Nadje Al-Ali and Deborah Al-Najjar (eds.), We are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War (Syracuse University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Nadje Al-Ali and Deborah Al-Najjar (NAA & DAN): We wanted to create a book about Iraqis by Iraqi identified artists, scholars, and writers. We wanted to challenge the idea that Iraqi men, women, and children are merely passive victims of violence, vulnerable recipients of repressive regimes, or bystanders of their country’s destruction. Another impetus for our book was our frustration with the way the concept of resistance had been (mis)used in the media and within the antiwar movement. Media representations have tended to conflate Ba‘thi fighters, Islamist militia, foreign jihadis, and criminal gangs under the broad label “insurgents.” There was very little analysis about the actual political and armed resistance to the occupation, as opposed to attacks that kill innocent Iraqi civilians. But even more lacking from our perspective had been the exploration of everyday forms of resistance that do not involve arms and violence.
We asked ourselves: what happens when a community—be it a political group, an ethnic or religious community, or a whole nation—deals with devastating events? How are cultural formations in communities, including symbols, local narratives, cultural productions, artworks, and rituals mobilized to inscribe, resist, and heal trauma? What is the connection between the collective and the individual experiences? How are individuals resisting both the occupation at the time and the collective trance created through specific circumstances and social pressure to join sectarian, political, and economically motivated violence? And how does violence and destruction relate to individual agency?
These were the questions we had in mind when we approached the contributors to our edited volume, who have all engaged with various aspects of trauma, memory, and coping, especially in the form of literary and visual narration. Trauma does not only destroy but also creates. And the creativity of trauma lies very much at the core of our book.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
NAA & DAN: The book’s contributors address the sorrow over war in their home country and the displacement and unrest that has followed US occupation. We also wanted to draw attention to internal conflicts and governmental injustices within the Iraqi social structures.
The details and complexities found in the various contributions to this book contrast with the generalizations and replete essentialisms we regularly get within the Western media: Iraqis are victims of the occupation—or they are violent perpetrators. Collective violence particularly presents the temptation to homogenize a collectivity. Many who write about Iraq and the Middle East more widely collapse the trauma and destruction of specific conflicts, wars, and occupations into so-called cultures of violence. Individual agency, but also wider and specific political, social, and economic structures, inequalities, injustices, and criminal acts get all too easily subsumed by sweeping and often racist notions of a culture of violence.
Iraqis tend to be represented in terms of ethnic and religious groups: Shi‘i, Sunni, Kurd, and Christian. And in a few more sophisticated reports they also come as Mandeans, Yazidis, Turkmen, and Jews. We stress the simple and seemingly obvious fact: Iraqis exist in the plural as any other population. However, they are differentiated not merely by ethnic and religious background, as is frequently mentioned today, but they are also diverse in terms of social class, gender, and place of residence—urban versus rural, political orientation, specific experiences of the past and current regimes, and attitudes toward religion, the occupation, political parties, militia etc. They are also differentiated in terms of their life experiences, opinions, dreams, aspirations, talents, and aesthetic tastes.
Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, ethnic and religious backgrounds have played an increasing role in political and social life to the extent that sectarian divisions have started to cut across previously unifying variables, such as class or a specific urban identity. Yet, many Iraqis are still refusing to think in sectarian terms, not only those whose marriages and families are mixed to start out with. When talking to them, it becomes clear that a large segment of educated Iraqis feel alienated from the discourses and practices of sectarianism, which have been institutionalized by the occupation. The alienation from sectarian sentiments and practices is particularly prevalent among many of the millions of mainly educated professional Iraqis who have left since 2003, the vast majority of whom have been living in Jordan, Egypt, and Syria.
More recent waves of refugees add a significant layer to the already substantial Iraqi diaspora, which existed prior to the invasion. And here our book is aiming to make an intervention, based on what we have learned from postcolonial studies, namely that dislocation and displacement do not stop someone from identifying with, feeling for, and hurting about Iraq. Our contributors are questioning the insider/outsider distinction that has become so central both within Iraq and within media depiction.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
NAA & DAN: This book is partly in alignment with our other previous work on Iraq, Iraqi cultural production, and Iraqi women. But it also presented a departure for us since the focus on arts and creativity was more in line with our personal and political interests rather than our academic formation and expertise. In some ways, the book was also a way to expand our previous academic writings in order to explore an area that had the potential of inspiring us, and instilling hope in us, as opposed to research and writing that often makes us angrier and more depressed.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
NAA & DAN: We hope the book gains wide readership globally in order to challenge existing preconceived notions and generalizations about Iraq and Iraqis. But we also hope to contribute to exciting ongoing conversations about cultural and creative forms of resistance and the significance of art in challenging violence, authoritarianism, and the dehumanization of societies in the Middle East.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
NAA & DAN: Deborah is working on essays about dissociation and racial/sexual grief.
