After Iraq's Communist Party gave up its opposition to Baath rule, Haifa Zangana joined a splinter group bent on violent revolution. Robert Eshelman reads her new memoir. Dreaming of Baghdad Haifa Zangana Feminist Press Dh84 The history of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) has vacillated dramatically between periods of great influence and hope and periods of brutal repression. The party was founded in 1934 - a time when the ICP's demands for independence and broad social transformation touched a nerve among Iraqis seething under British occupation and stark inequities between the rural and urban poor and landowning elites. In the late 1940s, the ICP mobilised thousands of workers in protests against the government and landowners - and, more influentially, organised strikes against British-controlled industrial sectors, including railways and oil, helping to escalate Iraqi opposition to British rule.
The 1958 coup that overthrew Iraq's British-backed monarchy was led by Brigadier General Abdul Karim Qassim and his Free Officers. It was the ICP rank and file, however, that gave the revolution its massive base of support. The ICP served as a junior partner (at best) in Qasim's government, but his programme of land reform, hospital and school construction, and nationalisation of several industries was certainly designed to win support from Communists.
In 1963, Qasim was overthrown (and murdered) by his rival 'Abd al Salam 'Arif, who was supported by the Baath and their contacts in the Iraqi army. That spring and summer, a well-co-ordinated campaign saw the arrest or killing of scores of leftists across the country. By 1968, the Baath had - with help from America's Central Intelligence Agency - definitively seized power through yet another coup that crushed virtually all political opposition. By 1973, things had changed so much that some ICP leaders acquiesced to the Baath's dominance and formed a "Progressive National Front", which the Communists viewed as an opportunity to avoid further persecution. In hindsight, of course, it was a suicide pact.
Many within the party had long warned against the dangers of any concession to the Baath. During the 1960s and into the 1970s, an armed underground movement of disillusioned ICP members called the Central Leadership sought to violently overthrow the Baath. This small band of revolutionaries operated out of clandestine bases that stretched from the marshes of southern Iraq, through the intellectual circles of Baghdad, and into the rugged hills of Kurdistan, where they trained and fought alongside Kurdish peshmerga.
In Dreaming of Baghdad, the Iraqi author Haifa Zangana - who has written several novels, works of non-fiction, and columns for the Guardian and Al Ahram - recounts her participation in this fascinating and largely overlooked movement, her imprisonment and torture under Saddam, and her deeply alienating exile in London, where she has lived since 1976. It is a brutal story that not only sheds light on an elided history but also indicates a mastery of the memoir as an art form.
Born in 1950, Zangana came of age during the "Golden Sixties", when - with Baath influence not yet completely consolidated - Iraqi art and politics were imbued with the verve of pan-Arab and anti-colonialist sentiments common in the Middle East and the Third World. She first ventured into politics early in that decade, joining a solidarity campaign in support of Djamila Bouhired, a young female member of the Algerian resistance who was arrested and tortured by the French. "For us teenagers," Zangana recalls in her 2007 book City of Widows, "it was Djamila, not a pop singer or a supermodel, who served as our role model."
Following the June 1967 war, she applied her training as a pharmacist to the Palestinian cause by managing the Palestinian Red Crescent's nascent pharmaceutical unit outside of Damascus. Despite financial constraints, Zangana's facility provided essential medications to refugees living in Syria and Lebanon. "Our sense of achievement was great, as was our daily preoccupation with the future." That optimism, however, was soon shattered by the realities of the Baath Party's political repression. It was around this time that Zangana joined the Central Leadership. Much of the party's ranks had been jailed, killed or forced into exile as a result of the Baathist clampdown. But while the aboveground apparatus of the ICP grew increasingly complacent, the Central Leadership sought to orchestrate revolution. Just weeks before the Baath's 1968 coup, the group launched an attack on a police post in the 'Ammuqah marshland in the south. It was meant to be the opening salvo of an armed people's revolution that would inspire Iraqis to rise up across the country. The small group was routed - an ominous beginning for the revolutionary movement.
