Iraqi Novelist Mahmoud Saeed: Finding the Needle in the Haystack

Mahmoud Saeed’s short story “Lizards’ Colony,” trans. William Hutchins, was recently nominated for the Pushcart by World Literature Today. Saeed answered a few questions about the story, and about his career as an Iraqi author:

ArabLit: Why write? Why write fiction?

Mahmoud Saeed: Why write novels? That is an important question, and equally important is: Why write fiction? I would like to answer these questions from my own experiences. When I was a teenager, I decided I wanted to write a fictional novel. I thought for a long time on the subject and came to the conclusion that I would write an esoteric crime novel. However, when I began to write, I found that I could not express my ideas. After six years, many failed attempts and reading hundreds of books, I suddenly succeeded! I finished my story, entered it into an Iraqi newspaper contest, and it took first place! I was influenced by the Russian novelists I had read, who were interested in depicting human misery. Their writings had a profound impact on me, which was reflected in a change to my writing style.

I do not know when I first began to write, but I couldn’t stop, and as life’s problems continued, writing novels became an outlet for my frustration. It helped me to overcome the pitfalls and obstacles of life, and prevented me from become a flunky — and that is what Iraqi governments wanted the people be, till now, the Iraqis are not free to live a normal life. Either they live like subservient monkeys, obeying the ruling regime, giving up their minds, chanting in slogans or, if they refuse to obey, then they are crippled under the strength of their rulers, suffering pain, punishment, and persecution.

Literature in Iraq is far from being considered humanitarian in its discourse. It merely acts as a mouthpiece for the regime. Since 1959, only a handful of novels have been written with human content. As for me, writing novels was my savior, preserving my psyche from the downfall so many others faced before me.

AL: Can you talk about “Lizards’ Colony”? What was the spark for this story? What is the relationship between “reality” in your writing and the world(s) of the imagination? To what extent do you research your stories?

MS: I wrote “Lizards’ Colony” from my own experiences; in 1963 I was jailed for one year and one day. I witnessed many forms of torture. I began writing my third novel, Rhythm and Obsession, in 1968, about a young man who was tortured and then executed. The novel was prohibited from being published in Iraq.

In 1980, after I was released from prison, I wrote the first novel in Iraq, or even the Arab world, that detailed the crimes that occurred in the prisons. I described the torture, beatings and starvation. I Am The One Who Saw, was the Arabic title, but in English it was changed to, Saddam City. I believed the novel would be failure after two chapters were omitted because of strict censorship in Syria.

Fortunately, it proved to be a success, despite being incomplete. And, in 2009, Library Thing—a book-sharing website–rated it as one of the top 70 novels in the world and dozens of critics have written articles about this novel.

Next, I wrote a novel detailing the torture at Abu Ghraib, which hasn’t been published yet. I felt compelled to share what I saw in prison. As a witness to these atrocities, I wanted to portray them factually. It is unfortunate that my writing is the result of such circumstances—being imprisoned against my will. I was arrested more than six times, and I wrote about two experiences.

I mentioned torture in Syria in third novel because I visited there twice in 2009 and 2010. I intended to write about displaced Iraqis, but when I was there, the Syrian authorities prevented me from visiting the refugee camps; fortunately I heard countless stories of torture in Syrian prisons. This was the inspiration for my novel (The Truck). Six month after I wrote the novel, the website Wikileaks exposed what had happened in Syria, detailing events similar to what I had written.

As for “Lizards’ Colony,” I pulled from what I had seen in 1963 and 1980, in prison, and some of articles were published about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. So, you see, writing about torture was compulsory. It’s possible that I‘m the first author in the Arab world to write about the torture in any significant quantity and quality.

AL: Do you have any particular concerns when you write about torture? J.M. Coetzee has said that writing about torture presents the writer with difficult choices; that one is caught between the harm of ignoring it and the harm of reproducing it, thus further terrorizing people. What are your thoughts about how / why / when a fiction writer should treat torture?

MS: Coetzee is right in saying that there is harm in ignoring torture, and a writer who feels he can reveal the truth will be compelled to so. If he does not, his conscience will die. He will be but a shell of flesh void of conscience. However, I disagree that writing about torture reproduces terror. People do not fear the description of torture in books. This generation watches movies that are very silly, where people are killed and tortured, beasts devour humans, criminals dice up bodies, there are vampires and cannibals, but does this cause us to complain?

In my opinion, writing about torture is the best way to eliminate such barbaric practices: the harsh treatment of prisoners and even the mistreatment of ordinary people. Reproducing these crimes in art will highlight the ugliness, but most writers flee from this kind of creativity, because describing the suffering of others is very difficult. Not every writer can expose it. Writing about what lurks in the shadows is easier than writing about the real horrors of this life.

AL: Do you find it curious that more Americans don’t write fiction about their country’s soldiers in Iraq or about the impact of the conflict on the US conscience over the last 20 years?

