Iraqi Literature in Translation: A Brief Introduction

More on contemporary Iraqi art here:

An oft-repeated saying holds that “Egypt writes, Lebanon publishes, and Iraq reads.”

Unfortunately, while Egyptians still write and the Lebanese still publish, Iraqi literacy rates have plummeted in the last two decades, on the heels of a blockade and two Anglo-led wars. While once a shining light of regional literacy (around 9o percent), literacy rates are now down to 74 percent of the adult population.

Yesterday, the Iraq War Logs dominated the world news, but this news—about how life is affected by the current invasion—has been coming out all the while. It’s not been easy to get to school (after all, you might be blown away by a British rifleman)—or to a bookstore. And if you can get to a library, it’s unclear what you’ll find.

Yet Iraqi literature continues, somehow, to blossom. There are older writers Fadhil al-Azzawi and Muhammad Khudayyir still at work (although the former in Germany), and much younger ones, too: Thirtysomething Iraqi Hassan Blassim has been called “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive.”

My list is anything but comprehensive. (For instance, several authors who made the Arab Writers Union’s “Top 105” list are not here because they haven’t been translated.) If you’re looking for more seasoned authors, check the list. If you’re looking for more young authors, visit Blasim’s “Iraq Story” website. I also recommend the anthology Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology (edited by Shakir Mustafa) and Banipal 37: Iraqi Authors, for writers who are sometimes a bit off the beaten path.

What follows are just few a Iraqi writers who can be found in translation:

Jabra Ibrahim Jabra  (1919 – 1994) All right, he’s a Palestinian author, but he spent half his life (post-Nakba) in Iraq. A poet, a novelist, a translator, a literary critic, a music lover and more, Jabra was mourned both at the time of his death as well as after the bombing of his Baghdad home. Books by Jabra you should seek out: The First Well: A Bethlehem Boyhood, translated by Issa Boullata; In Search of Walid Masoud, translated by Adnan Haydar & Roger Allen; Princesses’ Street: Baghdad Memories, translated by Issa Boullata.

Nazik al-Malaika (1922 – 2007) – One of the more influential contemporary Iraqi female poets, and one of the first to switch to free verse. A little bit of Al-Malaika here.

Sami Michael (1926 – ) Michael is an Iraqi-born, Israeli author who now writes in Hebrew. He talks about the switch from Arabic to Hebrew here. I believe two of his novels are available in English.

Fouad Al-Takarli (1927 – 2008) – His The Long Way Back was translated by Catherine Cobham and published by AUC Press in 2007. An obituary from The Sunday Times talks more about his life and influence.

Mahdi Issa al-Saqr (1930 – 2006) A pioneer of modern Iraqi literature, al-Saqr published his first collection of short stories, Mujrimoon Tayeboon,  in 1954. His East Winds, West Winds was recently published in English by AUC Press. I have yet only read a couple chapters of it, but I was certainly engaged.

Saadi Youssef (1934 – ) One of the great living Arab poets, and a great lover of the possibilities of the Arabic language. Read more about him, and browse through a number of his poems in translation.

Samir Naqqash (1938-2004) An Iraqi-Jewish novelist; one of the few who continued to write in Arabic throughout his career, and beautifully, at that. Not-much translated, but you can find him in Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology.

Muhammad Khudayyir (1940 – ) Not much has been written in English about Muhammad Khudayyir, who was born in Basra and continues to live there. But he is a thoughtful and truly original writer, and his Basrayatha has some moments where the reader can fly. I review his Basrayatha here, and you can read one of his lovely short stories on Banipal.

Fadhil Al-Azzawi (1940 – ) Part of the “Kirkuk Group” and Iraqi literature’s avant garde “Sixties Generation,” Al-Azzawi is well-known in Iraq and perhaps the most well-known Iraqi writer abroad. You can read his Cell Block 5 and The Last of the Angels in translation. I review The Last of the Angels here.

Sargon Boulus (1944 – ) I recently wrote up a short view on the under-appreciated Sargon Boulus.
If novelist/poet/translator Sinan Antoon keeps at his translations, however, there should be more appreciation for the boundary-breaking Iraqi poet in the future.