Zangana became an underground courier for what little remained of the Central Leadership, donning traditional dress and heading into the southern marshes and Kurdish mountains to pass messages between groups there and in Baghdad. In 1971, while returning to the capital from Nasiriya, she was arrested for her participation in the Communist Party. "I was kept in a cell next door to the main torture room," she writes in City of Widows. "There I heard screams that I could barely distinguish as human." Awake night and day in the women's wing of Abu Ghraib prison, she tried to figure out who her fellow prisoners were by deciphering their cries. After six months she was released, thanks in part to family connections, but also because of the Baath's awkward position vis-à-vis the Communists: it was difficult to negotiate (however disingenuously) for a unity government while jailing and torturing members of the opposition party with impunity.
Dreaming of Baghdad delves deeper than Zangana's previous work into the shadowy world of the Central Leadership underground and the trauma of her torturous imprisonment. She takes us to the movement's base in Kurdistan, to a secret meeting with a colleague on a public bus in Baghdad, and into her torture cell. This section is particularly wrenching: "[a fellow prisoner] was no more than a mound of flesh encrusted with dried blood"; "my underwear was wet with blood and urine. Then someone kicked me in the head." From close descriptions like these, Zangana often steps back to describe the eventual fate of her companions: one succumbs to torture and turns informant, another is gunned down in a Baghdad alley. Many others are lost to time and distance.
At its core, Zangana's is a story of feminist struggle, which she engages whatever the setting, whether within her family, in prison, or within the revolutionary movement. This is certainly the book's strongest and most critical contribution. In City of Widows and elsewhere, Zangana has argued that during the '60s and even throughout Saddam's rule, Iraq was among the most liberal societies in the Middle East regarding women's rights, with women playing a significant role in resisting Baath repression. Dreaming of Baghdad continues this project - linking socialism's emphasis on self-determination and economic justice to feminism - in a more personal vein. In Kurdistan, Zangana argues her right and ability to perform guard duty with her male comrades. In Abu Ghraib, she learns the story of her cellmate Um Wahid, serving life for killing her husband, who had planned to force her into prostitution. Other female inmates are serving long, harsh sentences for petty crimes.
In a section on the first decade of her exile in grey, bustling London, Zangana notes that "the city's doors are open wide. And yet, after 10 years, I am still hesitant to enter." The feeling of alienation she struggled with after leaving her homeland with the movement that defined her life in tatters is conveyed by the book's stylistic variation. Reflections on her life in the ICP underground and her imprisonment are intermingled with impressionistic vignettes of her childhood in Iraq and her life in London over the last three decades. There are letters - or are they diary entries? - and there are dream sequences, and as the book progresses the narration shifts from first person to third, reflecting Zangana's disconnection from her sense of self, then her home, then her adopted home. Her experience was harsh, fragmented and confusing: Dreaming of Baghdad articulates these features without being overpowered by them.
Readers unfamiliar with the era or with revolutionary Communism more generally may feel left out by Zangana's frequent omissions of contextual information, but this is partially remedied by a moving forward by Hamid Dabashi and an afterword by Ferial Ghazoul. Instead of a detailed chronology or historical gloss, Zangana presents a raw personal account, providing readers with an earnest, self-critical work on the search for meaning through writing.
While reflecting on her time in Abu Ghraib, Zangana asks: "Can the soul be separated from its shell and leave it behind to wander the open fields?" This question lingers throughout the book, wrapping itself around Zangana's examinations of her childhood, her dashed hopes for a radical transformation of Iraqi society, her torture and her exile. How, if at all, can one overcome extreme trauma and loss? How, with a painful past perhaps forever impressed upon her sense of the present and future, can one celebrate life? This is the tension that defines Zangana's beautiful, haunting memoir - and the material from which her readers will reap the greatest rewards.
Robert S Eshelman is an independent journalist. His articles have appeared in Salon, In These Times, The Nation and elsewhere.