It’s hardly a surprise to find the US soldier as a ubiquitous centering force in America’s “Iraq War” literature, whether critically acclaimed or popular, self-reflective or triumphalist. Book-length works came in a flood after the March 20, 2003 invasion, feeding and encouraging a desire to know about what was going on “over there” with “our soldiers.” These books were centered inside a narrative where US soldiers may be unsupported in the particular, but are revered in the abstract. Creative writing was a near-seamless part of the war effort, both during and after the conflict. During, journalists were embedded with US forces, and scholar and novelist Elliott Colla has written about a similarly “embedded literature.”
It was 2004 when the National Endowment for the Arts created “Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience.” They offered guidance for budding veteran-authors that included a writing guide, writing workshops, and many publishing opportunities. Not only have there been thousands of texts written largely as therapy for returning soldiers, but also many big books that were widely read, shared, and discussed. These include books that foreground the US soldier as hero, such as Chris Kyle and Scott McEwan’s bestselling American Sniper, which spawned imitators and parallel stories in addition to a big-budget film. They also include critical-darling literary texts like Kevin Powers’s Yellow Birds and Phil Klay’s Redeployment.
Elliott Colla’s Baghdad Central is one of only a handful of novels where a US perspective is de-centered. As for the rest, they might be critical of choices made by individual US soldiers, or by US leadership, yet American soldiers are both the central and supporting characters. Eric Fair’s memoir Consequences, for instance, foregrounds himself as an army interrogator and torturer. Whether one reads this as confession or self-justification, his perspective is our lens on the world.
In 2014, both George Packer, in a piece for The New Yorker, and Michiko Kakutani, for The New York Times, celebrated this proliferation of “Iraq War” literature, not only from veterans, but also from journalists and historians. What was notably absent from their celebration was the memoir and storycraft of Iraqi writers. Kakutani did mention Hassan Blasim’s short stories, translated by Jonathan Wright, as well as the existence of Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad. Yet it would be four more years—this January—until Saadawi’s novel was available in Wright’s English translation.
It is only now, fifteen years after the 2003 invasion and occupation, that a tiny body of post-2003 Iraqi literature, translated from Arabic, is available in English. Hassan Blasim’s short-story collections were among the first to draw readers’ attention, with his first collection published in the UK in 2009. When Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition finally arrived in the US, in a 2014 Penguin Random edition, Blasim was invited to the country for several book events. Yet, unfortunately and uncomfortably, the brilliant and boundary-crushing Iraqi author was put into public conversation with US Marine veteran Phil Klay. Indeed, Blasim’s work was couched as the “Iraqi version” of Klay’s, although Blasim was not an Iraqi soldier, but a citizen living in Finland at the time he wrote the stories collected in The Corpse Exhibition.
Blasim further said, in an interview for Barnes & Noble, that he didn’t write about Americans, and indeed “deliberately ignored stories of American soldiers, the kind that appear in Iraqi and American literature and art, either as heroes, victims, or criminals.”
Blasim went on:
“America occupied Iraq, then oil companies came to profit, then Hollywood made heroes of the war and it too profited, American authors wrote books about American soldiers and made money, analysts sat in American television studios analyzing the war and forming conclusions so the television stations profited, and many American stars were created in the realms of politics, war, arts, and literature.”
The celebrity of Iraq War authors, trading on the currency of their service during the Iraq War, were thus another extended part of the occupation. It’s important to note that, while most Iraqi authors don’t foreground the stories of US soldiers, these narratives are widely available. The book American Sniper was made into a film that played in several venues around Iraq, and while there don’t seem to be translations of Yellow Birds or Redeployment, there has been coverage of both books in the Arabic press.
Blasim, and other Iraqi writers, have generally been more interested in the stories of Iraqi civilians. The Iraqi ambulance driver, Blasim said, was more interesting to him than the US soldier, as the “US soldier has returned home while the ambulance driver remained, picking up bodies from the pools of blood in Baghdad to this day.” This image recalls the junkman in Saadawi’s novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad, who makes his monster from found body parts.
