The decades of oppression, war, invasion and occupation in Iraq have led to large numbers of Iraqi writers going into exile, where many of them have chosen to remain. Two books recently published in Britain in translation from Arabic to English reflect the continuing predicament of the Iraqi writer abroad.
One is a collection of poems, “The Deleted Part”, by Adnan al-Sayegh, translated by the poet, editor and translator Stephen Watts and the Spanish scholar of Arabic and librarian Marga Burgui-Artajo and published in London by Exiled Writers Ink. The other is the short story collection “The Madman of Freedom Square” by the poet, filmmaker and short story writer Hassan Blasim translated by the journalist and Arabic scholar Jonathan Wright. It is published by Comma Press, based in the northern English city of Manchester.
Blasim was born in Baghdad in 1973 and first made his mark in cinema, writing scripts and directing films. Since leaving Iraq for Finland five years ago he has made many short films and documentaries for Finnish TV. His stories have been published on the iraqstory.com website, and his essays on cinema have been published in the UAE.
“The Madman of Freedom Square” contains 11 stories in which Blasim taps into the Iraqi psyche and the impact of the years of upheaval on individuals and society. His stories are engaging, original and well crafted, with frequent touches of surrealism and macabre humor.
The events of the story “The Reality and the Record” are narrated by an Iraqi refugee to an immigration officer in Sweden. The refugee was an ambulance driver whose tasks included driving to hospital a sack of heads of the victims of beheadings. He was kidnapped and repeatedly transported over Martyrs Bridge as he was sold from one group to another and was forced to make statements on video.
In the collection’s title story, two handsome young blond men arrive in a wretched neighborhood and bring good luck and contentment. After a military coup they disappear and the new government sends tanks to remove the statutes of them. A man who is fighting to save the statues from destruction is miraculously rescued by the mysterious blonds and becomes known as the “Madman of Freedom Square”.
“An Army Newspaper” is dedicated to the dead of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. The editor of an army newspaper’s cultural page is sent some remarkably good stories by a soldier. After the soldier is reported killed, the editor begins to publish the stories under his own name, thereby becoming a celebrity and the Minister of Culture. But an unstoppable flow of stories continues from the supposedly dead soldier.
Several of the stories concern Iraqi migration. In “The Truck to Berlin” an Iraqi who is in Turkey “on the run from the hell of the years of economic sanctions” pays money to be smuggled to Europe. But he changes his mind after hearing about 35 Iraqis who were smuggled in the back of a truck which was abandoned in Serbia. After four days police opened the truck and found the Iraqis ripped to pieces. A bloodied young man who jumped from the truck reportedly turned into a wolf before disappearing.
The protagonist Ali of “Ali’s Bag” is staying in a volatile refugee centre on his way to a European country. He hugs to him a bag in which he has brought his mother’s bones from Basra – except for her head which he lost when the bones were scattered in a mishap in a Greek forest.
The poetry of exile
The poet Adnan al-Sayegh, born in Al-Kufa in 1955, is of an earlier generation than Blasim. His criticisms of oppression and injustice angered the Baathist regime, and in 1993 he went into exile in Jordan and Lebanon. His long 1996 poem “Uruk’s Anthem” led to a sentence of death being declared on him in Iraq and he took refuge in Sweden, moving in 2004 to London where he currently lives.
The overthrow of Saddam Hussein did not end al-Sayegh’s problems in Iraq. When in spring 2006 he read his poems at the third Al-Marbed Poetry in Festival in Basra, armed militias threatened him with death and with having his tongue cut out. “The Deleted Part” includes four poems he read at the festival.
Al-Sayegh is regarded as one of the most original voices of the generation of Iraqi poets that came to maturity in the 1980s. Ten collections of his poems have been published and he has won several awards, including the Hellman-Hammet International Poetry Award (New York 1996), the Rotterdam International Poetry Award (1997) and the Swedish Writers Association Award (2005). His work has been translated into many languages and he is frequently invited abroad to take part in cultural events and to read his poetry.
Marga Burgui-Artajo and Stephen Watts have translated his poems with sensitivity, producing English versions that have suppleness, strength and pleasing rhythms. Sayegh’s poems often speak out against the sectarianism and religious divisions which lead to bloodshed.
The poet was a conscript in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and his 1986 poem “The Sky in a Helmet” is reminiscent of the work of some of the British First World War poets with their experiences of trench warfare and massive slaughter.
Al-Sayegh frequently refers to exile, describing it in “Ulysses” as “a prison without walls”. The poem “Iraq” begins: “Iraq disappears with / every step its exiles take”.
In the 1987 poem “Schizophrenia” al-Sayegh recalls the conditions that might drive a writer into exile: “In my homeland / fear gathers me up & pulls me apart : / a man who writes / and another who watches over me - / from behind closed curtains”.
The memories of Iraq remain painfully vivid, as shown by these lines from “Ulysses”:
“Goodbye to a window in the land of devastation / Goodbye to the palms pared of their green by war-planes / Goodbye to the clay oven of my mother / Goodbye to our history rusting on its racks / Goodbye to what may be left in our hands.” The newly-published translations of works by al-Sayegh and Blasim bring powerfully to an English-language readership, the experience of Iraq as seen through Iraqi eyes. They are also testimony to the way in which translations of Iraqi literature are enriching the British cultural sphere. – SG