Thompson on Masmoudi, 'War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction'

Ikram Masmoudi
Levi Thompson

Ikram Masmoudi. War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015. 256 pp. $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7486-9655-0.

Reviewed by Levi Thompson (UCLA) Published on H-Levant (May, 2017) Commissioned by Ghenwa Hayek

Ikram Masmoudi Gives Voice to Iraqi War Narratives

In Raʿd Mushattat’s 2014 film The Silence of the Shepherd (Ṣamt al-rāʿī), Ṣābir, a shepherd living in a southern Iraqi village, witnesses Saddam Hussein’s troops massacre a large group of Kurds and bury them in a mass grave one morning in 1987. Struck dumb by terror, Ṣābir keeps what he saw secret. Meanwhile, his fellow villagers plunge into a years-long conflict over what exactly caused two mysterious disappearances on that same day: Zahrah, the thirteen-year-old village girl who went to fetch water but never came back, and Saʿūd, the young man who reported for the draft and was not seen again for more than fifteen years. As sordid rumors split the village down familial and tribal lines, Ṣābir holds on to his secret and thereby allows the suffering his community experienced during the 1980-88 war with Iran to extend all the way until the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Only then does the terrible truth of what happened that day finally come to light.

Mushattat’s film dramatizes the struggles Iraqis have faced putting into words their experiences of war from the final decades of the twentieth century until today, not only because of the repressive cultural politics that pervaded Saddam’s Iraq, but also due to the sheer difficulty of finding ways to accurately represent the feelings of abject loss and disillusionment brought on by military defeat and occupation. In War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction, a recent academic project that similarly aims to give voice to Iraqi writers, Ikram Masmoudi ventures into contemporary novels from a number of authors to critically analyze their astounding narratives of dehumanization. Their stories, when brought out of silence, restore a humanity otherwise lost to violence. Masmoudi thus amplifies the voices of authors who are now, in the newly invigorated literary production that has followed Saddam’s ouster, divulging the long-held secrets and uncovering the horrible realities of Iraq’s recent history of war.

War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction adds a new, and urgent, dimension to earlier critical studies by taking up contemporary Iraqi literary responses to the experience of seemingly endless war. Masmoudi makes an important contribution to the current body of work on modern Arabic literature from Iraq, of which we can mention Reading Iraq: Culture and Power in Conflict (2006) by Muhsin Musawi; Conflicting Narratives: War, Violence and Memory in Iraqi Culture by Stephan Milich, Friederike Pannewick, and Leslie Tramontini (2012); and, in the same Edinburgh series, 2013’s The Iraqi Novel: Key Writers, Key Texts by Fabio Caiani and Catherine Cobham. Because she focuses on post-2003 novels, Masmoudi further intervenes in recent scholarly conversations about Iraqi literature. 

Masmoudi organizes the book chronologically and thematically around a series of four figures who, by way of their experience of war and occupation, are in her estimation reduced to homines sacri, “sacred people who occupy a space between life and death, deprived of universal human and political rights and living a virtual death whenever the sovereign suspends the law and calls for a ‘state of exception,’ thus subjecting the biological life of citizens to its immediate control” (p. 6). Accordingly, she applies Giorgio Agamben’s category of “bare life” to her treatments of deserters from the Iran-Iraq War; Iraqi soldiers who fought in the First Gulf War (1990-91); Iraqi civilians, including a translator reduced to becoming a secular suicide bomber following the 2003 US occupation of Iraq; and the prisoners of war and camp detainees the Americans captured and imprisoned in its aftermath.

In her introduction, Masmoudi gives both an overview of the Iraqi novel’s development during the course of the twentieth century and an introduction to the theories she uses to frame her approach. In addition to Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995), she brings in Jean Baudrillard’s three provocative 1991 essays collected in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place and Michel Foucault’s analysis of biopolitics in The History of Sexuality (1976-84). She also justifies her choice to study only novels published after the 2003 American invasion; she selects narratives within which Iraqis at home and abroad begin “revisiting old wars and assessing the recent war, the occupation and their immediate effects on the Iraqi people” (p. 21).

The first chapter tackles Agamben’s category of “bare life” as it pertains to Iraqi soldiers who deserted during the Iran-Iraq war. Because desertion is a capital offense, “it stigmatizes the soldier who makes this choice and dooms him to death and oblivion” (p. 29). Taking up ʿAlī Badr’s 2011 novel Asātidhat al-wahm (The professors of illusion), Naṣīf Falak’s Khiḍr Qad wa-l-ʿaṣr al-zaytūnī (Khiḍr Qad and the drab olive years, 2008), and Hubūṭ al-malāʾikah (The descent of the angels, 2013) by Muḥammad Ḥasan, the chapter presents the forgotten stories of war deserters. Masmoudi here engages in a project that parallels that of Badr’s narrator in Asātidhat al-wahm, who feels as if it is his duty to “bear witness” to the lives of his deserter friends who perished in order to prevent their “erasure” “from literary history, wherein the act of not acknowledging their existence re-enacts their execution” (p. 38).

