Iraqi History: The Artist’s Impression of Imperialism, of Misery
Elliot Ziwira At the library
The history of Iraq has always been controversial, but long lasting. It is a transcendent story that transcends geographic boundaries, religion and ethnicity in which hope has so many faces that it risks obscurity.
Indeed, this is the story of lack, where reality and metaphysics are intertwined with symbolic elements that permeate the labors of humanity to create interfaces of hope and regeneration.
In this story, the voice of the individual is reduced to a stifling of hope stifled by poverty, subjugation and fear; real or imaginary.
But there is a method to this misery.
It smacks of imperialism, royalism, feudalism and materialism, all of which conspire to steal ordinary man’s daily bread and usurp his dreams.
Unable to find solace in the reality of his condition, the common man seeks the elixir of reverie, religion, alcohol and death.
He is not alone, however, because his voice, shouting in the dustbins of his dreams, is amplified by the artist among his people, who intervene, to defend the truth.
Voice of the voiceless and “defense of the truth”, the artist presents himself as a sacrificial lamb whose ink becomes the blood spilled on the printing press to give a lifeline to his people.
Certainly, the history of Iraq has been captured in many books, because it is the history of many stories.
But, one book that probably does it justice is “Iraqi Short Stories: An Anthology”, edited by Yassen Taha Hafidh and Lutfiyah Al-Dilaimi.
Published by Dar Al-Ma’mun for the translation and edition (1988) of the Ministry of Information and Culture, the book is the work of 37 Iraqi writers born between 1921 and 1957.
The writers, whose works were previously published in Arabic, tell the Iraqi story stretching from the 1930s to the 1980s, using different tropes.
The social mission of artists is to speak out against misery through the effective use of metaphors and symbolism, which gives the reader leeway to interpret fictional experiences in multiple ways.
Vast results are possible.
“Sickness”, by Abdul Malik Nouri, the opening story of the collection, tackles the universal neurosis which leads to stasis, paralysis and malaise at the heart of the family unit, community and nation.
Told in the first person, the story explores the familiar terrain of normality, alienation and the search for identity. This is the story of Amin Uthman, who, in his quest for identity, runs away from himself.
Torn between himself, the world he thinks hates him, and his runaway girlfriend; Amin thinks life owes him an apology. Everything becomes a “disease” that threatens him.
Tormented by the loss of his sweetheart, whose features he barely remembers, the protagonist meets her as a prostitute. Ironically, she adopted a new way of passionately kissing.
Amin is overwhelmed by the desire to hold her as before, yet the distance that has been created by her sudden departure haunts him. His whole world becomes a haze that consumes him, but he kind of stays outside.
Nizar Saleem’s âSong of the Turnip Vendorâ explores the darkness of man’s heart; his selfishness and his propensity for deception.
The story highlights the lack of values, the rise of violent individualism and the end of a collective struggle against poverty and oppression.
Khamees, the turnip seller, remembers when he sold hot turnips in the winter and ice cream in the summer to an exuberant and tight-knit clientele who called him âUncle Khameesâ.
Her story merges with that of Noriya, whose aunt is fond of boiled turnips, which the saleswoman no longer wants to deliver in her street, due to the closure of the student hostel following violent disturbances. The students were the seller’s friends and brought him good deals.
They would ask him to sing for them. He would gladly do so, and everyone would rejoice between bites of hot turnips or happy licks of ice cream.
Khamees remembers Sami and his friends, Shamil and Ali, good buddies indeed. However, as the man’s inherent voyeur, usually aroused by trauma, for his part beckons, Khamees’ heart sinks as he witnesses the betrayal at his ugliest location.
As violence erupts in the students’ hostel, Shamil and Ali turn on Sami, their supposed friend, whom they crush to death.
âThey got hold of him. I shouted to them, âYou are brothers. What is wrong with you? What happened? You, Shamil, and you Aliâ¦ you are brothers. Yesterday you are all together, but today you are against him, ârecalls Khamees.
Although there is no direct reference to political violence in the story, and in most of the stories in “Iraqi News: An Anthology”, connotative inferences can easily be drawn from the interpretation of symbols, metaphors and images used.
As brother rises against brother in the mad race for superiority, the weak and vulnerable remain rooted at the bottom rung of the ladder to spiritual and physical satiety.
The seller, like most of his ilk, who is a creation of the capitalist inclinations of the imperialist oppressor, is far from being a beneficiary of the system, as his poor clients may presume.
As an intermediary between the oppressor and the oppressed, he not only offers a service to alleviate their misery, but he also undergoes the vagaries of nature and man.
He must be in the open air day and night. The obnoxious side of man confronts him on the solemn streets as he tries to keep body and soul together.
Although the book recalls episodes of Iraqi history through the realism and inspiration of French, Russian and English traditions, the stories are refreshing and unique.
The narrative points of view vary and accentuate the thematic issues raised. Love, marriage, oppression in all its facets and culture are some of the themes highlighted in the anthology.
“Government Bread” by Edmon Sabri and “The Hero and the City” by Abdul Rahman Majeed AL-Rubai’i explore the tendency to encapsulate the real problems affecting the common man through policies that are nothing but interim measures or fodder.
In âGovernment Bread,â the misery, the culmination of rising consumer staples and souring unemployment rates, is compounded, rather than alleviated.
The government’s idea of ââgiving free bread to the hungry masses does not solve the problem. Ismail, who had been a soldier for 10 years before losing his eye, believes his wife, Maheeba, needs more than bread to be able to give milk to her nursing baby.
Like everyone else who braves the cold dawns of their lives for a piece of bread, Ismail wants some money. He decides to write a petition, which, unfortunately, is not delivered.
In search of new heroes, citizens are fascinated by a city wrestling hero, as shown in âThe Hero and the Cityâ.
In the story, all roads in Baghdad lead to the Mal’ab (stadium) as people crowd to watch the great wrestler, Fawzi al-Baghdadi (hero of Baghdad), who has defeated “many challengers from across the country. Europe â, and would beâ a source of pride for Iraq and the Arab nation â.
The protagonist Adil and his friend Nassir, aware of the lie dawning within, try not to be swayed by this frenzy. However, in their quest to escape, they remain entangled in the same web that they claim to be fleeing. Wherever they go; cafes, hotels or any other public place, the discourse on television or radio revolves around the new hero of Baghdad.
In a community where everyone is blind, indeed, the one-eyed is king.
Stories like “Orbit”, “The Five Rivers of Heaven”, “The Glasses” and “The Mud Structures” by Mahmoud Al-Dhahir, Ghazi Al-Abadi, Abdul Razzaq Al-Muttalibi and Khudhayir Abdul Amir, respectively, put highlight oppressive tendencies that stifle individual expression.
With everything seen through borrowed or stolen glasses, the praised solutions to internal problems become disastrous. Solutions must always be sought through a collective and disinterested platform.
Despite the hardships that have become the alpha of the weak and vulnerable, the omega should not be seen drowned in death or any other form of escape.
There is so much hope in spirituality, yes, but that alone cannot bring everyone to the Kingdom to come.
In âPicking Seasonâ, Lutfiya Al-Dilaimi is aware of the social barriers that hinder the progress and freedom of women.
It also attacks the rigidity and the struggle against change described through Time, both oppressive and retrograde. Time brings change, for the prevailing feeling of change is difficult to control; but this change should in no case be conflicting. It must be constructive in a compromising way.
“Iraqi Short Stories: An Anthology” not only tells the story of Iraq, but tells a universal story that absorbs all of humanity.