Focus IRAQ: Canonical Works & New Voices

By Hend Saeed, with Wiam El-Tamami

We asked a number of Iraqi writers, translators, and scholars to put together a list of their highlights from Iraqi literature. 

Canonical Works

If you were to choose 4-7 titles that would represent, to you, some form of Iraqi “canon,” what would they be? And (perhaps more importantly) why?

DUNA GHALI 

Duna Ghali

The Long Way Back by Fouad Al-Takarli , 1980
Even if years have gone by since I last read this book, I remember it clearly and in detail. And as soon as I dip into the first page, I have to read it all the way through again. Al-Takarli has crafted all the characters in his novel with great skill, gathering several generations in one house and depicting their entanglements as a family. In this house, the old intersects with the modern and that which lies ahead. Young Munira is a victim twice over: subjected both to the brutality represented by her nephew from the National Guard of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, as well as to the traditions that force her lover Medhat to face the truth of his convictions. The novel portrays the complexities of a society that lived through a defining stage in the modern history of Iraq in the 1960s, which ended with the Ba’athists taking power. An ambitious novel, large in scope, that reveals a bitter reality and souls in a fierce struggle with life.

Cell Block Five by Fadhil Al-Azzawi, 1972
Beginning with an almost comedic event and ending with a cruel fate for the young protagonist, the novel conveys how destiny can distort a person’s life because of a mistake that authority often repeats and is rarely corrected. Aziz travels from Kirkuk to Baghdad, only intending a short stay, perhaps only one day, to buy sex. An innocent, he is arrested and throw in jail, without being charged for a crime.  A modern novel by all standards, and a classic prison novel, it narrates the history of Iraq in the 1960s. In plumbing the depths of its characters, it echoes what is still happening today in Iraq or any other place shackled by tyranny and oppression.

The Palm Tree and the Neighbours by Ghaib Tuma Farman, 1966
In this novel, Farman leaves the circles of the educated and the intellectual, their places of work, their coffeehouses and bars. He focuses on the streets and alleys to shed light on the poor: their lives, their suffering, and their social interactions in different religions and communities. The characters are simple, sarcastic, and unforgettable, the language honest and varied, each character speaking in their own distinct voice and dialect. Shadows of the British Mandate and the social reality of the time are reflected in the symbol of an old, dead palm tree in which the neighbours see something of themselves.

The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon, 2010

Another tree to highlight! Life and death mingle in the roots of a pomegranate tree, which is nourished by water from the washing of the dead, the victims of the war and violence that prevailed in the period after the 2003 American occupation. The tree intends to continue giving, to continue resisting. Jawad chooses the same occupation to which his father had devoted his life: washing and burying the dead. Jawad drops all his other plans and decides to be close to death, to deal with it directly, to examine it, and bury it. Still, it is a nightmare that casts its weight like a black, deaf sky that descends and descends, almost suffocating Jawad. And no-one — no-one but the pomegranate tree in the garden — knows what is happening inside of him.

Duna Ghali is a novelist, poet and translator born in Basra, Iraq. She has resided in Denmark since 1992 and has published several novels, collections of poetry and prose in Arabic as well as works in Danish.

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SHAKIR MUSTAFA    

Shakir Mustafa

Fadhil Al-Azzawi, poet, fiction writer, and critic who patiently crafted outstanding literary works. Demonstrated interest in roots, histories, and identities culminated in his The Last of the Angels. Well-translated into several languages.

Lutfiya al-Dulaimi, a major Iraqi fiction writer with deep investment in foregrounding the most progressive aspects of Arab women. Hadiqat Hayaat (Hayaat’s Garden) is an excellent example of emergent and bold gender identities. Equally interesting is her experimentation with genres and techniques.

Maysaloon Hadi is one of Iraq’s most prolific fiction writers. Her novels and short stories offer themes and characters that have enriched Arab discourse on gender and identity matters. Her ease with different genres and techniques is apparent in a short story like “Her Realm of the Real,” or a novel like The Brotherhood of Mohammed.

Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri’s political and love poetry widens the spectrum of writing outstanding classical works that have solid grassroots following and appeal. A typical poem like “Bounties of the Tigris” blends nostalgia and politics in astonishing lyric sensibilities and imagery.

Muhammad Khudayyir has been a dominant figure in Iraqi and Arab fiction writing. His short stories are among the finest in any language. A story like “Yusuf’s Tales,” or a novel like Basriyatha demonstrate his mastery in employing magic realism to create memorable characters and settings.

Badr Shakir al-Sayyab’s Ode to Rain. The title poem, among others in this poetry collection, consolidated the emergent trend of free verse. His later poems explore physical and psychological calamities in touching lyricism.

