Hawraa Al-Hassan on Reading Resistance and Collaboration in Iraqi Novels

In Women, Writing and the Iraqi Ba’thist State: Contending Discourses of Resistance and Collaboration, 1968-2003 Hawraa Al-Hassan looks at Iraqi literary history through the lens of novels as a form of either resistance or collaboration:

By Tugrul Mende

Hawraa Al-Hassan’s new scholarly work, out this month from Edinburgh University Press, reads four decades of state-sponsored and religious novels as forms of “resistance” and “collaboration.” In a discussion over email, she talked about the novels that were important for her research. 

Tugrul Mende: What led you to write this book, and how different is it from your dissertation?

Hawraa al-Hassan: My dissertation focused on reading the novels of Saddam Hussein in the context of the Iran/Iraq war novel. It drew on ideas from Media and Communication Studies, such as “mediatized literature,” and focused on the role of the media and journalists in shaping the state-sponsored novel. The book, on the other hand, examines the symbolic status of women and the novel in the Iraqi cultural landscape. I felt that as a “proxy discourse,” views on women could often illuminate state positions issues vis a vis identities it viewed as threatening, such as religious or ethnic groups, without attacking them directly in order not to upset the delicate balance of its nationalist discourse. The book also includes some resistive responses to state discourses on the nation and the place of both women and writing within it. So, in short, I included a new category of analysis in the book (women) in order to shed further light on certain parts of my dissertation.

TM: Could comparable work be done on the literature in other neighboring countries, such as Egypt or Lebanon?

HH: As someone whose background is in Comparative Literature, I believe there are potentially infinite connections that can be made between texts of different national traditions. Some of the prison writing in Egypt (for example, Nawal Al-Saadawi’s Memoirs), has been placed alongside Haifa Zangana’s prison memoirs, which I discuss in the book. However, because I use a cultural studies approach, which focuses on the embeddedness of texts that often have no transcendental quality, I would say that the Iraqi experience with the state-sponsored novel is quite singular in the Arab world. Therefore, it would be particularly difficult to compare it to say, a country like Lebanon, which does not have the same kind of history with authoritarianism.

TM: Can you elaborate on what you mean by resistance and collaboration? In what way do these terms represent the narratives in the novels you discuss? 

Winner of a Saddam-era
literature prize.

HH: I take resistance to mean the production of a counter-narrative that challenges state discourse and attempts to forge new bonds and collectivities beyond state imperatives through that discourse. The book attempts to expand the range of discourses that can be seen as resistive, and to perhaps challenge the idea that resistance is always liberal or progressive. The example I use are didactic novels by Shia women which argued for traditional Islamic values in the face of what they saw as the onslaught of westernization espoused by the Ba‘th. These texts voiced an identity which was marginalized discursively and was often threatened with violence, and one author of religious novels was imprisoned and executed by the Ba‘th. It is important to note that the state marketed the novels it sponsored (including the novels of Saddam) as belonging to Arab “resistance literature”; a corpus of works with a long tradition of anti-imperialist struggle in the Arab world. Ultimately, resistance is often claimed by texts and their authors as a sort of symbolic moral badge but has also been utilized as a political tool for legitimation. 

TM: What kind of source material, archive work, and methods did you use, particularly when looking through novels from the Saddam Hussein era?

HH: I began my research with the premise that it is more important that books exist than that they are read. I therefore questioned the very existence of propaganda novels in western academic libraries. How did they get there and who had distributed them? I found that it was western support for Saddam during his war with Iran which had facilitated the dissemination of these novels in libraries in Europe and the United States. At times, I even found dedications by individual authors of their works to specific libraries dated during the war.

In a similar vein, the existence of four novels penned by Saddam Hussein under a pseudonym seems to me more significant than questioning whether he actually wrote them. (He did!) A lot of the work I do involves very close reading of the texts. My methodology uses the concept of paratexts to complement the idea that texts that are overlooked often provide a treasure trove of sociohistorical information. In the same way, I examine seemingly peripheral parts of texts like the prefaces, dedications, and covers in order to arrive at a better understanding of the way cultural products circulate.   

TM: What challenges did you face in translating the novel excerpts included in your research? Were there any existing translations?

HH: I translated excerpts from all the Arabic novels myself, including the novels by Saddam that have been translated into English. In my dissertation, I discuss the politicization and inaccuracy of the existing English translation of Saddam’s first novel, which is why I decided not to use it. There are no translations of the Iran/Iraq war propaganda novels or the religious novels I examine in the book. The former was the most challenging to translate, due to the excessive use of military jargon and reportage style. The fact that all the texts I translated were written in Modern Standard Arabic, rather than in the Iraqi dialect, definitely made them easier for me to translate. The use of Modern Standard Arabic endowed didactic religious and political texts with authority, but also bled them of local colour. The best thing about translating propaganda texts is that you do not feel compelled to beautify or make them more pleasing aesthetically!

TM: The book’s timeframe ends in 2003. But are there ways in which your work could be applicable to the current era, 2004-present?

HH: In the conclusion, I look at the directions in which the Iraqi novel has taken since the fall of Saddam. I look at three distinct currents. Firstly, dystopian literature — which is an expected outcome of the authoritarian experience. Most of the propaganda novels I read were very long and dense, with simple and straightforward plots. Suddenly, after the invasion of Iraq, you see the emergence of short novels that have no linear plot — very fragmented and disoriented — as a kind of a shock response to both state propaganda and the chaos and bloodshed that followed the toppling of the old regime.

The second current is novels that are pro-Ba‘th. I look at a novel written by one writer who towed the state line during the Iran/Iraq war. This writer purportedly broke with the regime and immigrated to the US where he produced a text that he described as a “resistance literature” against the American invasion of his country, but which also expresses a clear nostalgia for the old regime.

You have a third current, which is the explosion in cultural production of previously marginalized identities. The book looks at the origins of “marginalizaton processes” by the Ba‘thist state, which is a crucial step towards understanding the ways in which groups which now hold power in Iraq express themselves and the discourses of victimization and sacrifice which have emerged since the fall of Saddam. I think that these are the three main currents that have emerged in Iraqi cultural production in light of the themes discussed in the book.

Tugrul Mende holds an M.A. in Arabic Studies from the University of Leipzig. He is based in Berlin as an project coordinator and independent researcher.