reminiscent of Beckett’s absurdity, as is the horror of their inability to escape their situation.
The stories defy Iraq’s classification as a “no-man’s land, the fireball of violence that has been portrayed by the media since the US-led invasion in 2003, as well as the violence that has plagued it since the 1980s. It is easy to forget that people live, love, are born, and carry out their mundane daily activities in what the rest of the world views as a war zone.
In “Tantal, Samir Naqqash tells us: “Forgetfulness is the nastiest of human afflictions. Thus, the anthology evokes a message-in-a-bottle-like feeling, giving humanity to the numbing casualty figures.
The father in Mahmoud Saeed’s “Bitter Morning warns his wife that their baby daughter can understand everything that is going on. Thus, she should be careful to shield her from their horrific life, (he plans to sell his kidney in order to buy food for his family).
One must wonder, in 20 years, what the children of today’s Iraq have seen and understood, and what they would write in a similar anthology. One is left amazed by the writers’ resilience and creativity, but wondering how much longer they and their country will be capable of producing such works of art.
“Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology, is edited and translated by Shakir Mustafa