Saadi Youssef is arguably the finest Iraqi writer who assimilated traditional Arab literary heritage and enriched it with first-hand knowledge of world literature. His poem, “America, America” is an excellent example of such assimilation. A poet, fiction writer, and critic, as well as a translator of major works of poetry and fiction, who kept a popular blog on cultural discourse.

Shakir Mustafa is Professor of Arabic at Northeastern University. He grew up in Iraq and has taught at Mosul University in Northern Iraq, Indiana University, and Boston University. His most recent book is Contemporary Iraqi Fiction (Syracuse University Press, 2008; American University in Cairo Press 2009; paperback, 2018). 

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HASSAN ABDULRAZZAK

The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon

Hassan Abdulrazzak

This novel tells the story of Jawad, a Shi’ite Iraqi, whose family business is to wash the bodies of the dead. Jawad had dreams of becoming an artist but as the wars take their toll, the family business pulls him back in. 

In this novel, Sinan captures the essential tragedy of Iraq where one of the few booming businesses were those of corpse washers. I prefer the Arabic title ‘The Pomegranate Tree Alone’ because it alludes to the powerful final image of the book. 

The American Granddaughter by Inaam Kachachi

Zeina returns to Iraq as an interpreter for the US Army. Her grandmother disapproves of her work. When Zeina falls in love with a man fighting on the side of the rebels, her allegiances are tested. 

Inaam managed to successfully capture the dilemma of Iraqis who had worked with the occupation, a subject that I think will be explored further in the future by Iraqi writers, because collaborating with the enemy is fertile grounds for literature. 

The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi

This is the story of two girls experiencing the first Gulf War in 1991. It captures a community on the verge of collapse. We follow the girls from childhood, through adolescence and on to university. How they navigate love and war in an unforgiving city like Baghdad. Also the devil, or someone like him, makes a menacing appearance, which lifts the novel from pure realism. 

Nine Parts of Desire by Heather Raffo

On a trip to the modern art museum in Baghdad in 1993, Heather Raffo (who was born to an Iraqi father and an American mother) saw a painting of a woman holding on to a tree by the Iraqi painter Layla al-Attar, in the midst of a museum full of Saddam Hussein portraits. The painting gave her the inspiration to write and perform a play about the lives of Iraqi women. Based on interviews with women conducted over a ten-year period, Nine Parts took the theatre world by storm. 

Hassan Abdulrazzak is an Iraqi-British playwright and translator, whose first play Baghdad Wedding (performed in the UK, Australia, and India) won the George Devine, Meyer Whitworth, and Pearson theatre awards. www.abdulrazzak.weebly.com

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MORTADA GZAR

Al-Nakhla wa-l-Jeeran (The Palm Tree and the Neighbours) by Ghaib Tu‘ma Farman

Mortada Gzar

An important testimony about its time, and one of first Iraqi narratives to tackle the issue of awareness and the conscience.

Al-Masarraat wa-l-Awjaa‘ (Joys and Pains) by Fouad Al-Takarli

An intelligent narrative that sheds light on social transformations and various communities in times of major upheaval, as well as documenting the crises of intellectuals and their responses.

Al-Mamlaka al-Sawdaa’ (The Black Kingdom) by Muhammad Khudayyir

A milestone in the Iraqi short story genre, influencing everything that came out after and around it.

Jawad al-Suub al-Daakina (Dark Clouds) by Abd al-Jaleel al-Mayya

On the various communities that make up Basra society—those who live by the river, by the port, and in the desert. A mature, pioneering work in the early days of the Iraqi novel.

Khedr Qad wa-l-‘Asr al-Zaytouni (Khedr Qad and the Olive-Green Era) by Nassif Falak

One of the first Iraqi works that came out after the American occupation, describing the situation of Iraqis in that moment and memories of the dictatorship.

Mortada Gzar is a Seattle-based Iraqi novelist and director of animated films. He has published four works in Arabic: al-Sayyid Asghar Akbar, Ta’efaty al-Jameela, al-Almawi, and Maknasat al-Janna. He has also recently published a serial novel in English entitled, I’m in Seattle, where are you now?

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MAYSALOON HADI

Al-Nakhla wa-l-Jeeran (The Palm Tree and the Neighbours) by Ghaib Tu‘ma Farman

Maysaloon Hadi

This 1966 novel divided the history of the Iraqi novel into two eras: what came before, and what came after it. It is unanimously considered by scholars and critics to be the first complete novel in Iraqi literature.

Al-Raj‘ al-Ba‘eed (The Long Way Back) by Fouad al-Takarli

This 1980 work is also considered a milestone in the history of the Iraqi novel, for its intellectual and artistic maturity, the marked symbolism of its characters, and the boldness of its approach.

Al-Mub‘adoon (The Deportees) by Hisham al-Rikabi

A personal choice. Published in 1977, this is a novel characterized by extreme sensitivity and mastery of the aesthetics of the form, despite taking politics and prisons as its subject matter.

