Iraq over the Transom

Saadi Simawe, an IWP friend of many years, now teaches in the English Department at Grinnell College in Iowa. After spending 1963-1968 as a political prisoner in the Hilla jail in Baghdad, he was an undergraduate in the same city, then went into exile, completing his PhD in English at the University of Iowa. He describes this trajectory here

An author of several novels in Arabic, he has also translated and written on Middle Eastern and African literature, published Black Orpheus: Music in African American Fiction from the Harlem Renaissance to Toni Morrison (Garland, 2000), and edited the volume Iraqi Poetry Today in the Modern Poetry in Translation series (2003). For his commentary on that project go to,12084,904397,00.html

Early June 2004

I wanted to ask Saadi about how those living outside Iraq are now re-stitching their connection to the place where they once belonged.

Q: Can you tell me a little about the ways one communicates with Iraq these days? Are the phone connections working 24/7? Do you have access to daily publications from Baghdad on-line? What TV and radio stations are relied on, by the diasporic and exile communities and by the Iraqis themselves?

SS: Now that Americans have removed their ban on Iraqi communications issued after the fall of Saddam Hussein, people communicate with Iraq by phone, primarily cell phone. I talk to my friends, poets and writers, in the south. Because their regular phones for some reasons still do not work, they usually call me. If I try to reach them, and I did this once, a complicated process is set into play: I call the cell phones shop, an outfit equivalent to the internet cafes in the West, and ask the owner to let my friend know that I will be calling him tomorrow at a particular time. Of course the size of the small town, where people know each other, helps a lot in this situation.

As for the postal system, it does not function yet, or it still under the sanctions. Although Iraq has been “liberated” for more than a year ago, even today one cannot mail books. Three months after the “liberation” of Iraq, I went to the post office in Grinnell, Iowa where I teach, with a small package of three copies of my just published anthology, Iraqi Poetry Today, wanting to send it to the three Iraqi contributor poets who still live in Iraq. Approaching the post office I experienced a rare moment of triumph, excitement and empowerment: for the first time after 13 years of genocidal sanctions, I felt proud that I could mail books to my country. I was also conscious of another rare moment, that of gratitude to the American army that overthrew the regime, and liberated the nation from the sanctions. This was the first and probably the last moment in which I, who have all my conscious life been against an US intervention in the Middle East, felt thankful to the Americans for making it possible to mail copies of Iraqi Poetry Today to my friends at home. Smiling with unusual intensity, I with poise put my package on the counter, absolutely confident that it will go to Iraq and no power in the world can stop it. The post office clerk put the package on the scale and hit a few keys on the computer; then she said in a matter of fact tone, very professionally: it cannot go to Iraq because it weighs more than twelve ounces. I think the lady was shocked by the defeated anger in my face. I screamed without a voice, as if in a nightmare: but Iraq is liberated!!? I realized that the woman did not hear my voice, but she was terrified by the inhuman mixture of anger and defeat on my face. She whispered something to her boss and both of them, trying to figure out what caused all that pain, looked at me in awe as I left, dragging along my crushed being, under the heavy weight of my un-mailed package.

Q: How important is the internet?

SS: The internet is emerging, though slowly. Several friends in Baghdad and in the south have requested my email address months ago and I did send it to them, and have yet to receive email messages back. I am sure they won't be long in coming. Most educated Iraqis speak and write some English. I was especially happy when a friend from a small town south of Baghdad told me that he visited Grinnell's website for The Iraqi Arts and Poetry 2002 exhibit, and the website for the IWP where he found several anti-war poems. I was happy for two reasons: first, Iraqis are finally connecting with the outside world; second, they can see for themselves how many Americans and Westerners care about them and write in their support. As the Iraqis come to realize they have genuine American friends, this sense of solidarity will undermine the whole thesis of “clash of civilizations”—a thesis which serves militarism in the West and terrorism in the Islamic world. The other important internet activity, organized by the Iraqi Communist Party in London, is an internet digest called “News and Views.” It's mostly published in Arabic, but represents a healthy democratic practice of journalism in which one can daily read the full range of political views in Iraq without censorship or editing. I personally enjoy reading it.

