Literary Haunting and the Iran-Iraq War – Michigan Quarterly Review

Literary Haunting and the Iran-Iraq War

Accompanying the launch of Decades of Fire: New Writing from the Middle East and North Africa, a special Spring issue of MQR dedicated to the documentation of political, social, and cultural transformations of the past three decades, MQR Online is featuring additional non-fiction, poetry, and fiction not available in the print issue. We have gathered work here that, as Guest Editor Huda Fakhreddine writes in her introduction to the print issue, confronts the Middle East and North Africa as a bind, one that the writing presented here and in print might “begin to unravel in the mind, by some rearrangement, some association or unexpected juxtaposition, some turn of phrase, some wild metaphor.” 

Below, Associate Professor of Arabic language and literature Ikram Masmoudi explores the literary legacies of the Iran-Iraq war across a number of novels, many of which remain untranslated.

More than three decades after its end, the Iran-Iraq war continues to haunt Iraqi intellectuals, critics, fiction writers, and poets. This is so not because of the pivotal importance of this war in shaping the course of events that still, to this day, influence the political and cultural dynamics in the Middle East. Nor is it because of the millions of lives the war affected, as one of the longest conflicts of the twentieth century. Rather, it is mostly because the literary and historical record of this war is yet to be brought to light and acknowledged in a way that can do justice to its history and to its victims. After 2003, stories about this war have emerged, questioning its existing literary record and the cultural inheritance it bears. Many authors reexamined the war fictionally, trying to shed a light on the war different from the writings bequeathed to history under the Baath regime.[1] Away from experiences of heroism and the celebration of martyrdom and sacrifice that filled the bulk of most of the novels and short stories of the war years, post-2003 novels such as Ali Badr’s Asatidhat al-Wahm, [“The Professors of Illusion”], Jinan Jasim Hellawi’s  Layl al-Bilad [“The Country’s Night”],  and Nassif Falak’s Khidr Qad wa al ‘asr al-zaytuni [Khidr Qad and the Olive Drab Years] to name a few that are yet to be translated to reach wider readership.[2] They all depict the war years from the perspectives of the coerced soldier, the fearful war deserter, and the poet soldiers. 

More recently, short stories written by Hassan Blasim question the writing practices that gave us the literary record enshrined by the Baath. They demonstrate how this record will keep haunting Iraqis until the full truth is revealed about the role played by some Iraqi authors. This is what a story like Jareeda ‘askariyya [An Army Newspaper][3] will unveilFrom its titleand its dedication honoring the memory of the victims of the Iran-Iraq war, the story is grounded in documentary realism, promising to uncover the events, causes, and circumstances that led to the disastrous consequences we know. Yet the sense of realism conveyed in the dedication and the title is challenged by an aesthetics permeated with the uncanny, haunted by the ghosts of the war’s victims. And how could it be otherwise when we remember the silenced and repressed history of the Iran-Iraq War that was buried under a thick body of literature written during the 1980s, under the patronage of the Baath regime known as the literature of Qadisiyyat Saddam?[4]

“An Army Newspaper” is a story of ghosts and haunting that interrogates the past and the genealogy of the cultural production during the war years. It examines how the literature penned under the Baath was produced, while questioning its legitimacy and history. Using materials ranging from the communicated to the incommunicable, the secret and the ghostly surrounding the cultural production and transmission of the war record, Blasim, evokes the main character, who is presumably a fellow author who has passed away. The medium of the narrative takes us on a journey, digging up the past to uncover the taboos, secrets, and pathologies that surround the war and the transmission of its historical and literary record. For that purpose, he imagines a tribunal and a judge before whom the dead fellow author is brought to life to testify to his role and dealings in the production, misappropriation, and distortion of the cultural and literary record of the Iran-Iraq War. First in the order of things, the narrator of the story who is an author himself appeals to “the guardians of the past for permission” (p.39) to retell the story through this dead author. 