Buthaina al-Nasiri (1947 – ) Al-Nasiri, who has lived in Cairo since 1979, has published an accomplished volume of short stories with AUC Press, Final Night.

Inaam Kachachi (1952 – ) Shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the “Arabic Booker”) for her The American Granddaughter, Kachachi is presently Paris correspondent of Asharq Al-Awsat and Kol Al-Usra newspapers. A translation of An American Granddaughter is now out in translation from Bloomsbury-Qatar. Kachachi has also written nonfiction about Iraqi women’s writing.

Nassif Falak (1954 – ) The excerpt from his novel The Worm in Banipal scared the bejeepers out of me.

Samuel Shimon (1956 – ) The kingpin of the Banipal world, Shimon recently released his Iraqi in Paris, which I believe was much more successful in Arabic than in English, but still worth reading in English. Check out a hilarious picture of Shimon in his sweats on his website.

Luay Hamza Abbas (1965 – ) Yasmeen Hanoosh recently won a translation grant to work on Luay Hamza Abbas’s Closing His Eyes. If you can’t wait until she’s finished (the grant was recent), Maia Tabet translated two of Abbas’s stories in Banipal 37, and they were quite compelling.

Dunya Mikhail (1965 – ) Mikhail has won a number of literary accolades in her adopted home, the U.S.; her poetry collection The War Works Hard was named a notable book by the NY Public Library System; she currently lives in Michigan. Here, on the topic of censorship in the U.S. and Iraq.

Betool Khedairi (1965 – ) I am a particular fan of Khedairi‘s second novel, Absent, about which I wrote a long essay for The New Orleans Review. Where did I put that review? Anyhow, find out more about her at her website.

Sinan Antoon (1967 – ) Antoon is an Iraqi who now teaches at NYU, and also translates, writes, and disturbs the status quo. His first novel, I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody, is available in English, and he says he’s working on a translation of his second novel The Pomegranate Alone. You can read an excerpt of it, and my review of the excerpt.

And now to the Beirut39ers:

Basim al-Ansar (1970 – ) Al Ansar spoke with Beirut39 about his beginnings as a writer.

Ahmed Saadawi (1973 – ) Saadawi on writing: inspired (at first) by Mahdi Issa Saqer and Muhammad Khudayyir.

And to one overlooked for the Beirut39 accolade:

Hassan Blasim (1973 – ) As you already heard, perhaps the best living author…etc…etc… I review his collection Madman of Freedom Square here.

Feel free to tell me who I’m missing…


  1. This exhaustive list is fantastic but it underscores again the politics of citationality and Eurocentric translational hegemony. By that I mean, English becomes the lingua franca that determines the reach of Iraqi literary greatness at the moment.

    My research with diasporic Iraqi writers & poets in Australia confirms to me that the cultural scene and fraternity of authors is certainly missed by researchers – purely because the lack of translations available. The cultural cache attached to a translating a critical Iraqi author for an Australian publishing house is certainly diminutive compared to a sensnationlised Betty Mahmoodesque narrative of survival and gratefulness for being a migrant.

    Thanks for your engagement on the blog. It has been extremely useful for my work and literary interests.



    1. Farid,

      You make all good points (of course translation doesn’t have as its object ferreting out the best authors, it has all sorts of objects and projects). I suppose I was trying to bite myself off a manageable list that I could compile in a manageable amount of time. And translation is one easy limiting factor.

      If you would like to add on the best of diasporic writers in Australia, I’m sure we’d all be happy to see it.

      Perhaps I will add to the list as well, when possible.

  2. Besides being the most important English-Arabic literary translator of the 20th Century (Shakespeare, Faulkner, etc), Jabra also wrote extensively in English (he did his PhD in England). He wrote one of his first novels, Hunters in a Narrow Street in English — and that one is by far his novel most focused on life in Iraq.

    Also, this list is pretty ‘novel-heavy’ — for poetry, check out Saadi Simawe’s lovely anthology, entitled Iraqi Poetry Today.

    1. Yes, I suppose I generally trend towards novel-heavy. Thanks for the comments about Jabra and the anthology pointer–

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