Why ‘Iraq Literary Review’?

This is what editor Sadek R. Mohamed asks in his introduction to the new magazine.

The first issue of the ILR—just published this Winter 2011—does not feature the big names of Iraqi lit with which English-reading audiences might be familiar. There’s no Fadhil al-Azzawi, Sinan Antoon, Inaam Kachachi, Mohammad Khodayyir, Samir Naqqash, Buthaina al-Nasiri, Mahdi Issa al-Saqr, Samuel Shimon, Saadi Youssef, Sargon Boulos, Betool Khedairi, or Hassan Blasim.

Iraqi fiction and poetry aren’t unknown in English: There are a number works in translation via AUC Press, BQFP, and other houses. Banipal devoted an issue (37) to Iraqi authors; Shakir Mustafa recently edited a collection of Iraqi short stories. But there are of course many more Iraqi writers available only in Arabic.

Sadek R. Mohamed and his co-editor, Soheil Najm, attempt to mine some of this literary talent so as to bring it to English-language audiences.

Mohamed writes in his introduction to Issue 1:

Iraq Literary Review is the first Iraqi Literary journal in English with an Iraqi, Arab and World outlook. Its main aim is to be fully engaged in charting out the contemporary Iraqi literary scene and translating it into English. It will also be engaged in observing what goes on in the Arab and World literary circles and bringing it to Iraqi English readers and the whole Anglophone at large.

He also states:

Iraqi culture must seek its true place in the civilized world free from past complexities and present difficulties.

This somewhat troubling aim explains, I suppose, why Iraqi Literary Review: 1 is so much less bloody than Banipal 37: Iraqi Authors.

The new magazine—published under the auspices of the University of Iowa International Writing Program—is split into five sections: criticism, poetry, fiction, Arab portfolio, world portfolio.

Like Banipal, the ILR is entirely in English, without the original Arabic to inform or anchor. This is unfortunate, as much of the translation work feels awkwardly done, and often reads like a rough draft. It would be good to compare pieces against an Arabic original.

The highlight of the brief poetry section was Ra’ad Zamil’s “A Practice in Distraction,” translated by editor Soheil Najm. In part:

No train waits for me
Nor stations
I am just a passer by
Holding my age
As if it were a bag of trash
I stand on a crossroads
But they are all
Lead to that distraction.

All over the world
The seed can
Be a tree
And the tree can be a forest,
Only in this land
The forest retreats to be a tree
The tree becomes a seed
The seed after that
Becomes a disgrace
on a forehead
called the wasteland.

The fiction section was quite long, and had several highlights, but was marred by awkward prose. Najah al-Jubaily’s extremely brief “The Rosary” was particularly effective, a poetic recitation of the relationship between father and missing son through the beads on a rosary. However, moments are spoiled by the English: “After slipping on the last bead the old man’s fingers become stiff and loosen cool.”

Nadhum Mizhir’s “The Soul’s Garden” also has very interesting imagery of metal helmets, equated to pregnant bellies and steel mushrooms, but the prose makes the way difficult. The same goes for Karim Abid‘s “Things That Are No More,” which follows a surge of memories at a homecoming.

For instance:

…I did not stumble this time but I terrifyingly turned around to our hullabaloo as we entered the alley together, laughing and stampeding, and so our school copybooks fell down and we run after each other to be dispersed, tired, to our homes…

The Arab Portfolio features work by Yemeni poet Abdul-Aziz al-Maqalih, one of Yemen’s leading literary lights. Banipal has more on al-Maqalih, who was featured in issue 35.

It’s unclear when readers might expect an Issue 2 of the Baghdad-based magazine, or how authors or translators could send in submissions.

Read for yourself:

Download a PDF of the magazine.

More on editor Soheil Najm:

Najm was born in Baghdad in 1956, and is the author of Deflowering the Phrase and I Am Your Carpenter, Oh Light. He  has also translated a number of works. He is currently editor of Gilgamesh, Iraq’s cultural magazine in English. He lives in Baghdad.

Poetry by Najm.