Nadje is currently finishing up some writing on the Kurdish women’s movement and will soon start working to on two co-authored books: the first will be a textbook on “Gender and Sexuality in the Middle East,” co-conceived by and written with Nicola Pratt, and a second co-authored book with Kathryn Spellman Poots on “Intersecting Solidarity Movements, Cultural Productions and the Arts,” with reference to the Middle East and its diasporas. The latter will hopefully be part of a new book series that Kathryn and Nadje are planning to start on the centrality of gender and sexuality in understanding wider trends and processes in the Middle East and its diasporas.
J: What are some of the challenges facing Iraqis inside of Iraq? What are communities outside of Iraq doing or saying to address these challenges?
NAA & DAN: Over seventeen years after the invasion of Iraq, Iraqis are currently facing multiple challenges, ranging from sectarian politics, political repression and corruption, the “militiaization” of Iraqi politics and society (using Zahra Ali’s eloquent terminology here to refer to the way numerous militias linked to different political parties and religious sects have taken control of Iraqi politics), but also lawlessness, and an inadequate infrastructure, including limited access to clear water, electricity, healthcare, and patchy education. Following the invasion by ISIS and the battles to get rid of ISIS in places like Mosul and Fallujah, there are almost two million internally displaced people (IDPs), while entire cities and neighborhoods remain totally destroyed.
Prior to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, Iraq experienced some of the most progressive revolutionary protest movements in the last decades, rooted in a long history of resistance to political authoritarianism, repression, and sectarianism that culminated in a new youth-led movement which started in October 2019. Women and gender-based issues have been central to this mobilization, which has been as much concerned with every-day lives and freedoms as it has been opposing political authoritarianism, sectarianism, and corruption. This movement has experienced severe repression, including killings, torture, and arrests at the hands of various militias, but also the Iraqi government. It is too early to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is no doubt that a large-scale outbreak would be devastating to the country given Iraq’s broken healthcare system—coupled with the difficult unsanitary living conditions of IDPs and the preexisting, extreme poverty amongst large numbers of the population.
Diaspora Iraqis are not homogeneous and have been differently positioned towards Iraq and the recent political developments. In some ways, diaspora Iraqis who returned following the invasions need to be held accountable for increasing the sectarian politics and corruption that have characterized Iraqi governments since 2003. But many Iraqis in the diaspora have also been mobilizing in solidarity with the mobilizations for social justice, against sectarianism and authoritarianism, including gender-based mobilization.
Except from the book (from the introduction by Nadje Al-Ali and Deborah Al-Najjar):
Iraqis in the Diaspora have been sad, disappointed, and depressed. We would not describe out/rage or anger as the mainstream response. Many activists, artists, and academics of Iraqi descent or Arab origin, and people of color in general have felt the rage of this economy and see the financial links are tied to the continued marginalization of people who are consistently being maligned and denigrated in the media. This persistent character/cultural assassination has had material consequences. Race and racism are important rubrics to think through the complexity of issues that reoccur through this book. National identity and loyalty are routed via many means. We can talk about Iraqi cultural production as cultural objects but we want our readers to think about the racialization of Arabs and the racialization of a religion, Islam. Even as Arabs in the U.S. are listed as white on the census, they have been treated as others long before September 11.
This framework is something that Nadine Naber and Amaney Jamal lay out in the introduction of the edited anthology Race and Arab Americans (2008): “The aftermath of 9/11 not only illustrated what critical race scholars have been arguing for decades—that ‘visibility’ is a power-laden project that has the effect of silencing critiques of state violence and the structural inequities that produce hatred and racism— but also the objectification that often accompanies ‘inclusion’” (3). Benjamin Barber in Jihad vs. McWorld (1996) frames the competing ideologies in relation to the threats against democracy that come from both conservative Arab cultural expectations and the hegemonic forces of the global reign of consumer culture. We have to challenge, again, what constitutes democracy when the global circulation and force of capitalism and western ideologies dominate the intellectual, cultural, and even emotional frameworks and logics from which we operate as citizen subjects; there are no “free” decision-makers in advanced global markets. Mahmood Mamdani in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim (2005) also challenges us to rethink our assumptions about race and religion. His book asks readers to disrupt the binary framework that continues to circulate as a dominant ideology that structures Islam in Orientalist discourse. The cultural and religious ideologies drive the global discursive circulation of our knowledge about Islam. Both books center their critique on U.S. imperial powers.