That US-based writers cluster around US military points of view, even as they read and interrogate writing like Blasim’s, is hardly unique to the Iraq War. Nor is the Iraq War the only conflict where we simultaneously erase ourselves as agents—after all, it is not the “US-Iraq War”—and foreground our experiences. As Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote last year in his New York Times commentary “The Great Vietnam War Novel Was Not Written by an American,” “Only a small cadre of Americans believed that it was necessary and urgent to learn more about Vietnamese voices and experiences, without which a more complete American understanding of the Vietnam War would never happen.”
We Americans have written extensively about ourselves in relationship to the Iraq War, primarily in our identity as soldiers and occupiers, less as protesters, and still less as the bulk of us: passive enablers. Surely there is much left to be mined by examining ourselves as the latter category. But also what do we gain from taking the advice of Viet Thanh Nguyen and reading ourselves, and this conflict, from the vantage of Iraqi literature? Some Iraqis, as Blasim says, have written US soldiers as heroes or villains. But more and more often, they are neither hero or anti-hero. Instead, the US soldier is often as much a nameless background as the Iraqis in American novels. They are a force of chaos and misunderstanding, allied with shadowy corrupt governments, and often read as untouchable or un-confrontable.
Iraqi writers, by and large, have created worlds where the soldier’s perspective, either Iraqi or foreign, isn’t primary In the few cases where it is— as in Ali Bader’s hilarious “The Corporal,” translated by Elisabeth Jaquette— the results still illustrate at least as much about social and political context as about an individual soldier’s anxieties and choices. In “The Corporal,” the bumbling Iraqi conscript wants to take a crumpled rose from his pocket to hand to the first US soldier he sees. Before he can do this, he’s shot in the head.
“Nothing But Rain”
Iraqi authors are certainly in a better position to know multiple sides of the conflict than are US or UK authors. Blasim wrote his stories from Finland, while many Iraqi authors have been forced to leave for the US, Canada, England, the Emirates, or Europe.
Iraqi poet, academic, and novelist Sinan Antoon left Iraq for the US in 1991, a year after graduating from the University of Baghdad. In the last four years, two of the novels he wrote post-2003 have appeared in English. The first was originally published in 2010 under the title Wahdaha Shajarat al-Roman (The Pomegranate Tree Alone) and is set around the 2003 invasion. Antoon self-translated the novel, which appeared as The Corpse Washer in 2014. The second was his International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted Ya Maryam (Ave Maria), which was translated by Maia Tabet and appeared in English as The Baghdad Eucharist in 2017.
Like Blasim’s, Antoon’s books are self-consciously uninterested in the figure of the individualized and anxiety-ridden US soldier. When US soldiers do appear, they are seen from the outside, as they might appear to the gaze of an ordinary Iraqi citizen. Antoon told NPR, in 2014, that “the problem is that in this country . . . we get the American narrative, and in this country we get the narrative of the vets, which is important of course, but we never, or very rarely get the . . . civilian point of view.”
The Corpse Washer centers around Jawad, a sculptor whose father dies and leaves him the family business: corpse-washing. American characters exist, but they appear largely as nameless occupiers who have slid into the place of the previous rulers. Americans appear suddenly, without reason or warning, and it is up to the characters to make sense of their actions:
The driver turned the flasher on and a man wearing khaki came out of the passenger side. He approached the group which had been exchanging good wishes and congratulations and asked who had used the camera—‘Photography is not allowed here.’ He snatched the camera away from one of the female students, took the film out and warned everyone not to do it again. He went outside, got into the car and took off. Most of us were surprised, but we later realized that the presidential palace was just across the river. Now the Americans have occupied it and surrounded it with walls and checkpoints; our new rulers can live far away from us.
The description-free US soldier appears, snatches the camera, takes the film, and leaves. We know only his gender—“he”—and the soldier himself offers no explanation beyond the forbidden nature of photography “here.” In the moment, the Iraqi characters are surprised. It is only later that they piece together—perhaps correctly, perhaps not—the reason for this prohibition: the proximity of the presidential palace.