Q: How open do people feel they can be when talking about current events?

SS: People in Iraq can speak about current events, but do so carefully. The fear no longer bears on Saddam Hussein's regime but is rather a generalized, existential fear, a fear of being accused of or implicated in some crime without knowing exactly against whom. After the exposure of torture at Abu Ghraib, not even those who supported and welcome the American invasion--such as Pentagon's man Ahmed Chalabi--can trust that they will survive if they seriously criticize or oppose the Americans' intentions in Iraq, or if they truly pressure the Americans to keep their declared promises of democracy and freedom. Iraqis are a highly politicized people, and most of them--at least the ones I know--think that it is only the naïve and the stupid who believe the American and the British claims that the war simply aimed to liberate Iraqis from Saddam's fascism All Iraqis know very well that the old regime was established, nurtured and supported with the help of the US- and Western weapons of mass destruction. Iraqis also know that they cannot defeat the US, but it is at the same time very hard, even impossible, for Iraqis to put their trust in a honest cooperation with the US in a fair game, one in which they would protect US interest in oil and geopolitics while the US would allow them to secure their own national interests. This would be like asking the master to treat his slave as a near equal partner—altogether self-defeating for the American interests. It is the nature of power to reject compromises when it does not have to.

Q: As far as you know, are those who work with and for the Coalition generally considered as “collaborators,” or does this vary from community to community?

SS: A very good question! Their status varies, depending indeed on the community in question.. For example, the Iraqi Kurdish collaborators are respected in the north, but would be perceived as enemies in Baghdad and other hot spots in Karbala and Najaf--not so much because they are Kurdish but because they are working for the Western enemy. Also, the particular context of collaboration may determine its political and military significance. Working as interpreters with American or Western civilian companies has been much safer than working with the Occupation military forces, especially when these are engaged in battling either the Iraqi resistance or the various non-Iraqi Arab and Muslim terrorists who have found current Iraq an ideal pretext and context to for their terror on war.

Q. How, if at all, has the relation between the “at home” and the exiled intellectuals transformed in the course of the last two years?

SS: Many Iraqi exiles have now returned home. What I have been hearing about is not only political but also cultural tensions arising between the “exiled” intellectuals and the Iraqis. I think this is natural; it would be unnatural not to have basic differences in perspectives. However, in the middle of the chaos that is called Iraq, intensified feelings and ideologies can further widen the gaps between the two groups. Some exiled Iraqis went back with an air of superiority, brandishing their Western languages and theories, and behaving tragi-ironically towards their own people in a manner somewhat similar to that of the former colonialists. On the other extreme, many Iraqis, conscious of what the West has done to their country and culture since the Crusades, absolutely and blindly reject all things Western. Hence they view the Westernized exiles as Western agents, at times attributing them secret connections to the CIA and other Western and Israeli agencies. Frankly, that is one of the reasons that makes me wary of going back, even for a short visit.

Q. Can you say something about the literary situation in today's Iraq? Has fiction kept up with politics, as far as you can tell? Has poetry? Who is reading them?

SS: Even in the darkest moments of Iraq's history, literature thrived. This might be true universally: it seems to me that literature and the arts live on disasters which, because they challenge our very existence, force us to think imaginatively and creatively. The African American experience produced the blues, the Jewish experience produced Kafka, and the Russian sorrows gave us Dostoevsky. Iraqis' tragedies have produced profound literature that needs to be published. Actually there are now two Iraqi literatures: the literature of exile and the literature under fascism and war. When things in Iraq get stable and people are given a chance to reflect, I expect a literary and artistic renaissance to emerge. In some of the novels published recently in Iraq I have seen new sensibility, and complex imagination.