MS: Hemingway wrote three important works about war: A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Men at War. John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden, On the Effects of the War and The Absence of the Moon. Authors of the world often write on the subject of war but often the writing cannot match the significance or reality of the events. The reluctance of American authors to write about the war has logically contributed to the U.S. soldier’s aggression against many people in the world, killing innocent civilians and committing acts of torture. So Americans avoid speaking out about what to do in these instances, like in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Vietnam. The American author is not alone in avoiding the subject of war. Arabic literature, and the Iraqis in particular, are moving away from writing about the topic of war. It is shameful that I have more fingers on one hand than I can count the number of books written on the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And most of these novels do not even scratch the surface of what really happened to the innocent civilians and victims of war. I haven’t read a single novel that addresses the war and its victims. I read 17 novels and handful of stories on my most recent adventure in Iraq (August 2012) and not one mentioned the word war. I do not know how to analyse such things.

AL: Do you think the Iraqi writer has a particular role / importance in world writing? In Arabic writing?

MS: No, I don’t believe so. The literature in Iraq merely reflects the mentality of the regime which controls it at any point in time. This is true for the work written under Saddam and continues even now. I do not think so, no literature in the world has its own important role, famous writers of a certain nationality do not mean at all the literature of that nation has important global role, for example: In last twenty years the U.S. has won the Nobel Prize once in 1993 (by Toni Morrison); Poland, Italy, Japan, Turkey and Peru all won once, as well, while France, Germany, South Africa and China won the award twice. England surpassed them all by winning the award three times. So, we can say that English literature is able to play a dominant role in the global market, because the English language is wide spread, but English literature like any literature in the world has no outstanding role to play, because of the language or because of nation. The humanistic spirit in the literature gives it the prominence and weight.

AL: How do you see the intersection between “politics” (or ethics) and fiction? Are there things an author needs to live up to be a great author? Or is aesthetic pleasure an end in itself?

MS: These two questions are separate, in the first question there is no intersection between politics and the novel, or between morality and the novel. These things will all be reflected within each other. These things are a part of the novel’s theme. Every society has its own particularities, and a successful novel is one that can portray the events in a realistic way that appeals to the imagination, in order to convince the reader of the possibility that it might have occurred. Writers who have been persecuted in Iraq are very few. I am probably the only one who was prevented from publishing in Iraq. Writing from this approach is the most difficult type of writing. It is easy to write a science fiction, or historical fiction, etc., but it’s very hard to write a meaningful realistic fiction novel. For these classical geniuses writers became famous: Tolstoy Faulkner, Dickens, Zola, Marquez, Hemingway Steinbeck, etc., all of those was wrote realistic purposeful novels.

As for the second part of the question, there is no formula that makes an author great. Some authors write a single novel and it puts them in the spotlight, like Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind, some authors wrote many works but nobody pointed to them. This applies to all writers, including the greats and unknowns of the East and the West. No author in the whole of history wrote everything great, many of their works are not known and uncelebrated. This is truth applies to all alike: Sholokhov, Stefan Zievige, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, Gogol, Fitzgerald, Anatole France, Kafka, Sagan, Stendhal and Hugo etc.

In my opinion there are many standards to recognizing a great novel. First, author must be aware of the human situation. Take for example, the end of Sunset Oasis. Bahaa Taher’s novel is nihilism; he destroys all the ancient Egyptian ruins to keep away foreign interest in them. There is no awareness, no knowledge and no development at all. This is illiteracy. The same thing goes for such strict adherence to a false national identity, like in The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa al-Aswani. He depicts a Nubian man as a homosexual, as if there are no homosexuals in Egypt. Then he depicts Syrian factory-owner as cruel and inhuman by demanding his sex from his workers. Aswani wanted to say that the problems in Egypt are borne from influence abroad and not inherent evil in his own people. This is not being true to the human consciousness and behavior. This began after the time of Naguib Mahfouz.

AL: Three of your books have been lost forever, and several more mutilated by censors in various ways. Did this affect the development of your writing? How is your relationship with your internal self-censor?

MS: Up until last August, when I went back to visit Iraq, I thought I had only lost three books in my lifetime; however, a friend, Kadhem Allaieth, a poet from Basrah, reminded me of a fourth novel. He had read during the seventies, and he asked me about it. You know? I cannot recall where it is now, perhaps it’s tucked between my books which number in the thousands or preserved by my family, with another friend of mine, in Baghdad. I’ve become accustomed to forgetting the things I’ve lost…my defeats, shortcomings, and losses. If I were always reminded of these things I would die. If I want to survive I have to forget. Sorrow and regret destroys the human psyche and brain’s ability to think. One thing I get from writing is joy; it gives me the ability to see where I have been, walk in my footsteps one more time and it stops me from having malicious thoughts or behaving callously.