In Antoon’s third novel and second to be translated to English, The Baghdad Eucharist, published in 2012 as Ya Maryam (Ave Maria), the main action is set on a single day in December 2010, the day when the Our Lady of Salvation Chaldean church in Baghdad was bombed, an attack that killed more than four dozen people. In the novel, the Americans and “their new government” are also an abstract and distant thing. The two central characters are elderly Youssef and his distant young cousin Maha, who have been thrown together temporarily and have sharply different ways of seeing contemporary Baghdad.
Early in the book, Youssef remembers a time, during the US’s aerial bombardments in 1991, when he saw little Maha. The two were inside a shelter during the “American fireworks.” At this point, the American soldiers are at an even greater distance, as unpredictable and uncontrollable as the weather. Indeed, at one point, Youssef tells little Maha not to be afraid, this is just a storm:
“It’s just raining! It’s raining really, really hard. Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon. All gone!”
Her eyes grew wide as if she were thinking over what I had just said. Then she looked to her mother for confirmation and Nawal reassured her. “It’s just the rain, darling. Nothing but rain.”
Although these are clearly adults comforting a child, and they know the bombardments aren’t simply thunder, the metaphor underlines their powerlessness in the face of this invading force.
Americans’ Corrupt Rule
Yet Americans are not only the distant and unstoppable weather. They are also shadowy, corrupt actors working to support their own duplicitous aims, as in Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, winner of the 2015 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Set between 2005 and 2006, the novel has a brilliant premise—a “Whatsitsname” is assembled from the body parts of dead Iraqis, courtesy of a junk dealer.
One of the novel’s most sympathetic point-of-view characters is the journalist Mahmoud al-Sawadi, who happens to live in the neighborhood where the Whatsitsname comes into being. Al-Sawadi is independently tracking this corpse-built echo of Mary Shelley’s monster. As a journalist, al-Sawadi is in a potentially powerful position to uncover the novel’s truths. Yet, at each turn, he is faced with violence and blockades, stopping him from finding the information he desires. Some of his obstacles are faceless, low-level US soldiers, who block the journalist’s progress through his city:
“An African-American soldier yelled at Mahmoud and pointed his gun at him when he tried to approach and explain that he was from the press. Frightened, Mahmoud went back to the hotel.”
Another character following the Whatsitsname—who is far closer to the centers of power—is Brigadier Sorour Mohamed Majid, part of the country’s secretive Tracking and Pursuit Department. Brigadier Majid apparently is also “employed by the Americans’ Coalition Provisional Authority to lead an assassination squad,” which aims to keep an “equilibrium of violence” across the country.
In the end, word of the Whatsitsname gets out. The US State Department throws up its hands and suggests the creature’s killings were the work of an “ingenious man whose aim was to undermine the American project in Iraq.” In this, the State Department’s reading of events is much like American readings of Iraqi literature: The Whatsitsname is all about them. Brigadier Majid suggests, on the other hand, “the monster itself was their project” and that it was “Americans who were behind the monster.” In the literal sense, Brigadier Majid is wrong—Hadi the junk dealer created the monster—although certainly there are other ways of assessing blame. The Victor Frankenstein may not be the Americans, but we certainly helped create the context of violence in which the Whatitsname becomes inevitable.
At the end of Frankenstein in Baghdad, the journalist passes his story on to an unnamed novelist, who could be Ahmed Saadawi. Yet this is not where it ends: The novelist finds himself arrested for writing about the Whatsitsname, “sent for questioning in front of a panel of Iraqi and American officers,” his novel confiscated, the truth suppressed so as not to undermine the American project.
Shahad al-Rawi’s best-selling pop-romance The Baghdad Clock (2016) falls in a different category. The novel, unexpectedly shortlisted for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, is loved by a legion of fans and scorned by a number of critics. The book has already been translated into English by Luke Leafgren and is now available in English.