In publishing Baghdad Diaries (2003), Nuha Al-Radi became a writer so she could chronicle the destruction of her country. She begins in 1991. From her final entry dated 21 March 2003: “I am sleeping in the sitting room in front of the television these days. Writing does not come easy. This week was supposed to have been an Iraqi cultural week in Beirut, with an art exhibit, a play and a poetry reading. The play was cancelled after the first day of war because war seemed to be imminent and the players wanted to get back to their families in Iraq. The poets too.” (215)
Poets, like visual artists, interrupt daily routines and the business as usual numbness that marks everyday life for people. Dunya Mikhail’s “Larsa” expresses deep emotion but it is not in the clichés of common discourse; she dares to conjure an aesthetic of poetics, of art, of continents—ancient rivers and the sky that we all share. Alise Alousi’s eerie and evocative “What Every Driver Must Know” elicits the senses and awakens us to the hostile, the dangerous, the sensual, and the ineffable. How does one speak to the fragility of life in a war zone? How does one say, without saying, what seems imaginable and unimaginable? All the writers in this book express in implicit and explicit terms internal and external turmoil. Hassan Abdulrazzak’s “Shadow of Their Former Selves” also speaks to familial and historical fragilities. How to recount one’s own history, pay homage and yet speak to the destructive forces that personal and cultural history has taken on self, body, heritage, family, nation? The “genetic archive” he generates haunts and resonates for the reader. In “1001 Nights,” Jananne Al-Ani also addresses the memory of war and violence. Her dream-like meditation leaves the reader feeling like she is standing near ghostly matter. Ferial Ghazoul’s historical reading of Saadi Youssef’s literary legacy is an important contribution in the book as it gives us personal and political insights into his poetry and the world(s) he created in his poetry. He lived everywhere and belonged nowhere. His alliance with communism made him a target by Saddam Hussein and Ba‘thi and, until Khaled Mattawa’s brilliant translations of his work, only readers of Arabic knew his work.
Riverbend, one blogger among many, chronicled the pain and frustration of Iraqis from inside of Iraq very early on. Her prescient words on Tuesday, 19 August 19 2003, chronicle this: A child is shot during an American raid. “But it really is di: cult having to worry about looters, murderers, gangs, militias, and now American troops. I know, I know—someone is saying, “You ungrateful Iraqis! They are doing this for YOU; the raids are for YOU!” But the truth is, the raids only accomplish one thing: they act as a constant reminder that we are under occupation, we are not independent, we are not free, we are not liberated. We are no longer safe in our own homes—everything now belongs to someone else”.
Sinan Antoon toured Iraq in July 2003 and made About Baghdad. Iraqis knew, before the occupying forces showed up, that they would lose their freedom. What freedom under Saddam? It does not justify war, occupation, starvation, and devastation to economies, environment— the loss of so many lives. The repetition of war’s machinations, father and son, would be cause for despair. As Dunya Mikhail’s title poem to her brilliant collection reminds us, “The War Works Hard.” War is a concept; a material reality; a lived experience; an ongoing mess; a destructive force. War does not stop for humans. The notion of humanitarian anything is predicated on a faith in humanity or a foundational assumption about humanism itself. Sinan Antoon’s “diary” is a meditation on Empires and the nature of humans. What does it mean to be a philistine? Who gets to call whom a barbarian? Where is home for the exilic figure and how does one confront your occupier when you are a citizen of that country and your childhood home is being devastated while you watch TV, teach your courses, eat your dinner?
In her contribution to this book, Celia Shallal examines representations of Iraqis in media and as mediated. Her piece thinks through the logics of the hetero-normative assumptions that war creates and those subjects who reject its reign. As Sara Ahmed notes in reference to queer reactions to September 11, “to add queer loss onto the losses already mourned by the nation would remain complicit with the erasure of other losses that remain ungrievable. So what would it mean for ‘other losses’ to become the object of grief?” (2004, 192). How do we grieve something that seems to read like a lost object, a forgotten subject? How do citizens gather energy to oppose war when it seems far removed from the daily realities of paying bills and feeding one’s family?
Nadje Al-Ali’s comparative piece “Sophisticated Ways” addresses some of these questions. Her essay is based on interviews with the artists Hana Malallah and Rashad Salim and evaluates their work in relation to their political effect and affect. If we cared about each other’s losses, really went beyond duty and ritual and produced real emotions, we would be in another space and time with our political realities. We, the editors and the writers, seek to highlight specific articulations of affective labor: despair not only registers as the evacuation of hope but has produced silence, acquiescence, resignation, and then we say we have no recourse. But we do. We have words, we have action. We have visions.
It is not only the written word but also the visual that poignantly expresses these themes and sentiments. Hana Malallah’s sketches and artwork more widely are powerful expressions of both the connection and continuity with Iraq’s long history and a confronting and working through the current context of war and destruction. Mal Allah speaks of her “ruin technique,” which has become characteristic of her recent art work. The physical tearing, burning, and scratching of materials are part of the process of creation and transformation. In contrast, the sketches she has generously shared with us for this book are more rooted in her long-standing interest in Iraqi mythology, spiritualism, and symbols of continuity. Throughout the book, we have tried to mix not only genres but also to include images, as we perceive the connections and inter-linkages between the written and the visual as central to contemporary Iraqi cultural productions. The cover for our book, entitled “Iraqi Landscape” (2005), was first exhibited at the Southern Graphic Conference (Print Exchange) in Washington, D.C.