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"Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads" - Iraqi Idiom

Navanti analyst Kristen Gunderson explores how book culture has ebbed and flowed as modern Iraq was buffeted by political forces.
The Mongol Siege of Baghdad in 1258. Source: Wikimedia

Iraq’s literature has always been tied to its tumultuous politics. Those who seek to subjugate Iraq go for its erudite heart, starting with Hulagu Khan in 1258. When the Mongol horde captured Baghdad, it targeted the grand Bayt al-Hikma, the "house of wisdom" that was a contemporary rival to Alexandria's great library. The Mongols cast Bayt al-Hikma's books into the Tigris river, which witnesses say ran black with ink. In more recent history, Saddam Hussein attempted to use literature as a tool to bolster his regime and in doing so strangled the culture. When the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) swept the country in summer 2014, its zealots tried to erase all intellectual activity outside their narrow ideology. Today, literary culture is in recovery. Though still vulnerable to the machinations of clerics and politicians as well as the fickle boon of technology, Iraq’s literature survives, serving as a conduit for the traumas and hopes of the population. 

Navanti spoke to readers from the Yazidi, Arab, and Kurdish communities to explore how book culture has ebbed and flowed as modern Iraq was buffeted by political forces.

Literature Under Saddam (1979 – 2003)

“Everything was the regime’s property under Saddam, including the magazines and the newspapers.” — Zaidan, Yazidi translator residing in Zahko


Saddam Hussein understood the power of literature over Iraqi society. The cafes and bookstores that constituted literary centers were also social hubs where discussions of poetry transitioned into political discourse, and in turn political criticism became books and poems. Such an environment could not go unregulated; to control the population, Saddam had to control the written word. First, the regime banned western and Persian books, while permitting only those publications that fit with its Ba’athist ideology. Critical works were destroyed, the writers arrested, tortured, and sometimes killed. Unsurprisingly, many authors fled Iraq, creating a literary culture in exile. 

Saddam Hussein's Novel, "Zabiba and the King." Source: Wikimedia
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

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