"With her black hair falling over her shoulders and her soft features, Maria Ivanova stood, beautifully tall, before him..."
It's safe to say that Iraqi novelists can write about more than just war. Blushes broke out at a literary evening dedicated to Iraqi fiction during an event at London's Southbank Centre on Monday night when Ali Bader read an excerpt from his feted novel The Tobacco Keeper - one that proceeded to get decidedly less than family-friendly.
The event wasn't all about soft features and nudity, however. Bader, who currently lives in Belgium, was joined by fellow Iraqi-born novelists Inaam Kachachi (The American Granddaughter) and Samuel Shimon (An Iraqi in Paris) as part of a book tour organised by the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation. They discussed the rise of the Iraqi novel and the need to pass on memories of a vibrant, diverse Baghdad to a generation who has never known the city as anything other than a conflict zone.
Bader's book uses the figure of a corpse whose history is gradually unravelled as an analogue for Iraq's own chequered past. "I wrote about the tangle of identity in Iraq," he said to the audience assembled in a room overlooking London's Houses of Parliament. He traces conflict in the country all the way back to the pogrom against Iraqi Jews of 1941, and suggests that Iraqis have unresolved shame in their past. "The task of the novel is to always remember our shame," he said.
This is not to say that things aren't worse in Iraq now than they were. All the novelists present now live in western European cities and all of them talk fondly of a Baghdad that is now long gone. Shimon's heavily autobiographical novel An Iraqi in Paris tells the story of a young man who left Iraq in 1979, when it was still a prosperous country, with the dream of becoming a Hollywood director.
"Many of the generation born in the 1970s don't know that Iraq was a multicultural society," he said. "When I was a child I spoke four languages: Kurdish, Persian, Armenian, Iraqi. It's all gone."
Bader, who was a conscript soldier during the invasion of Kuwait, described having "a torture feeling" in 1991, thinking about how Iraq had "disappeared from the map". He said: "Everybody thinks that his country is immortal. I couldn't understand how all this culture - writers, artists - had disappeared. So I made the decision to write the national ordeal."
Kachachi's The American Granddaughter is about the relationship between a young Iraqi American returning to the country of her birth as a translator for the US army and her Iraqi grandmother, who cannot understand the young woman's cooperation with the occupying forces. Kachachi said that she wants "to be a witness of that beautiful Iraq that was, because the new generation don't believe me. When they see photos of Basra in 1930, of the photos of the Tigris River in Baghdad and fish restaurants, they say, 'is that Baghdad? Are you sure?' I feel that I have a responsibility to write that Iraq".
There is a temptation to retreat into nostalgia, Kachachi said. "For an Iraqi, you open your computer every morning and you see emails from all over the world between Iraqis: ancient Iraqi songs, ancient Iraqi films, ancient Iraqi photos. There is no future. We are living in the past."
But despite all the turmoil of Iraq's past three decades, the country's literature has been steadily evolving. Poetry has traditionally been the focus of Iraqi literature, but Bader explained that the 1990s saw "a great explosion of the novel" which was "liberated from traditional language". Kachachi said that she has counted 65 novels published in Arabic by Iraqis since the 2003 invasion. English translations of Iraqi work hasn't been quite as prolific, although that's slowly changing, with the help of Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation and a few other publishers, such as AUC and San Francisco's City Lights.
It's suggested that, amid all these fine books, Iraq is yet to discover the author who captures its contemporary spirit. "There are many writers but they are not taking care of their language, their style," Shimon said. "Everybody wants to write quickly what's happening. I hope one day we can have some workshops where editors can talk to these talented young writers who need somebody to work with them."
For Bader, rebuilding the country's literary culture doesn't just make bookworms happy; it helps create a sense of national identity. "In America, for example," he said, "they say that writers established the nation. This is the Iraqi task."
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