As Saddam’s regime buckled under United Nations sanctions, he bribed and blackmailed Iraq’s remaining writers into the service of the administration. The government commissioned works aggrandizing the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980’s, demonizing the West and Israel, and painting the people’s suffering under sanctions as a heroic, noble struggle against oppression. The dictator even tried his own hand at this style of literature, penning a few works that glorified the violent chauvinism of his party and characterized the Kurdish independence movement as a traitorous wife.
Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2011)
The toppling of Saddam in 2003 smashed the censorship and repression of his regime, along with the nation’s social framework and infrastructure. Iraq was flooded with technology and resources that had been denied to it. The Internet was unleashed on the country, information could flow freely in and out, the press was unmuzzled and newspapers, radio stations, and television channels propagated. The US administrators and the interim government actively encouraged free speech and expression as a part of their charge towards democratization.
“[The invasion] had a huge effect on it [the literary culture]. Not negatively, the opposite, it was actually a positive change. The press was free, and there was now opportunity for free sharing of information and materials.” — Abdul-Abbas Falah Fayadh, head of the Journalist Syndicate in Basra
However, the stability and security that had existed under Saddam were gone. IEDs and militias haunted the streets; in 2007 a suicide bomber targeted Baghdad’s literary hub, al-Mutanabbi street, killing 26 people. Basics like water and power were not guaranteed. Survival became the focus. In short, the environment was not conducive towards the consumption and appreciation of a good book.
Kristen Gunderson is a research assistant with Navanti’s Syria team, who previously served as an Arabic linguist with the United States Navy specializing in Iraqi affairs. For Kristen's full piece on Iraqi reading culture, including under ISIS and in the post-ISIS era, click here.