Ikram Masmoudi’s War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction

Ikram MasmoudiIkram Masmoudi’s most welcome War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction surveys a remarkable body of fiction that portrays from the inside Iraq’s 30+ year history of war, oppression, invasion, occupation, and sectarian violence beginning with the Iran-Iraq War in 1980. According to Masmoudi, novels authored prior to Saddam Hussein’s overthrow by US forces in 2003 were marked by the Ba’athist regime’s censoring practices, but immediately following 2003 Iraqi authors in numbers uninhibitedly began writing novels that portrayed with critical urgency and imagination both the Iran-Iraq War and the 1991 Gulf War. Very soon, they also began to write novels that depicted the horrendous social turmoil unleashed by American occupation and subsequent sectarian violence. American readers might be somewhat aware of fiction by Hassan Blasim and Sinan Antoon, two expatriate Iraqi authors in the tradition of which Masmoudi writes. Masmoudi touches on both Blasim and Antoon, but the primary focus of her study is a series of mostly-untranslated novels written by authors unable to flee tyrannical power, foreign occupation, and sectarian conflict. Based on Masmoudi’s accounts of these works, one can only hope they are quickly brought into English, for they appear to combine compelling storylines, perceptive insights, and literary craft to a high degree.

War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction chapters on the novels of the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War are full of interest, but of most concern here are two chapters devoted to works set in post-2003 Iraq. In Chapter Three, titled, “Bare Life in ‘New Iraq,’” Masmoudi examines three novels whose protagonists are interpreters working for Americans. The protagonist of each novel begins as a hopeful idealist, mostly secular and not ideologically motivated, and each is brought to ruin by the experience of trying to assist Americans. The protagonist of Shakir Nuri’s The Green Zone (2009) translates for a high-ranking officer in the Coalition Provincial Authority. Appalled by the ignorance and brutality of his American bosses and driven to seek vengeance against them for the death of his wife, Nuri’s protagonist detonates a suicide vest at a Green Zone gathering of CPA and Iraqi leaders. Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter (2008, with an English translation in 2012) features an Iraqi-American heroine who returns to Iraq to serve as a translator for American forces. Naïve and unassuming at first, she soon realizes that rather than aiding Iraq’s transition to democracy, she is participating in its subjugation to the extent of accompanying US soldiers on raids on the homes of innocent non-combatants. In Baghdad Marlboro (2012), by Najm Wali, an American Gulf War veteran returns to Iraq to seek forgiveness and reconciliation with the families of soldiers he helped kill in 1991. The goodwill quest immediately goes awry; the American is quickly kidnapped and killed and the translator he has retained to help him must flee for his own life from the perpetrators of the murder.

The novels described in Chapter Three of War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction describe the occupation and individual Americans unflatteringly enough, but do so in the context of a more general Iraqi social deterioration plagued by problems more of Iraq’s own making (though of course connected to the occupation). Fundamentalist, sectarian, and Iraqi criminal violence arguably equal the horrors of American imposition of force for the protagonists of The Green Zone, The American Granddaughter, and Baghdad Marlboro. The novel Masmoudi explores in Chapter Four, however, is much more uncompromising in its indictment of Americans. The chapter, titled “Bare Life in the Camp,” examines at length Shakir Nuri’s The Madmen of Camp Bucca (2012). Nuri here is unsparing in his portrait of the atrocious carceral conditions of the American prison camp named in its title, which housed upwards of 20,000 prisoners in makeshift conditions in a remote desert corner of Iraq. The horrors of Camp Bucca have been amply described in Helen Benedict’s novel Sand Queen (2011), but based on the quotations from The Madmen of Camp Bucca provided by Masmoudi, Benedict didn’t know the half of it. Masmoudi doesn’t offer biographies of the authors she studies, so it’s not clear if Nuri was incarcerated at Camp Bucca (or if he and the other Chapter Three authors worked as interpreters themselves) and thus speaks from first-hand experience. In any case, though, the quoted passages from The Madmen of Camp Bucca are full of damning detail and overlaid with a sense of dismay that the American occupiers are not just brutal, but inept and thoughtless. One passage from Nuri’s novel, for example, takes aim at the ignominy of Camp Bucca being named after a New York City firefighter who gave his life trying to save others at the fall of the Twin Towers:

Oh you, the firefighter whom America committed a crime against, you sacrificed your life to save innocent Americans; America did nothing more than humiliate you by naming after you the worst prison ever in the history of humanity…. Oh my God, does this man deserve to be insulted every day while his soul still hovers above the place of the crime? And to make matters worse, America invited the daughter of this man to visit the camp to bless this quagmire that bears the name of her father.

Camp Bucca has its defenders and apologists–its Wikipedia entry, for example, appears to have been written by a US military public relations team–but those trying to put a shiny face on whatever happened there will be arguing uphill in wake of Nuri’s (and Benedict’s) depiction. But Nuri suggests that a shiny face was never the point of Camp Bucca anyway, as its whole purpose was to inflict humiliation on Moslems equal to the anger felt by Americans about 9/11.  The narrator of The Madmen of Camp Bucca reports:

Every time the guards look at the banner with the name “Bucca” on it, they show their teeth and become even more violent towards us, as if we had exploded the World Trade Center. Cursed is New York who is sending us such people.

