The Best of Iraqi Lit That Is (and Isn’t) in Translation

Ahmed AlKilabi, who earned his first degree in English literature from the University of Baghdad in 1974 and went on to become a Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, commented recently on my (incomplete) list of Iraqi writers. I invited Dr. AlKilabi, who has taught in Iraq, Jordan, and Oman, to give his views on this moment in Iraqi literature. Dr. AlKilabi currently works as as a freelance translator in Canada; he was gracious enough to answer a few questions.

ArabLit: Who do you think are the most interesting Iraqi novelists working today?

Ahmed AlKilabi: It’s by no means an easy task to list the most interesting Iraqi novelists. Therefore, the names given here represent those whose works I’ve read and known. However, it should be noted that the great Iraqi novelists who passed away (e.g., Fouad Al-Takarli, Mahdi Isa Al-Saqer, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and many others) are not included here. Nevertheless, there are many interesting Iraqi novelists who are still writing and publishing both inside and outside Iraq. Among these brilliant novelists are: Fadhil AlAzzawi, Mahmood Sa’eed, Lutfiya al Dulaimi , Ali Bader, Sinan Antoon and Batool AlKhedairi. The list is by no means comprehensive.

AL: What about short story writers?

AAK: Here are some interesting Iraqi short story writers: Muhammad Khudayyir, Shawqi Kareem and Mahmood AlBayati Nazar Abdul Sattar, Luay Hamza Abbas, Hassan Kareem Aati and Warid Bader Al-Salim.

AL: Where do you prefer to read contemporary Iraqi short stories–magazines, online journals, collections? Do you think online journals (and other online writing) are changing the shape of Iraqi short stories?

AAK: All the three modes of disseminating Iraqi short stories (i.e., are magazines, online journals, collections) are useful and effective. However, I prefer the traditional collections of short stories.

Yes, the online journals are changing the shape of Iraqi short stories. This kind of media has its merits and demerits. One of the shortcomings of publishing on the Internet may be the absence of criteria for accepting the literary work, therefore, we can find high quality and low quality works published on the one website. The misuse and abuse of the Internet may be another issue that merits attention. For instance, another issue is the phenomenon of plagiarism (e.g., unscrupulous “writers” may take a whole literary essay on criticism and put their names on it, attributing someone else’s intellectual effort to themselves. However, I can say it will take some time before the Iraqi readership will take literary works published on the internet seriously.

AL: How does the work of Iraqi exile authors differ from authors who live in Iraq?

AAK: The Iraqi exile authors are concerned with reflecting the reality of life in Iraq using innovative techniques. Their novels are well received by the Iraqi and Arabic readership. The Iraqi authors inside Iraq, on the other hand, are more concerned with the technical aspects of writing than with expressing the actual reality of life in Iraq.

AL: What stylistic choices and narrative obsessions do you think particularly mark contemporary Iraqi writing? What influences?

AAK: One can say that contemporary Iraqi writing has certain dominant narrative features such as getting away from condensed poetic language, using instead direct and neutral language, the use of realistic imaging which amounts to the act of recording, paying greater attention to description, relying on tales, the use of episodic technique, the use of irony and parody, and finally the absence of issues that have ideological or authoritarian dimensions.

Moreover, contemporary Iraqi writing is marked by various stylistic choices and narrative techniques which are formed by the external criteria of the realistic situation and the several foreign novelistic movements that influenced the Iraqi novelists and short story writers through translation. Hence, translation from world languages has formed an essential tributary of innovation and change in the narrative techniques of the Iraqi novel and short story. In the same vein of thought, we should not overlook the impact on the Iraqi literary scene of the foreign literatures (e.g., Russian, English, French, American and Latin American novels) and their innovative movements as well as the influence of the modern world novels and the various narrative formulas and significant experiments that they produce.

AL: What works do you think should be in translation (but aren’t)?

AAK: I think there are now more translations of Iraqi literary works than ever before, i.e. comparing the achievements of the first decade of the third millennium in the this field to what was translated into other languages during the twentieth century. However, there are still many brilliant works that need to be translated into world languages. Such works include, but not limited to, the novels of Mohammed AlHamraani, Fouad Al-Takarli, Mahdi Isa Al-Saqer, Fadhil AlAzzawi, Mahmoud Sa’eed and Lutfiya al Dulaimi as well as the short stories of Muhammad Khudayyir.

Editor’s note: Among the novelists al-Kilabi mentions, Betool al-Khedairi’s first two novels (A Sky So Close and Absent) can be found in translation; Fadhil al-Azzawi’s Cell Block Five, The Last of the Angels, and The Traveler and the Innkeeper are all available in English, as are his Selected Poems; Mahmoud Saeed’s Saddam City is widely available; Lutfiya al-Dulaimi has been included in several issues of Banipal, but I don’t know that any of her books have been translated; Ali Bader’s The Tobacco Keeper is just now out from Bloomsbury Qatar and my review is forthcoming in next week’s Egypt Independent; Sinan Antoon’s I’jaam is available in English, although his The Pomegranate Alone has yet to be published in translation. Also: one of Mahdi Isa Al-Saqer’s novels has been published in translation by AUC Press, East Winds, West Winds and Fouad al-Takarli’s The Long Way Back was translated by Catherine Cobham.

As to short stories, a few of Muhammad Khudayyir’s wonderful short stories can be found in Banipal or in Shakir Mustafa’s Contemporary Iraqi Fiction (which, as I told Time Out Beirut, was the inspiration for this blog). And Yasmeen Hanoosh won an NEA grant to translate stories by Luay Hamza Abbas; I haven’t heard how that’s going, but you can read two of the stories on Jadaliyya.