x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Demand for Iraqi artists' work keeps the home fires burning

While three wars have forced most Iraqi artists and writers to flee their homeland, interest in their stories and art has never been higher.

Samuel Shimon. Stephen Lock for The National
Samuel Shimon. Stephen Lock for The National

As a young woman and a self-proclaimed member of "the generation of freedom, of revolution", the Iraqi author Inaam Kachachi was frequently exasperated by her father's love of all things British.

"My father used to consider Queen Elizabeth the most beautiful woman in the world," recalls the 59-year-old journalist and novelist. "I used to say: 'Father, how can you say that? My mother is much more beautiful!' I used to tell him: 'You are so reactionary, so old-fashioned [about] the British'."

And then, in April 2010, at the launch in the UK of Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) at a royal reception at Windsor Castle, Kachachi found herself face-to-face with the Queen. "I couldn't stop thinking of my father; if he were alive ... he would be so proud."

She told the Queen this. "And do you know what she said? 'Oh dear ...'."

Kachachi, waiting to take the stage as part of a literary panel, is closeted in a small room in the Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank with fellow Iraqi authors Samuel Shimon and Ali Bader, and all three self-imposed exiles laugh and shake their heads at the story.

Exile - even the self-imposed variety - is not a path without unexpected, and occasionally even amusing, twists and turns.

All three find themselves in England as guests of Bloomsbury, which last year published English translations of books previously published in Arabic and which has now prolonged the shelf lives of the three novels further still by making those translations available as e-books.

For Shimon, who in 1998 co-founded Banipal, the English-language magazine of modern Arab literature, the BQFP initiative is "a great project" that is injecting new life into the writing of the Arab world.

"If you look at Scandinavia, Germany, Poland, all these countries have a fund to translate their own literature into other languages," he says. "We don't have anything to encourage the translation of Arab literature."

And yet all three recognise that the new fascination with Arab literature, and with writers such as them, is rooted in the catastrophe of 9/11.

"You will see a 200 per cent increase in translations from Arabic after September 11," says Shimon. "Before September 11, we were fighting to promote my magazine. After, suddenly everybody was asking for Banipal; suddenly everybody wants Arab literature, because they discovered they don't know anything about our world."

A few days earlier, the three were feted at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival, where their panel subject - Celebrating Iraqi Culture: a nation shaped by conflict - stood out as an exotic filling in a sandwich composed of quintessentially English staples, including the film critic and writer Barry Norman on his work Why Test Cricket Matters and The Times journalist Ben McIntyre on his D-Day spy story Double Cross.

Now they find themselves posing for photographs against a backdrop of the Thames, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament - the place from which, as Kachachi muses, emerged "the big lies of Tony Blair".

Not, as Shimon is quick to point out, that all that had anything to do with "the British people ... there is a difference between governments and people" - a distinction not lost on any exiled Iraqi, but especially this one, married to a Briton and living in the UK.

And talking of dodgy dossiers, there are anniversaries at hand. Today, for example, marks the ninth anniversary of the fall of Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, the last major engagement and the end of the 26-day campaign.

Yet for Iraqis the focus on 2003 is a chiefly Western preoccupation that fails to take into account Iraq's much longer history of violence and oppression.

"Eighty per cent of artists and writers from Iraq are in exile now," says Kachachi, "because of the three wars."

And not only the wars, Bader points out. "We have had massive emigration from Iraq for political reasons," he says. The first wave left in 1963, when the US-backed Baathist coup overthrew the socialist Qasim regime and left many intellectuals dead.

More purges of communists and Shia protesters followed after Saddam inherited power in 1979. This was the year that both Shimon and Kachaci left the country, but they insist their motives for leaving were personal, rather than political.

"I left because I wanted to follow my dreams to go and make movies," says Shimon. As his novel recounts, "I was from a very poor family, I worked in the street". Others, he adds, gesturing towards his two fellow writers, "left just for study, or for living" - or, as Kachachi interrupts, "for freedom".

It's true, she says, that she left to study, and not for political reasons, but then came "the war with Iran, then Kuwait, then ... and so year after year you find yourself a real exile, not somebody who went just to study".

Though each has chosen to leave the land of their birth for different reasons, in their work all look back with no less longing than that felt by Ovid, the Roman poet exiled in 8AD to Tomis, in modern-day Romania, by the emperor Augustus.

"It's a kindness that the mind can go where it wishes," Ovid wrote in the last few years of a life that would end in a foreign land. "Our native soil draws all of us, by I know not what sweetness, and never allows us to forget."

Is it, then, the contradictory fate of all exiled authors, tormented by a sense of longing and even guilt, to be confined to writing about the very place upon which they have turned their backs?

Kachachi shrugs. First off, she says, although she left Iraq in 1979, she doesn't consider herself an exile: "I lived in Iraq for half of my life, and the other half outside Iraq [and] the last time I was there was three months ago." Furthermore, "Paris is not an exile; it's a privilege."

Besides, she considers that "I am still continuing to work as an Iraqi, my books are Iraqi books, not French books. You ask why we are writing, the three of us, about Iraq. What else [should we] write? There are so many stories to tell about the three big wars. Ali, he lived as a soldier; he lived 50 lives for one man ... That is the literature of real life; it is more interesting than imagination."

Yet "return" is a theme that resonates throughout their writing, like an insistent, haunting drumbeat.

In Bader's The Tobacco Keeper, a former Iraqi soldier-turned-journalist - like Bader himself - returns to Baghdad to solve the mystery of a murder. The victim is a musician who, expelled as a Jew from Iraq, spends his life attempting to return to his country, only to lose his life in achieving his dream.

Kachachi gives us an Iraqi woman who has settled in the United States and, in a fit of patriotism for her new country, joins the US army as an Arabic interpreter in the wake of 9/11. She does so, returning to Iraq, despite the misgivings of some in her community, "spitting warnings against the betrayal of the land from whose Tigris and Euphrates we had drunk, even if it was for the good of our new land that poured us Coca-Cola morning and night".

Kachachi has no illusions about what she sees as the hypocrisy of western intervention in her country. The west, she says, created Saddam and then destroyed him. "But when they created him they destroyed us; and when they destroyed him they destroyed Iraqis twice."

Even Shimon's novel, An Iraqi in Paris, the most nakedly autobiographical of the three, and which tells the story of the author's departure from Iraq and poverty in 1979, at the age of 23, has at its heart the theme of returning. Shimon, like his protagonist, dreamt of going to make films in Hollywood, and of returning wreathed in fame and Technicolor glory.

What would persuade any of them to forsake their adopted homes and return to live in Iraq?

"When I left Iraq in 1979 I said I will never come back unless I can take an Oscar," says Shimon. The others laugh. "And I'm sure I'm not going to do that."

Bader, too, has a dream that is stillborn by impossible preconditions. "I want to live in Spain, because when I went to Seville, I find it is very close to the Baghdad in my imagination. I would wait; when Baghdad becomes like this I will come back."

Only Kachachi analyses the question, and would return "when I can go back without covering my head and my daughter can live there without covering her head".

But the longing for that haunted Ovid seems already to be shadowing her. It is, she says, too early for Bader to be thinking about this. "I am the elder, and getting to a certain age, you really think to go back to your country," she says. The other two fall silent.

"You want to go and pass your last years in your country. It's nice to be young in Paris, but it is very difficult to be an old woman in Paris. Nobody will take care of you. But in Iraq millions will take care of you."

Jonathan Gornall is a former senior features writer for The National.