‘Ode to Rain’ by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab

This poem established al-Sayyab as a master when it came out in the 1950s. Unique in its rhythms, and rife with evocative images inspired by the poet’s sorrowful childhood and the Iraqi state of being, it garnered a widespread popularity achieved by no other modern Arab poet. 

‘The Swing’ by Muhammad Khudayyir

One of the most beautiful Iraqi short stories, tackling the theme of loss through striking symbolic images. It is currently taught in schools in Iraq, as part of the sixth-grade English curriculum. 

Maysaloon Hadi is an Iraqi novelist and short-story writer whose writing has been concerned with the details of life in Iraqi homes. She has also written children’s literature, as well as journalistic work on local and regional affairs and women’s issues in the Arab World. She lives in Baghdad.

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New Voices

If you were to choose 4-7 titles that would represent, to you, the most interesting books (perhaps experimental, challenging, or influential in some way) written by Iraqi writers in the last 10 years, what would they be? And (perhaps more importantly) why?

ZEENA FAULK

Zeena Faulk

Muhammad Khudayyir’s El Miǧer (The Quarantine, 2021, Shahrayar Books) is a deep dive into a dystopian world with unexpected narrative twists and turns. The setting is Iraq’s Baghdad-centered October Uprising—IntifadatTishreen—with a rapid fast forward to contemporary Iraq under the weight of a pandemic. The book is a collection of gripping stories that portray human suffering at the hands of a series of authoritarian governments. Among the collection, the story “The Quarantine” stands out. It recounts how one man finds himself detained involuntarily with numerous strangers. The detainees are Covid-19 patients and political activists. 

Kareem Ketafa’s iar el ʿankaboot (The Siege of the Spider, 2014, Dar Noon) is a harrowing, epic portrayal of the armed struggle against Saddam Hussein’s persecution of the Kurds in the 1980s. The bond between the Arab and Kurdish fighters is ever stronger as their goals of freedom, equality, and independence intersect and transcend linguistic and cultural barriers. The book is part documentary novel and part screenplay, with cinematic tactics used liberally to depict the fighters’ experiences as through a camera lens. The line between reality and fiction is blurred, but the diverse cultures, faiths, beliefs, and languages are fused together to create a sophisticated read. 

Ali Bader’s El Kafira (The Infidel Woman, 2015, Almutawassit) recounts the story of a devalued woman in Iraq’s patriarchal society. Fatma is the dutiful daughter of an al-Qaida sympathizer. After the latter dies in a suicide operation in Afghanistan, Fatma marries a young man from her village. But her impoverished husband chooses to carry out a suicide operation in Iraq, in the hope that seventy virgins will await him in heaven. After his death, ISIS militiamen marry the heartbroken Fatma to one of the fighters. She then decides to escape and rebel against the patriarchy. She immigrates to Brussels, changes her name to Sophie, and begins a sexually liberated life. 

Inaam Kachachi’s ashari (My Fragments, 2013, Dar Al-Jadid) sheds light on the sectarian violence in post-war Iraq that has driven Iraqis of different faiths and backgrounds into emotional alienation and physical displacement, like fragments from the body of their homeland. An eighty-year-old Christian Iraqi doctor, Wardiyah Iskandar, flees to France after she receives threatening letters and ransom demands. In her adopted land, Wardiyah begins to feel safe and whole, but she has lost the ability to feel happy again. 

Zuher Karim’s two works Makina Kabira Tadhas al-Maarra (A Massive Machine Crushes Passersby, 2017, Almutawassit) and Adab Ar-rilat (Travel Memoirs, 2019, Union of Iraqi Writers in partnership with Naji al Saati Prize) are amusing reads. The first does not take readers to Iraq, as the title may suggest, nor does it tell stories of and about Iraqis only. It consists of ten short stories revolving around the aftermath of war, featuring migration, displacement, isolation, and the everlasting influence of war on people. The characters are Iraqi immigrants in Belgium and the elderly populations of diverse nationalities in Brussels. Karim’s second work is about his own experience of traveling through Africa in the late 1990s in the hope of finding a bridge to Europe, the dreamland for all young Iraqis at the time.   

Diaa Jubaili’s Al-Biṭrıq al-Aswad (The Black Penguin, 2021, Al Hagan) is a brave plunge into the experiences of dark-skinned Iraqis, who are still called el-sood (the blacks) or el-ʿabeed (the slaves) throughout the Arab world. The mixed-race narrator shares his life story in letters addressed to President Barak Obama. The book is a stunning depiction of these Iraqis and their place on the margins of society. But the narrator does not accept this placement and seeks to change it by joining the civil-rights movement Free Iraqis where his quest for a Black identity in Iraq continues.  