In digging up the past, Blasim does not hesitate to excavate the dead and their ghosts to make them speak the buried truth that haunted them for years. In this case, the suspect subject is a dead author described from the outset as a “bastard.”  But why must he be dead? According to Blasim, the buried truth about this dark episode in Iraqi literature ought to come from the dead, partly because “the dead won’t lie (…) and do not agonize over their crimes.”[5] The narrator adds that “there is no need to kick him in the balls for him to tell the story honestly and impartially because the dead are usually honest, even the bastards among them.”[6], clearly hinting at the lies and falsifications of the war literary record, as well as the violent investigation methods so widespread in the culture of the Baath under Saddam Hussein. 

In her essay “The Ghost Story,” Julia Briggs defines ghost stories as “a special category of the Gothic…partly characterized by the fact that their supernatural events remain unexplained.”[7] She adds “the narrowest definition of the ghost story would describe it as a story “about the spirits of the returning dead…Ghost stories commonly provide an alternative structure of cause and effect, in which the supernatural is not explained away, but offers its own pseudo-explanation according to some kind of spiritual law of action and reaction: an unburied corpse, a murder victim or some other secret apparently buried safely in the past returns to haunt the perpetrator.”[8] In this regard, “An Army Newspaper” is a double ghost story, with one story nested within the frame of an outer story. And in both sub-stories, supernatural events are allowed to proliferate without explanation, challenging the rational order and the observed laws of nature. In the outer story, the omnipotent author/narrator is turned judge. He is respected and addressed as “Your Honor” and “dear writer.” He summons a dead person from his tomb ten years after the latter had put an end to his life and career, having worked as the supervisor for the culture page of an army newspaper during the Iran-Iraq War. The judge gives an opportunity to this resuscitated dead man, asking him to retell the story of his role in the cultural production during the war years from his own point of view and experience. This produces a nested ghost story in which the army newspaper employee speaks of his experience. In his plaidoyer, he contextualizes his role and involvement; yet he is shown as possessed and tortured by the spirit of yet another dead man, this one an author-soldier. 

“An Army Newspaper” makes us suspend disbelief, as it brings out of his tomb this dead person who used to supervise the cultural page of a military newspaper. It thrusts this deceased person back into the world “to tell the story honestly and impartially” and to answer for his past actions. 

We will go to the cemetery, to the mortuary, and ask the guardians of the past for permission. We’ll take the dead man out to the public garden naked and set him on the platform under the ripe orange sun. We’ll try to hold his head in place… We’ll implore him to repeat the story to us.[9]

The story opens with a series of non-descriptive statements conjugated with the first person plural, addressing and including the reader: we willwe’ll takewe’ll trywe’ll implore. These statements cannot be said to be true or false. They are utterings that give to the story a performative force where to say is also to do. They perform an act by the very fact of being uttered, adding to the imaginative power of the story and demonstrating how “a ghost story reverts to a world in which imagination can produce physical effects, a world that is potentially within our power to change by the energy of our thoughts.”[10]

In addition to this performative frame where the narrator brings a dead person back to life to appeal before a judge and tell his story, the deceased’s deposition/confession contributes another ghost story. This nested story shows how during his life, this man who worked for the military newspaper was for years haunted and persecuted by the ghost of another dead man, a soldier-writer who was a double victim of the war. Not only did the soldier/writer die in the war, but his memory was also abused after his death after the employee of the army newspaper cultural page misappropriated his stories. 

By taking us to the cemetery, Blasim brings us into the presence of the abject, and in the company of the dead, the ruins, and the remnants of an epoch. The dead man summoned back to life inspires disgust and fear as he is brought “naked” to the public garden, with insects and flies buzzing around his face. He is as repulsive and putrid as the story he tells. Blasim makes him speak and confess to his dealings, excavating the fetid past in order to extract a part of the truth about a silenced chapter in Iraqi history and literary history. 

