The American Soldier in Arab Novels

This essay first appeared in the Full Stop Quarterly, Issue #8. To help them continue to pay our writers, please consider subscribing. The essay opens:

Hassan Blasim’s new book, Dictionary Man, featuring art by Muhaned Durubi.

It’s hardly a surprise to find the US soldier as a ubiquitous centering force in America’s “Iraq War” literature, whether critically acclaimed or popular, self-reflective or triumphalist. Book-length works came in a flood after the March 20, 2003 invasion, feeding and encouraging a desire to know about what was going on “over there” with “our soldiers.” These books were centered inside a narrative where US soldiers may be unsupported in the particular, but are revered in the abstract. Creative writing was a near-seamless part of the war effort, both during and after the conflict. During, journalists were embedded with US forces, and scholar and novelist Elliott Colla has written about a similarly “embedded literature.”

It was 2004 when the National Endowment for the Arts created “Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience.” They offered guidance for budding veteran-authors that included a writing guide, writing workshops, and many publishing opportunities. Not only have there been thousands of texts written largely as therapy for returning soldiers, but also many big books that were widely read, shared, and discussed. These include books that foreground the US soldier as hero, such as Chris Kyle and Scott McEwan’s bestselling American Sniper, which spawned imitators and parallel stories in addition to a big-budget film. They also include critical-darling literary texts like Kevin Powers’s Yellow Birds and Phil Klay’s Redeployment.

Elliott Colla’s Baghdad Central is one of only a handful of novels where a US perspective is de-centered. As for the rest, they might be critical of choices made by individual US soldiers, or by US leadership, yet American soldiers are both the central and supporting characters. Eric Fair’s memoir Consequences, for instance, foregrounds himself as an army interrogator and torturer. Whether one reads this as confession or self-justification, his perspective is our lens on the world.

In 2014, both George Packer, in a piece for The New Yorker, and Michiko Kakutani, for The New York Times, celebrated this proliferation of “Iraq War” literature, not only from veterans, but also from journalists and historians. What was notably absent from their celebration was the memoir and storycraft of Iraqi writers. Kakutani did mention Hassan Blasim’s short stories, translated by Jonathan Wright, as well as the existence of Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad. Yet it would be four more years—this January—until Saadawi’s novel was available in Wright’s English translation.

It is only now, fifteen years after the 2003 invasion and occupation, that a tiny body of post-2003 Iraqi literature, translated from Arabic, is available in English. Hassan Blasim’s short-story collections were among the first to draw readers’ attention, with his first collection published in the UK in 2009. When Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition finally arrived in the US, in a 2014 Penguin Random edition, Blasim was invited to the country for several book events. Yet, unfortunately and uncomfortably, the brilliant and boundary-crushing Iraqi author was put into public conversation with US Marine veteran Phil Klay. Indeed, Blasim’s work was couched as the “Iraqi version” of Klay’s, although Blasim was not an Iraqi soldier, but a citizen living in Finland at the time he wrote the stories collected in The Corpse Exhibition.

Blasim further said, in an interview for Barnes & Noble, that he didn’t write about Americans, and indeed “deliberately ignored stories of American soldiers, the kind that appear in Iraqi and American literature and art, either as heroes, victims, or criminals.”

Blasim went on:

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