Moving next to novels about the First Gulf War, the second chapter examines the transformation of the Iraqi soldier into “the homo sacer, whose killing is permissible and goes unsanctioned during the war” (p. 85). Masmoudi reiterates Baudrillard’s comment that “we will never know what an Iraqi taking part with a chance of fighting would have been like” (p. 101) as she considers four novels built around precisely the same speculation. For instance, in ʿAbd al-Karīm al-ʿUbaydī’s Ḍayāʿ fī Ḥafr al-Bāṭin (Loss in Ḥafr al-Bāṭin, 2009), “the narrator provides facts from the ground authenticating not only the reality of the war but its absence” (p. 101). This novel, which she treats along with Mā baʿda al-ḥubb (Beyond Love, 2003; translated to English in 2012) by Hadiyya Ḥusayn, Baghdād Mālbūrū (Baghdad Marlboro, 2012) by Najm Wālī, and Falak’s Khiḍr Qad, elaborates how “the existential dimension of war became obsolete” following US use of ultramodern technology to wage war. The resulting disenchantment and alienation of the soldier on this “posthuman” (p. 94) battlefront rendered Iraqi soldiers into mere spectators who could not participate in the war they were ostensibly a part of, leading Masmoudi to conclude that “[w]ith the postmodern war, the Iraqi soldier enters a new era: he becomes useless and irrelevant” (p. 129).

The third chapter takes us into the Green Zone, a “safe haven and a citadel of law, order and culture” (p. 147), to investigate how the category of “bare life” extends to all Iraqis, whether military or civilian, within the context of American occupation. In her readings of Shākir Nūrī’s al-Minṭaqah al-khaḍrāʾ (The Green Zone, 2009), Inʿām Kachāchī’s al-Ḥafīdah al-Amrīkiyyah (The American Granddaughter, 2009; translated to English in 2010), and Jāsim al-Raṣīf’s Ruʾūs al-ḥurriyyah al-mukayyasah (The freedom of the bagged heads, as Masmoudi translates it, 2007), she locates two distinct reactions to the loss of security and continuation of violence that followed the 2003 invasion. “[O]ne responds to violence by engaging in the cycle of killing and the other by escaping the non-alternative of death or death” (p. 177). The lack of alternatives that the American occupation leaves in its wake leads the main character of al-Minṭaqah al-khaḍrāʾ, the Iraqi translator Ibrāhīm, to give in to the violence that surrounds him and become a suicide bomber. Masmoudi’s thorough analysis of Ibrāhīm’s character and his “absolutely secular” politics, devoid of sectarian or religious motivations, is commendable, a necessary rejoinder to received media narratives in the West about the results of the American occupation.

The book ends with a chapter covering prisoners of war and detainees held in camps. Here depending on a single novel, Shākir Nūrī’s Majānīn Būkā (The madmen of Camp Bucca, 2012), Masmoudi explores the harrowing narratives of men reduced to Muselmänner (s. Muselmann), a German term used in Nazi concentration camps and taken up by Agamben to describe a person “defined by ‘a loss of all will and consciousness’” (p. 221), a liminal figure who hangs between life and death (p. 222). These Muselmänner are “true and absolute witnesses [to the terrors of the camp], but they cannot speak of what happened to them” (p. 224). The Muselmann is, then, the final stage of degradation for the Iraqi prisoners in the camp, who are reduced into nonhumans in the most inhuman ways by their captors and guards.

Masmoudi’s remarkable engagements with Agamben’s theory might have benefited from the inclusion of the Iraqi and broader Arab intellectual and literary traditions. For instance, the liminal characters whom she describes in terms of the homo sacer—the army deserter moving from house to house, the soldier wandering in the desert, and the Muselmann floating between life and death—might also be productively understood as examples of the uʿlūk, the vagabond we find haunting the margins of tribal and polite society from the pre-Islamic era until now (the poet Ḥusayn Mardān [d. 1972] being a modern Iraqi example of such a figure and a close analogue of the characters in Badr’s Asātidhat al-wahm). A consideration of the ṣuʿlūk, often characterized within the tradition as more kin to beast than man, as an autochthonous equivalent of the homo sacer would have provided an opportunity to situate the characters in the novels in question in relation to the Arabic literary past. Likewise, chapters 1 and 2 offer a number of opportunities for referencing the development of existentialism in Iraq, which, surprisingly, goes unmentioned throughout the book. The local Iraqi existentialist tradition blossomed in Baghdad during the 1950s and continues to weigh heavily on the Iraqi literary scene; consider, for instance, Badr’s 2001 novel Papa Sartre (English, 2009) and its satirical treatment of the Iraqi existentialists. Some discussion of existentialism’s place in modern Iraqi literature would have allowed for a fuller exploration of how Iraqi authors present soldiers’ experiences of a war they were unable to actually take part in. Finally, there are several transliteration issues readers who know Arabic might find frustrating, the rendering of Abū Nuwās as “Abū Nuwwās” (pp. 39, 57) and of Inʿām as “Inaʿām” (passim) being the most noteworthy.

Notwithstanding these minor concerns, Masmoudi’s theoretical rigor and the attention she pays to Iraqi narratives otherwise unknown in English undoubtedly make War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction a useful addition to university libraries and the collections of specialists working on Arabic literature who can afford the steep ($120!) price point for the hardcover. I must note that such a high cost for a single book undermines the Edinburgh Studies in Modern Arabic Literature Series’ stated goal to “increasingly address a wider reading public beyond its natural territory of students and researchers in Arabic and world literature” (p. vii), as editor Rasheed El-Enany puts it in the book’s foreword.

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Citation: Levi Thompson. Review of Masmoudi, Ikram, War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction. H-Levant, H-Net Reviews. May, 2017. URL:

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