With no more fear or regrets, the story’s main character appeals to the self- proclaimed judge, addressing him as “Your Honor” and “dear writer,” and still hoping for a sense of justice and judgment from the reader. “Let them (the readers) judge for themselves, I beg you.”[11] He pleads guilty and admits to his dealings during the war years. The appeal of the abject dead is fraught with terror, ridicule, and the grotesque. 

First, the culprit clarifies his position in the system: “I was working for an army newspaper, supervising the cultural page, which dealt with war stories and poems.”[12] He wasn’t a high profile figure in the political and cultural hierarchy of the Baath. He recognizes he wasn’t “a genius, or a bastard,” not even a censor who controlled what could be published in the military newspaper in terms of stories and poems penned toward the mobilization effort for the war. Many of the soldiers who wrote were actually self-censoring: “they were stricter and more disciplined than any censor I ever met in my life.”[13] However, the army newspaper bureaucrat recognized that coercion was exercised on some writers to participate in the propaganda literature: “there were writers who were forced to write and others were seeking some financial or other benefits.”[14] Still other writers wrote as a way to cling to life: “it helped them believe that they would not be killed.”[15] Yet he was shaped by corrupt practices of a culture of censure and repression that was widespread and normalized by the Baath. As a petty middle-class subject he was driven by social mobility desires and wasn’t immune to the corrupt political practices. He envied his superior, the Minister of Culture, and vied for his position while the latter promised him to get rid of the newspaper’s editor and appoint him in that position. He admits to having “received many rewards and presents worth much more than my monthly salary” and “interfered in the structure and composition of the stories and poems sent to him and tr[ied] as far as possible to add imaginative touches to the written images that would come…from the front.”[16]

            He also admits to his hypocrisy and ambitions, and how he became a Minister of Culture by appropriating, manipulating, and distorting the stories of soldiers who were coerced into the front and had to write in support of the war. We discover from his confession that these soldiers did not write about the war per se. They wrote, with much talent and artistry, stories about humanity, love and yearning, fantasies, and sex “from a point of view that was childlike and satanic.”[17] One day the supervisor received five of these beautiful stories penned by a soldier-writer: 

Each story was written in a thick workbook of the colored kind used in schools. On the cover of each workbook the writer had filled in the boxes for name, class, and school, and none of the classes went beyond the elementary level and each book bore a different name. Each of the stories was about a soldier with the same name as the name written on the cover. The stories were written in a surprisingly elevated literary style…The stories did not speak of the war, though the heroes of them were all reluctant soldiers.[18]

In form and content the stories reveal the innocence of the soldiers, and their desire to survive through art, images, signs and fantasies in a clear transgression of what they were supposed to be. Curious about this author-soldier, the army newspaper supervisor wrote back to threaten him about his deviation from the theme of the war only to find out that the soldier/writer had just died with his unit in an enemy attack. Not only did the supervisor appropriate and publish the stories of the dead soldier-writer under his own name, but what is worse is the interpretation, the hype, and the celebration the stories soon received. They were perceived as humanizing the war and were interpreted to be in support of it, thus making literature a mere propaganda tool in the service of war: 

Your Honor, five months after publishing the first story in my own name (after inventing a distinctive title) I was travelling the countries of the world to present my new story at seminars where the most famous critics and intellectuals would introduce me. The biggest newspapers and international literary magazines wrote about me. The local critics wrote long studies on how our just war could inspire in man such artistic largess, such love, such poetry. Many masters and doctoral theses were written in the nation’s universities and in them the researchers endeavored to explore all the insights into poetry and humanity in my story. They wrote about the harmonies between bullets and fate, between the sound of planes and the rocking of bed, between the kiss and the pieces of shrapnel, between the smell of gunpowder and the smell of a woman’s vulva although the story did not make the slightest mention of war directly or indirectly.[19]

Blasim points to and denounces whole circles involved in the knowledge and cultural production chain around the literature of the Iran-Iraq war: from the supervisor of the cultural page turned Minister of Culture to the literati of university researchers and critics. They all took part in the process of interpretation, mystification, transmission, and legitimization of the Baath-sanctioned literary war record that aimed toward the humanization and glorification of the war. 

