Cairo Book Fair reveals the cultural cost of invading Iraq

Cairo Book Fair reveals the cultural cost of invading Iraq
Comment: The dwindling selection of Iraqi literature at the fair highlights the cultural costs of government censorship and of the US invasion, writes Nazli Tarzi.
6 min read
06 Feb, 2018
Cairo's book fair is known for drawing in crowds [AFP]
Last week Cairo welcomed visitors from across the globe to the 49th edition of its International Book Fair, hosting works from 42 countries, among them 17 Arab nations. Unbeknownst to a visiting delegation representing Iraq's Cultural Councils, an unpleasant surprise awaited.

"Where is everyone… where are Iraq's writers? Where are Iraq's novels?" one man cried, perplexed by the eerily silent Iraqi pavillion that greeted him.

The reality hit home hard. Iraq, to quote French philosopher Michel Foucault, had become "the dead man in the game of writing".

The scant display of Iraqi fiction had failed to draw the crowds it once had. Years of war and ruination have demoted Iraq from honourable literary guest in the region, to something of an underachiever.

While there is no dearth of local writers in Iraq, state-funded clubs, forums, local competitions and fairs that once fostered intellectual engagement between Iraqi writers from diverse backgrounds, have been eroded.

The rising tide of war since the 90s has also made it impossible for writers to travel abroad, deepening the sense of isolation felt by Iraq's community of writers.

While the names of armed groups now dominate much of Iraq's media coverage, there are some exceptions, says Middle East culture and literature researcher, Nadia Muhammad.

"Active writers, who managed to have their voice heard or their works read worldwide, are expatriates who have access to publishers outside Iraq."

For authors capable of churning out works, most, Muhammad adds, "are self-published; meaning, they fund their own publications. This limits literary production to those who can afford to publish".

Novelists in exile have fared better, having escaped the dictates and interruptions of life in a country ravaged by war.

Again, there are some exceptions: Ahmed Saadawi is among the newest Iraqi entrants on the global literary scene, though is often the lone Iraqi in circles of Middle Eastern authors recognised for their exemplary literary standards.

The development of libraries, national academies and cultural infrastructure has been severely crippled

While the intellectual authority of writers has survived, the delegation of Iraq's Cultural Councils lament, in many ways, speaks to a desire for recognition and celebration of Iraqi authorship.

But their wishes are yet to be matched by anything other than vacant pronouncements from state officials. "How can it be that all we have to show is this empty booth?", one man said, reeling off Iraq's innumerable contributions to the history of humankind.

"Iraq is greater than this", he continued, angered by what he described as the "pathetic" characterisation of his country's literary production.

A decade that saw Iraq's educational institutions plundered, public libraries crumble, and targeted assassination campaigns take place, was clearly reflected in Iraq's 2018 lack of literary output.

Over the centuries, authors from different ages have been associated with Baghdad, but it was the last quarter of the twentieth century that marked the birth of the contemporary Iraqi novel. 

Its core subjects changed, ebbing and flowing according to local sentiments and political machinations. The imaginary was shared and centralised, fleshing out the tensions between tradition and modernity. The arc was nationalism, as the state pursued a modernist agenda. Its sponsorship of the arts did not necessarily call for docility, did require some degree of negotiation and collaboration with the regime.

With the entry of occupying forces in 2003, the state ceased to be the sole sponsor of arts and culture, which has since been replaced by a trickle of funds from foreign benefactors.

Cairo's book fair illuminated something Iraq's literati and intelligentsia have long lamented: The cultural costs of Iraq's invasion, and the absence of state-subsidised arts.

Their contemporary counterparts may never excel in the same way

The development of libraries, national academies and cultural infrastructure has been severely crippled, if not come to a total standstill.

Had they been born today, talents like those fostered and cultivated in the 70s, 80s and 90s might never have made it. Without firm roots in Iraq, writers abroad too, will struggle to keep the genre of "Iraqi literature" alive.

While forums and writers' unions still exist, their efforts can no longer function collaboratively, as they once did.

The canonical authors that won Iraq a diverse and expansive readership are still sold, traded and widely read, but their contemporary counterparts may never excel in the same way.

"We must have a voice", the delegation urged, calling on the ministry of culture and Iraq's intellectual cadre to engage in much needed dialogue to restore former levels of literary production.

While blame was levelled at Iraq's ministry of culture for not having a "single official from the ministry" present at the booth, delegation head Sadeq al-Rubaie also criticised "comrades that run Iraqi publishing houses for not doing enough".

In the years leading up to America's war on Iraq's former government, state censorship went into overdrive.

The logic was simple: "our narrative, our money" - anything short of the government's triumphalist military narrative was not accepted, and above all else, criticism of the censor or its policies was punishable by law.

Circumvention of censorship required some measure of creativity, as Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail describes in an interview with ArabLit. She compares the skills Iraqi writers developed to evade censorship to a game of chess. "The white has the initiative and the black responds. In that sense, I am the black. The authority, and its censorship, was the white."

Layers were added to blur the line separating fiction from fact. "The challenge" she admits, "worked to the benefit of poetry". Other writers flocked to neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon to print their works away from the state's watchful eye, but they soon discovered the the appetite for their literature back home was not matched abroad.

Although state censorship has subsided in the years following America's invasion, new chains restrict artistic freedoms. 

In today's Iraq one finds not one but multiple red lines.  Some are fixed while others shift according to political developments, with multiple censors whose identities are not always revealed to the public.

Writers in the new Iraq must tread with caution. Their craft of choice serves as an important tool many are unwilling to forego. But many in Iraq's elite also fear the damage it could cause to their reputation.

Output, like quality, has dwindled, and increased funding is key to tackling this

Output, like quality, has dwindled, and increased funding is key to tackling this. Keeping the Iraqi novel alive requires a push greater than displaying works at international books fairs.

Local institutions and informal literary centres of production are a good place to promote local talent, but even this is not immune to the trend that sees local businesses function as a small fiefdom, governed by patrimony.

The time has come for Iraq's literary scene to emerge from a decade of neglect. Such a revival is long overdue, and is essential if the country is to maintain its standing as a key contributor to the literary scene in the Middle East and beyond. 

Nazli Tarzi is a freelance British-Iraqi journalist, specialising in Middle East politics, with a particular interest in Iraqi affairs. Follow her on Twitter @NazliTarzi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.