The Tigris Ran Black: Trials and Triumphs of Literary Culture in Iraq

By Kristen Gunderson

“Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads” – Iraqi idiom

Long before Iraq became its own nation, the Mesopotamian region was home to a vibrant and deeply rooted literary culture. The world’s oldest piece of fictional literature, the epic of Gilgamesh, was conceived in the south of the modern state. When the Abbasid Caliphs (750-1258 CE) established their capital in Baghdad, they collected works of literature, science, and philosophy from across the world into a “house of wisdom,” the Bayt al-Hikma, which rivaled the great library of Alexandria. Poets and scholars flocked to the city, further enriching the collection and imbuing the Cradle of Civilization with a love of knowledge and the written word that it has carried proudly to the modern day. 

The Mongol Siege of Baghdad in 1258. Source: Wikimedia

The Mongol Siege of Baghdad in 1258. Source: Wikimedia

However, 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 took the city, it targeted the grand Bayt al-Hikma, casting its 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. Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 unfettered writers and heralded a new era of free expression, even as it wrought havoc on the country’s infrastructure and social fabric. When the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) swept the country a decade later, its zealots attempted 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 across Iraq’s modern history as the country 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. 

“Isn’t to be a king more honorable than to be a subject?”

“The pride in being a citizen and the responsibility to one’s state are much more honorable, because they define honor, my king. It can be neither inherited nor given as a prize. No honor is real if it is not gained by one’s faithfulness to his country…”

Saddam Hussein, Zabiba and the King (2004)

Saddam Hussein’s Zabiba and the King

Saddam Hussein’s Zabiba and the King

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. 

Despite Saddam’s vicious treatment of the Kurds, their literary culture was largely spared the regime’s interference, as long there was no mention of Kurdish nationalism. The Kurdish region was home to many publishing houses and fostered artistic and literary communities during the Saddam era, including a wandering pack of Beat poets. After Iraqi Kurdistan was shielded from the Iraqi regime by the imposition of a safe zone in 1991, the Kurdish language, which had been banned in the public and professional spheres by Ba’athist “Arabization” campaigns, experienced a revival. It became the primary language of schools and public life, reconnecting Iraqi Kurds to the poetry and prose that helped define Kurdish identity and advance nationalism in the Ottoman era—such as “Mem u Zin” a 17th century epic poem that was the first written treatise on Kurdish national identity. 

Library in Rawanduz, Iraqi Kurdistan. Source: Wikimedia

Library in Rawanduz, Iraqi Kurdistan. Source: Wikimedia

Lanja Khawe, founder of the Sofia Book Group in Sulaymaniyah that works to encourage reading, especially among young women, describes the influence of classic authors: 

“When considering our modern history, we can observe that literary writers and poets are the predecessors among the political leaders, religious men, and national revolutionaries in the Kurdish identity struggle. For example, in Kurdish modern history, before the aforementioned figures fought for Kurdish national identity against assimilation in the countries where Kurdish people live (Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran), it was poets, such as Ahmad Khani and Nali who held the role.”

Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2011)

“After the American occupation of Iraq things changed drastically; people lost what they had and gained what they lacked during the Saddam regime.” — Lanja Khawe, founder of the Sophia Book Group

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.  

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.

Statue Commemorating the medieval Arab poet al-Mutanabbi. Source: Wikimedia

Statue Commemorating the medieval Arab poet al-Mutanabbi. Source: Wikimedia

“[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

Iraqi Kurdistan escaped the worst damage of the US-led invasion and the ensuing sectarian violence. The infrastructure remained largely intact and the education system robust, allowing literary culture to grow. Kurdish publications increased and libraries were opened across the region. 

The Yazidis, who had been resettled and subjected to “Arabization” under Saddam, had withdrawn even further into their insular community before Operation Iraqi Freedom; after 2003 they were able to open up more to the outside world. However, there was no literary legacy in their communities, as the Yazidis passed on their scriptures and stories orally. Illiteracy was widespread up until OIF, when more open and inclusive policies allowed children (and adults) to be educated in their native Kurdish.  

“Yazidi regions are full of bad poets and writers, but one can notice that they improve step by step… There are some emerging poets in Yazidi regions who are important figures, I believe, in the Iraqi literary scene.” — Zaidan, Yazidi translator residing in Zahko

ISIS and the Aftermath (2014 – Present)

The rise and rule of the so-called Islamic State brought a new level of fear and repression to Iraq, even the areas beyond the organization’s direct control.  ISIS extremists committed bibliocide on a scale not seen since the Mongols sacked Baghdad. Thousands of novels, poems, textbooks, and religious texts considered heterodoxic to the State’s doctrines were burned in an attempt to purge their ideas. The library for the University of Mosul, the size of a city block and home to maps and manuscripts from the 9th century, was put to the torch and boobytrapped with IEDs. 

 “ISIS rule was few years between mid-2014 until late 2017. The fear of savage punishment by ISIS, for any misbehavior and misconduct, were great. Kurdish people in those areas under ISIS rule were fearful of everything, not just speaking a language that would bring punishment if overheard.” — Diyar Ahmed, scholar residing in Sulaymaniyah

After the territorial defeat of ISIS, a wave of atheism swept the country; the population was weary of sectarianism and fanaticism. This new secularism has been reflected in the population’s reading choices. The popularity of Islamic texts has been supplanted by books on the natural sciences and political theory, and the book markets of Iraq are once again filled with Western novels and classical poetry alike. The mode of consumption for literature has also changed.  Now, more people read e-books, both for convenience and economy, and pirated PDFs provide an impoverished generation with a gateway into literary culture. 

“Last year I visited a café in Mosul. There was a white board that said ‘write a message here for our Yazidi brothers and sisters.’  One of the messages caught my eye, it said: ‘It is the fault of Islam’s heritage, we are innocent of that,’ I was happy to read that people give up at least the violent side of Islam, which has dominated the religious texts and history of Islam.” — Zaidan, Yazidi translator residing in Zahko

Library in Baghdad. Source: US Department of Defence

Library in Baghdad. Source: US Department of Defence

As Iraq attempts to recover from decades of war and disaster, its writers try to come to terms with their experiences. So, the literature itself is, in a word, dark. Two of Iraq’s most prominent authors, Hassan Blassim and Ahmad Saadawi, have used magical realism to address the horrors of the occupation and sectarian violence. The short stories of Hassan Blassim combine jinn with car bombs and resurrection myths with the cyclical violence of religious warfare. In Saadawi’s award winning Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018), the titular monster, cobbled together from the corpses of bombing victims, represents the diversity yet putridity of the nation itself. 

The literature of Mesopotamia continues to reflect society at large: a people struggling with the aftermath of extreme violence and the current reality of political discord. Anyone attempting to understand Iraq and its people would do well to look to its bookshelves, to the poems and parodies that provide a window into the soul of the culture. The likes of Hulagu Khan and Saddam Hussein thought that literature could be beaten or warped against Iraq, but it is like its people: adaptable, indomitable, and enduring.

 “’Because I’m made up of body parts of people from diverse backgrounds – ethnicities, tribes, races and social classes – I represent the impossible mix that never was achieved in the past. I’m the first true Iraqi citizen,’ he (the Frankenstein) thinks.” — Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018)

 “Spilled blood and superstition are the basis of the world. Man is not the only creature who kills for bread, or love, or power, because animals in the jungle do that in their own ways, but man is the only creature who kills because of faith.” — Hassan Blassim, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq (2014)

Kristen Gunderson is a research assistant with Navanti’s Syria team. She previously served as an Arabic linguist with the United States Navy specializing in Iraqi affairs.