The power of this story resides not only in its imaginative power and its performativity, as it brings back the dead and the abject past of corruption and falsification, but also in the way it functions as a paradigm illustrating the very idea of psychic and literary haunting and the return of the repressed. This idea manifests the principle of the uncanny as defined by Freud: “everything is uncanny that ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light.”[20] The more the past is repressed, the more it haunts the present and devours it. The uncanny aspect in the story of the supervisor’s confession is that he became obsessed and haunted by the ghost of the author whose war novels he appropriated. Strangely, the supervisor kept receiving more and more of the beautifully-written war stories, “containing tales of love and destiny,” from the dead soldier-writer. [21] Soon the “Army Newspaper” story enters a negotiation threshold between repression and the return of the repressed. The more the supervisor repressed the secret the more he was besieged by it. He was flooded with so many books from the dead soldier writer that he had to store and hide them in improvised locations such as storages and flour warehouses to avoid embarrassment and shame, now that he had been promoted Minister of Culture and had received the recognition heaped on him from higher up in the party. The flood of books from the writer-soldier caused him to live in terror. “Cruel months passed, Your Honor, with me torn between hiding the stories, which continued to flood in at an amazing rate and looking for the soldier, of whom there was no trace the length and breadth of the front.”[22]  

To solve the mystery of the flood of novels he kept receiving, the editor paid a visit to the family of the dead author-soldier, as well as his grave, to make sure that he was “dead enough.” Yet the flood of stories did not stop. Horrified, the Minister returned to the graveyard of the author-soldier. This time he burned the cadaver to make sure it was really dead and that he would not receive more novels from the deceased. But the dead are never dead. The stories kept pouring in, haunting him even after he secluded himself in a farmhouse where he burned the stories of war that never stopped haunting him in a special incinerator. 

As I expected, from the morning of the first day at the farm I was working hard day and night, burning the colored workbooks—all the stories and all the soldiers’ names—in hopes that the war would end and that this madness of Khaki sperm would also stop.[23]

The Iran-Iraq war ended. But out of caution, or perhaps desperation, the former Minister of Culture took his own life by burning himself in the incinerator, as another war (The 1991 Gulf War) broke out. Maybe he sought to prevent the same behavior from wreaking havoc on him again. He appeals to the judge for forgiveness and compassion. “The war did stop your Honor, after long and terrifying years, but a new war broke out. The only option left to me was the incinerator fire, as you are the Merciful, the Forgiving.”[24]

The last appeal of the culprit to the judge asking for forgiveness and mercy takes an eschatological dimension. Instead of standing before a fellow writer and self-proclaimed judge to whom he owes this story as someone from the same profession, it seems he stands before the Almighty God, addressing him with his divine attributes (The Omnipotent, The Wise, The Omniscient and The Imperious). He implores him for salvation before he gets tossed into the incinerator of hell-fire in a pre-enactment of Judgment Day. 

“Your Honor, 

So now, and before I’m put back in the mortuary, I know you are the Omnipotent, the Wise, the Omniscient, and the Imperious.”[25]  

The supervisor of the cultural page in the army newspaper was shaped by a culture that sustained itself through censure, repression, illegitimacy, and pathological transmission. In confessing his desires, practices, and wrongdoings, this character, despite his medium importance as a party bureaucrat, is a representative and a critical link in the chain of the transmission and inheritance of Iraqi Baath culture. The truth of the literary war record was dismissed. It fell into the wrong hands that misappropriated and buried it for the profit of war propaganda, leaving an illegitimate body of literature that was celebrated and passed on through the generations. But like the secret of an unacknowledged child that was hidden from the public view, the secret of the soldier- writers haunts literary history, passing from generation to generation. The story shows how at the end the Minister of Culture was haunted and caught by the very truth he tried to repress in vain. 