Masmoudi resurfaces an interesting statement in this regard by Henry Kissinger found in Bob Woodward’s State of Denial (2006). Woodward writes, “Asked why he had supported the Iraq War, Kissinger replied”:

“Because Afghanistan wasn’t enough” … In the conflict with radical Islam, [Kissinger] said they want to humiliate us. “And we need to humiliate them.” The American response to 9/11 had essentially to be more than proportionate–on a larger scale than simply invading Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban. Something else was essential. The Iraq War was essential to send a larger message, “in order to make the point that we are not going to live in the world that they want for us.”

The fiction Masmoudi studies seems perplexed that Iraq’s and America’s national histories have had to have been so intertwined in the first place; from Kissinger’s statement it appears that it was Iraq’s bad luck to be in the way of an angry nation eager to take a swing at it-didn’t-care-who-or-what. Iraqi war fiction takes the measure of individual American soldiers often–many novelists describe their first encounter with actual Americans, as in a passage from The Green Zone: “I did not expect to see them except on a TV screen, and here they were, flesh and blood before my eyes; they never tired of searching us.” Clearly enough the American occupiers are found wanting in most cases, though exceptions occur. Five enlisted Marines in The Green Zone, for example, are portrayed as individuals roughly no worse and no better than one might expect. The dominant response, however, is disappointment: narrators and characters repeatedly report their shock on learning that the military forces that deposed Saddam were not just ignorant of Iraq’s rich history and treacherous social dynamics, not just disdainful of its Islamic religion and culture, and not just arrogant in their belief in their own superiority.

Their biggest problem, one gleans, is that Americans were just lousy at doing what they thought needed doing: untrained, unresourced, without a plan, their on-ground performance wildly out of whack with their vaunted goals, ideals, and standards of competence. To Iraqis, then, the humiliation of being subjugated by boobs adds stinging insult to real injury and abuse. Generous amounts of self-loathing on this count permeate Iraqi war fiction, along with many other forms of guilt and internalized hatred brought about by a sense of ineptitude and helplessness. Iraqi authors use fiction to portray injustice wrought by foreign occupiers, but also to come to terms with their own complicity—both personal and collective—in allowing a proud nation to precipitate its own destruction over the course of thirty torturous years. This complex attitude, sad as it is, enriches and elevates the fiction that documents it and might even be said to account for the body of work. Deprived of all other forms of productive, legitimate, and non-violent citizenship, the authors and characters of Iraqi war fiction resort out of necessity to story-telling to bear witness, call for change, and assert their agency.

Iraq’s post-2003 war fiction, in Masmoudi’s reading of it, privileges the point-of-view of dissidents, deserters, prisoners, suicide bombers, and other marginal figures, to include lowly soldiers given little choice but to obey orders and kill or be killed. Masmoudi sees the Iraqi war fiction corpus as exemplifying the ideas of influential Italian political theorist Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998); Agamben terminology such as “homo sacer,” “bare life,” “state of exception,” and “the camp” organizes and deepens Masmoudi’s analysis at many points. Agamben is generally thought to critique Western modes of thought and political organization, so Masmoudi cinches his relevance to the Islamic Middle East milieu of Iraq by linking Agambian notions to post-colonial scholar Achille Mbembe’s concept of “necropolitics”—a social order predicated on technological means of killing—and Frantz Fanon’s analysis of the devastating psychological effects of colonialism on both colonizer and colonized. Lurking behind Agamben, Mdbeme, and Fanon is Michel Foucault’s “biopower”: the exertion of political power through control of the body politic.

These heavy-hitter theorists are handled accessibly and sensibly by Masmoudi; Iraq war fiction titles such as Freedom of the Bagged Heads (Jasim al-Rasif, 2007), The Dead of Baghdad (Jamal Husaya Ali, 2008), Killers (Diya Ali-Khalidi, 2012), The Morgue of Baghdad (Burhan Shawi, 2012), The Corpse Washer (Sinan Antoon, 2010, translated into English in 2013), The Corpse Exhibition (Hassan Blasim, 2013), and Frankenstein in Baghdad (Ahmad Al-Sadawi, 2013) suggest how Mbembe for one is on to something. In any case, Masmoudi’s approach is more thematic than theoretical. We might hope for even more historical and biographical context than she offers. Who are the authors she studies, and are they representative of a large segment of Iraq citizenry or a particularized class of intellectual-artistic dissidents? Were ideologically-motivated Shias and Sunnis publishing fiction? What were the conditions of publication in Iraq during the American years—who was reading, who was publishing, how popular were the works, and what was their influence? What control over media, print, and culture did Americans try to exert (probably none, through either benign or sloppy neglect, but still worth exploring)? Inaam Kachachi, the author of The American Granddaughter, is a woman, but the other authors under examination are men; what else might we learn from fiction written by Iraqi women? Everything Masmoudi offers for consideration is excellent, but leaves me, and hopefully others, wanting more. A logical first step will be the translation into English of all the novels of which she writes.

Ikram Masmoudi is an assistant professor of Arabic Studies at the University of Delaware. War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction was published in 2015 by Edinburgh University Press as part of its Studies in Modern Arabic Literature series. The translations provided in the passages quoted above are Masmoudi’s.

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