This is evident in both fiction and poetry. In fiction, the rejection of nationalistic and religious visions and ideologies which traditionally flattened Iraqi fiction--at least during fascism--has opened up new humanistic imagination. A short story whose title is roughly “When My Head Found Me” is a good example. Without motioning directly to the context of the Iraq-Iran War (1980-1988), the author Muhammad Khudair tells an eerie story of a human head searching in the Marshes for its own body. The story does not condemn Iraq or Iran; rather it focuses on war, in all its absurdity, as an aspect of the human condition. Other instances of this kind of complex imagination in which existentialism is mixed with humor alongside an unusual compassion for all humans can be found in works by two women novelists, Batool Khudairy's A Sky So Close and Nuha al-Radhi's Baghdad Diaries. Both of them are available in English translation. In poetry, one can find this kind of complexity in poems by Fadhil al-Azzawi, Dunya Mikhail, Abdl Rahim Salih al-Rahim, Yousif al-Saigh, Fadhil Assultani, and Gsar Hantoosh, translated in Iraqi Poetry Today. Dunyia Mikhail's powerful poem called “The War Works Hard,” widely circulated on the internet, is a poignant example of this new trend in Iraqi literature . So I can ultimately say that the great winner arising out of all these losses is the new literature and the new arts--no thanks to the Americans .

As for literature's reception, Iraq comprises the largest readership of literature in the Arab world, and this was the case even during the sanctions. There is a well-known saying in the Arab world: it says that Egypt writes, Lebanon publishes, and Iraq reads. No wonder that with Iraq under sanctions for 13 years, the book market in the Arab world suffered greatly

Q. Has the practice of religion, and the importance of religious affiliation, changed over the last year? Do secular Iraqis feel threatened by the new Islamist movements—or perhaps also attracted to them?

SS: Traditionally, Iraqi society has not been religious. In the seventies, I remember a significant joke: when we used to talk about the rise of Muslims' brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan and Syria, one would ask how come there is no Muslims' brotherhood in Iraq? The answer: because we do not have Muslims in Iraq. And that was true too some extent. For Iraqi society has traditionally been highly secular, with a strong and very popular Communist Party. As Professor Salaam Yousif insightfully observed in one of his articles on the left and literature in Iraq, the very word ‘intellectual” in the Iraqi discourse means almost inherently “Marxist” or “Communist” or at least “leftist.” Many Iraqis know that Saddam was brought to power with the sole purpose of eliminating this formidable political organization. With American help Saddam did manage to weaken the party, but was not able to wipe it out. Significantly, after his fall, the first newspaper to hit Baghdad was Tariq al-Sha'ab (The People's Way), the Iraqi Communist Party's newspaper. It now has the largest circulation in Iraq. The 23 years of major wars plus a decade of the most devastating sanctions in human history did force some Iraqis into religious retreat, also thanks to the US efforts which in the Middle East that have been systematically anti-democratic and anti-secular. The Americans brought down the secular Muhammad Mosaddaq in Iran in 1953, thus preparing the way for Ayatollah Khomeini. They did the same in Afghanistan by nurturing Osama bin Laden & co. And their current atrocious rule in Iraq is the ideal climate for breeding Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. However, despite the US-supported fascism of Saddam for four decades, three major wars and 13 years of sanctions that turned Iraq into a virtual Indian reservation encircled by no-fly zones, Iraqi society has so far defied the Americans' dreams of bringing the people to their knees to worship American power; these tragedies have also failed to instill defeatism and Islamism in the Iraqi soul. For, despite all the disasters, according to recent Western polls a majority of the Iraqis still prefer a secular government. Of course, the media here always tries to brand all manifestations of anti-Americanism as Islamic: a brittle argument. There are so many Americans who are against American interventionism! The traditional US policies in the Middle East have been hinged on two costly premises: blind support of Israel's genocidal treatment of the Palestinians on the one hand, and an unconditional support of Arab dictators. For decades now the Americans have been touting Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East, while at the same time supporting their stooges such as Saddam, King Fahd, the Kuwaiti and the Gulf sheikhs, just to mention a few of the Americans' hideous creations. Coming from a land and culture that has not cultivated any genuine prophetic tradition, in a culture that has marginalized Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, a culture that has put its complete faith and trust in violence, the American paranoid political vision is unduly fond of advancing self-fulfilling prophecies: “the clash of civilizations,” “Israel as the only eternal democracy in the Middle East.” Both slogans carry a racist stench, and both of them are self-defeating. And to make these ideologies realities, they are being violently advertised by American technology and science, recruited for the purpose.

Interviewed by Nataša Ďurovičová