Through the confession of the abject dead, Blasim incriminates and condemns a whole network that took part in the writing, manipulation, dissemination, celebration, and consumption of a literature that falsified history. The condemnation runs from the simple supervisor of the cultural page in the army newspaper, to the Minister of Culture that he was able to become, as well as the high-ranking officials in the party that enabled corruption, the cohort of writers, and the horde of critics and disseminators of what Blasim calls the “madness of khaki sperm.” They are all equally guilty of the cooptation of literature and the corruption of culture whose victims were innocent people.  

The past is never dead, and the dead are never dead. This is what Blasim tells us in “An Army Newspaper.” Centered on unearthing concealed secrets around the war, this morbid story shows that if we don’t present the full truth about history and past wars, such as the Iran-Iraq War, such secrets will haunt generations of Iraqis, like the military newspaper bureaucrat who tried to suppress it, leading him to feelings of guilt and shame, and ultimately suicide. “An Army Newspaper” is a story about haunting as “primarily the unconscious transmission of an unsayable, unnameable secret, which like the secret of an unnameable, unacknowledged child, is passed from generation to generation.”[26] It is also an elegy and mourning for those doubly victimized during the war. 

[1] Most of the Iran-Iraq War literature (novels, poems, short stories, etc.) was written during the 1980s and sponsored by the Baath party as part of Qadisiyyat Saddam, in reference to the 637 C.E. Battle against the Sassanians. 

[2] Asatidhat al-wahm, (Beirut: al-Muʾassasa al-ʿarabiyya li-dirasat wa’l-nashr, 2011); Layl al-bilad (Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 2002); Khidhr Qad wa’l-ʿ asr al-zaytuni (Baghdad: Manshuraat al-Jamal, 2006). 

[3] Hassan Blasim, “An Army Newspaper,” in The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, trans. by Jonathan Wright (Penguin Books, 2014).

[4] For more on Qadisiyyat Saddam, see Salam Abbud, Thaqafat al-ʿunf fi l-ʿIraq [The Culture of Violence in Iraq]; Abdullah Ibrahim, “The bald father an officer in Saddam’s Al-Qadissiya” in WavesAn Iraqi Biography, (Doha: Hamad Bin Khalifa University Press, 2019); miriam cooke, “Flames of Fire in Qadisiyya,” in Women and the War Story (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); Ikram Masmoudi, “The Iran-Iraq War and the Bare Life of the War Deserter,” War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015).

[5] An Army Newspaper, p. 40.

[6] An Army Newspaper, p. 39.

[7] Julia Briggs, “The Ghost Story,” in A Companion to the Gothic, ed. David Punter (Oxford; Walden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000).

[8] “The Ghost Story,” p. 123.

[9] An Army Newspaper, (emphasis added), p. 39.

[10] “The Ghost Story,” p. 124. 

[11] An Army Newspaper, p. 39.

[12] An Army Newspaper, p. 39.

[13] An Army Newspaper, p. 40.

[14] An Army Newspaper, p.40.

[15] An Army Newspaper, p. 40.

[16] An Army Newspaper, p. 41.

[17] An Army Newspaper, p. 42.

[18] An Army Newspaper, p. 43, emphasis added.

[19] An Army Newspaper, p. 43.

[20] Freud, “The Uncanny,” quoted in Julia Briggs, “The Ghost Story,” p.124.

[21] An Army Newspaper, p. 44.

[22] An Army Newspaper, p. 45.

[23] An Army Newspaper, p. 47.

[24] An Army Newspaper, p. 47.

[25] An Army Newspaper, p. 47.

[26] Gothic Hauntings, Melancholy, Crypts and Textual Ghosts, p. 9.

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