Zeena Faulk is an American-Iraqi literary translator and a PhD candidate in Translation Studies at the University of Warwick. Her translated works have appeared in Banipal, ArabLit Quarterly, and Passa Porta, among others. 

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MORTADA GZAR

Iraqi fi Paris (An Iraqi in Paris) by Samuel Shimon

Mortada Gzar

Bold and beautiful writing, both autobiographical and novelistic.

Al-Qanafith fi Yawmin Sakhin (Hedgehogs on a Hot Day) by Falah Rahim

A smooth, compelling narrative of an Iraqi tragedy, and a portrait of an intellectual living away from his homeland.

Baba Sartre (Papa Sartre) by Ali Bader

The city of Baghdad in its modern manifestations. A scathing satire of the arrogance of intellectuals and their psychological predicaments.

Sayyidaat Zuhal (Women of Saturn) by Lutfiya al-Dulaimi

A thought-provoking novel which also evokes noble human values.

afeed al-BBC (Grandson of the BBC) by Maysaloon Hadi

This novel captures the era of the founding of the Iraqi state and beautifully documents its customs and traditions.

Mortada Gzar is a Seattle-based Iraqi novelist and director of animated films. He has published four works in Arabic: al-Sayyid Asghar Akbar, Ta’efaty al-Jameela, al-Almawi, and Maknasat al-Janna. He has also recently published a serial novel in English entitled, I’m in Seattle, where are you now?

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The writer Ahmed Saadawi has offered the contribution below as a response to both questions.

AHMED SAADAWI

Baba Sartre (Papa Sartre) by Ali Bader

Ahmed Saadawi

This 2001 novel was a turning point in the work of Ali Bader. It catapulted him into fame and was also a highlight in the history of the Iraqi novel, inaugurating its transition into postmodernism. The novel employs parody and irony, and reveals its writer’s awareness of Iraqi cultural history and the history of ideas — which makes it special and unforgettable.

‘Aqaa’id Muji‘a (Painful Beliefs) by Ahmed Abdul Hussein

This poetry collection is just one example of Ahmed Abdul Hussein’s work, whom I consider one of the most important poets of the modern era in Iraq. His poetic work reveals a Sufist bent, intermingled with the facts and conflicts of reality. His verses question the absolute, blaming fate for the meager cards humans are dealt in this world.

Khedr Qad wa-l-‘Asr al-Zaytouni (Khedr Qad and the Olive-Green Age) by Nassif Falak

This is Nassif Falak’s most prominent work. It has been actively circulated in the literary and cultural milieu since its publication. The captivating events of the novel are inspired by his own life: the Iraq-Iran war, defecting from the army through the Iranian border, being detained as a prisoner of war, then escaping once again to Kurdistan, followed by his experience in a Public Security prison. The novel, partly autobiographical, also contains an energy of dark comedy that tempers the tragic and painful experiences it depicts, which the characters have in common with many people in Iraqi society.

I’jaam by Sinan Antoon

This short novel is a statement of protest against the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein, revealing the suffering of political prisoners, and the absurdity of charges made against those accused of opposing the regime.

There is a literary ingenuity to the novel that made Sinan Antoon’s name linger in the minds of readers, eagerly awaiting his following novels, which were just as good as his first.

‘Iraqi fi Paris (An Iraqi in Paris) by Samuel Shimon 

One of the most enjoyable novels I’ve read. It took for a long time for Samuel Shimon to write and rewrite it—perhaps that’s the key to its quality.

At the heart of the story lies the character of Kikah, the real ’father’ of the book, and scenes of family life in Habbaniyah, followed by the protagonist’s journey of homelessness through Arab cities, ending up in Paris and London.

The novel contains a highly refined human message, no less important than its brilliant literary craftsmanship. 

Tashari by Inaam Kachachi 

Few Iraqi women writers have a style as luminous as that of Inaam Kachachi, who has a way of captivating readers, regardless of the events she is narrating. In Tashari, Kachachi uses her considerable narrative skill (derived from her background in journalism) to capture a real story that she experienced in her life as a journalist, turning it into a masterful literary text. Tashari is a compelling and enjoyable novel, rich in images and information, intersecting with scenes from daily life as lived and experienced by the author. 

Al-Fateet al-Muba‘thar (Scattered Crumbs) by Muhsin al-Ramli

Mohsen al-Ramli has published many works, but his first novel has left a lasting impression on me. It tells the story of an Iraqi family from a village in Mosul, torn apart by wars and exile. The language is elegant and the narrative compelling, with a touch of bitter sarcasm mixed in.

Al-Ramli is a skillful storyteller. His language is not devoid of lyricism, and he also injects popular expressions into his texts, adding a further dimension of realism to his fictional work.

Ahmed Saadawi is an Iraqi novelist, poet, screenwriter, and documentary filmmaker. He won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for Frankenstein in Baghdad. He lives and works in Baghdad.

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