As I write this, I am reeling from the latest immigration announcement from our ricocheting president saying he wants to restrict “certain” Iraqis from coming to our shores. He has promised to ban many other refugees outright, including desperate and suffering Syrians, but this one cuts me particularly deep because of the war we inflicted on Iraq, the Iraqis I have met, and the Iraqis I have read.
Seven years ago, I began work on two novels about the Iraq War and its aftermath from the point of view of both American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. As part of my research, I sought Iraqi refugees to interview, as well as all the books and poems by Iraqis I could read. That was when I discovered how difficult it is to find Iraqi literature in translation, at least in America—a fact I consider shameful, given that our war killed some half a million Iraqis and displaced a fifth of the country. That said, I did discover a few books of prose and poetry that have managed to filter through the barriers of American suspicion and indifference, mostly thanks to independent and university presses. These are a few of my favorites.
The first contemporary Iraqi writings I found in English were on a blog written by someone calling herself Riverbend, a 24-year-old woman who began sending dispatches from Baghdad during our “shock and awe” bombing campaign in March of 2003. A computer programmer fluent in English, she reminded me of my students: smart, articulate, funny, irreverent, and full of heart. Her voice was the most potent antidote I could find at the time to the growing Western view of Iraqis as incomprehensible religious extremists. One of the delights of reading a daily blog is that, like the diaries of Samuel Pepys, it chronicles life in real time. Riverbend describes how the quotidian grows increasingly more difficult in Baghdad as power outages multiply, people disappear, and the US disbanding of civil servants and police allows looters and kidnappers to rampage unchecked. She shows readers how her sympathy for American soldiers broiling in their body armor under the blistering Iraqi sun turns into a bitter anger against those same soldiers as they kill and maim. She describes the increasing cynicism among Iraqis as the US puts in one puppet government after another. When Riverbend and her family were eventually driven from Baghdad to Syria, she stopped writing (with the exception one farewell post in 2013, when the war was a decade old). But her entries were eventually collected into the book Baghdad Burning, published by the Feminist Press in 2005, so they remain available to all.
Sinan Antoon, I’jaam, an Iraqi Rhapsody
(trans. Rebecca Johnson and Sinan Antoon)
By 2007, a handful of other Iraqi writers had finally found their way to translation in the US. Although they had fled Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship or earlier wars and were not yet writing about the current war, their voices were essential to my research. One of these writers was Sinan Antoon, a poet, novelist, and filmmaker who left Iraq in 1991 and now teaches at New York University. I’jaam, an Iraqi Rhapsody, his first novel, was published by City Lights in 2007 and reads as much like a surrealist parable as a satire. Dreamlike, chilling, and ironic, the story follows a student who is thrown into an Abu Ghraib-like prison for no reason, where he is brutalized and subjected to an irrational set of interrogations straight out of Kafka, and where his nightmares and reality uncannily converge. Antoon, who opposed the US invasion of his country in 2003, has tackled the current war since, publishing more novels and several books of heartbreaking poetry, my favorite being The Baghdad Blues (Harbor Mountain Press, Vermont, 2007).