AL: You have moved around to a lot of different Arab publishers. Are you still looking for the right one?

MS: Yes. Most of the publishers don’t agree with the content of my books. Perhaps because they are subject to the censorship of their governments, as in Iraq, they still refuse anything I send them. They rejected my novel Valley Deer, in 2008 and they rejected the one before that in 2006, The Stab. The Directorate of Cultural Affairs has refused to publish my novels and this applies to most Arab publishing houses, especially in Syria, fearing censorship, they don’t want their books to be prohibited in Iraq.

AL: You’re also a calligrapher; does your visual art interact with your narrative arts? Do you see a relationship between the two?

MS: All forms of art are interconnected; there is glue that adheres them to each other. If you go to any coffee shop in the West you’ll find many pictures of several types hanging on the walls and it is the same in Arab countries, you will see calligraphy paintings.

The paintings attract the eye for its beauty and the mind for its deep meaning. Calligraphy has given me an advantage in writing because I describe some of the signs in my novels–they are a kind of part of the nature of the Arab city.

AL: How do you prefer to work with translators? How does it feel to read your text in English? Does it seem like someone else’s writing? Or…?

MS: Translation is the biggest obstacle I’ve encountered. Very few translators can deliver the meaning and the voice of the writer. I’m not an expert in English, and I cannot distinguish between translators but when I read something translated into Arabic I can recognize a good translation. There are a few wonderful translators who translate into the Arabic language; they were able to convey meaning: Sami Droubi an example, he translated from Russian literature in the forties and fifties, and Kadri Qalaji, Mounir Baalbaki, and Najib Almanee, and a few other names not more than 10. Others do not. I think this applies to some of my translated novels; there are a few good ones. The majority are hit or miss, some of the people who translated my work are like thieves, after they get their money they don’t care about the translating, they do it however.

AL: How do you maintain your relationship with Iraqi writers and readers? Is this important to you?

MS: I’ve received very few books from Arab and Iraqis authors. I communicate with only five Iraqi writers. I don’t have a relationship with any others. And, honestly, the only book of mine that has been read by Iraqi authors is Rue Ben Barka. In late August, I met by chance, on Mutanabbi Street, a group of a dozen Iraqis authors for the first time, and they gave me some novels and collection of stories, but I don’t know ordinary readers in Iraq and the Arab world. There is a say In the fifties till the seventies: Egyptians write, Lebanese publish and the Iraqis read. In Egypt there are a lot of intellectuals and they wrote a lot, but their books were not published in Egypt. They were published in Lebanon because of the freedom from censorship. The regime in Iraq has always prevented Iraqi authors from publishing inside the country, but it allowed our books come from other country. Now the people who read in Iraq are very limited, not more than 200- 1000, I don’t know about other Arab countries. The former head of the Hilal publishing house, in Cairo- Egypt told me that they publish 6000 copies of their monthly novel, and 6000 copies of their monthly magazine but I didn’t know how many they actually sell?

AL: What sorts of reading nourishes your writing? I have seen your mentions of great world writers, but what about contemporary fiction? Have you found new works by emerging Iraqi authors that interest you, either writer in exile or in Iraq? Other Arab authors?

MS: I cannot stop reading, because reading adds to my knowledge and because it is a habit I’ve had since I was child. I read everything; I read Iraqi, and Arab novels. I always try to get books translated from other languages into Arabic and every year I go to a different Arab country to purchase books. I purchase 100-150 books. Two years ago, an Iraqi guy came from Detroit visited me at my home in Chicago and stole 40 books and short stories collections from me before I had a chance to read them! I tried to get them back in vain. This was really painful for me, and I didn’t bother going to the police or the courts but I refrained for fear of offending the reputation of my country. The thief and victim are both Iraqi and we are both in a country that’s not our own.

Getting books is easy, but the difficult thing which is striking deeply is that most Iraqi and Arab authors fall into the trap of sectarianism, racism. I rarely find a novel with human awareness these days.

AL: Are there works that you think should definitely be translated from Arabic into English (and haven’t yet been)?

MS: Certainly, there is a lot of Arabic literature that should be translated into English, but I cannot mention it now, that is the job of academics. Arabic literature, as I mentioned previously, is dependent on the government’s publishing and has fallen to sectarianism, especially in Iraq, but I cannot say what work is good because I haven’t read it all. Before the seventies there was a publishing center in Beirut (Lebanon) or Cairo (Egypt) for Arab world. So when a book was published it was available to Arabic reader in every country, the same time and after one month we knew if it was good or not. For example, Tayeb Salih, after one month of his novel, The Season of Migration to the North, he became very well known around the Arab countries. Now, Iraqi readers mostly only know the writers from Iraq, they don’t know about young Arab writers very much, but when electronic publishing came into the picture, the confusion increased.

Now, finding good literature is like finding a needle in a haystack.