The book is something of a wistful romance-washing of recent history. Yet just as there’s one mention of Baathists, the Americans also cannot be completely ignored. “Bush the Father” and “Bush the Son” are both named and blamed, yet little more about them is said. Later, one US soldier appears, hovering above the narrator’s neighborhood in an Apache. Interestingly, she seems to struggle against the desire to give him a personality.
It’s late in the book when the narrator thinks about “the American pilot as he hovers at dawn in his Apache helicopter in the sky above Baghdad.” First, the narrator supposes that this pilot comes from Los Angeles, and then from New York, the city where “the towers fell[.]” In the end, she refuses to give him a particular hometown, imagining he might hail from any US state, “for that does not interest me personally.”
Still, the narrator doesn’t let go yet. She continues to imagine this overhead soldier has a wife and children and home, and that he comes from a city with “clean skies.” The novel is in some ways a wish-fulfillment story: A fortuneteller comes to the narrator’s neighborhood, telling them about the destruction to come, warning them to flee the “sinking ship” of Baghdad before it’s too late. The ship is sinking, but, unlike with Frankenstein or Baghdad Eucharist, the narrative doesn’t ask why. Indeed, the narrative seems to want to avoid this American, who hovers above the city, threatening it from afar. He exists at the margins of the novel, and it doesn’t engage the reasons he is there, nor how he affects what’s to come.
The US Soldier With A Name
This is not to say there aren’t Iraqi novels and short stories in which the soldiers are named and personified; it’s indeed far more common than US novels that foreground Iraqis. Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter, translated by Nariman Youssef, was published in Arabic in 2008 and shortlisted for the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It’s told through the eyes of an Iraqi-American woman, Zeina, who goes back to her homeland as an interpreter for the US Army.
Kachachi is an Iraqi living in France, and her depictions of Americans are apparently unintentionally strained by stereotype, as well as by the occasional error, such as the name of the US national anthem. As Antoon wrote about the novel in Jadaliyya, the characters “remain Hollywoodish stereotypes at best.” Although certainly the stereotypes are largely harmless: a beer-drinking boyfriend in love with the remote control.
The novel is much more sure-footed when it’s depicting Zeina’s return to her home country and the ambivalence this engenders, as Kachachi has written about elsewhere. It also succeeds at portraying how, in allying herself with the US soldiers, Zeina becomes foreign to herself:
I put on the helmet with the patterned net and the mirror sunglasses and turned from a slightly built, dark-skinned woman into an alien from outer space. The aliens moved around in groups, rode in Hummers and carried the latest guns. Everything in the street made way, pedestrians and ambulances and horse-drawn carriages. People watering their gardens shrunk back into their houses. The scene froze while our convoy drove past, like someone had pressed the pause button.
Mahmoud Saeed is another Iraqi writer who has crafted US soldiers with names and personal identities, if evil ones. Saeed has been living in the US since the mid-1980s, and his “Lizard’s Colony,” set in May 2003, is a grim depiction of interrogation by an Iraqi interpreter, Zaynab, and a cruel general, David Mueller. Between them is the suspect, Ahmed al-Maghribi, who is being tortured for information. Paradoxically, Zaynab understands the general better than she does the suspect, who speaks Moroccan Arabic.
Yet while much more time is spent sketching in the physical and psychic presence of the general, our sympathy ultimately lies with the shadowy suspect, who repeats a single question to Zaynab over and over.
A Presence, An Absence
US soldiers also come in a vastly different guise in Dunya Mikhail’s The Beekeeper, published in Arabic in 2017 as Fi Souq al-Sabaya (In the Market of Women Slaves), translated by Mikhail and Max Weiss and published in English in 2018. This work of nonfiction, memoir, and occasional poetry centers around women kidnapped by Daesh, particularly those Yazidi women who were sold and resold into slavery.
The American soldier who appears is not part of the US army, but is a Daesh fighter called “The American Emir.” He speaks halting Arabic, and tells one of the enslaved women—who later escapes, which is how we know her story—that he was once “an infidel like you.”
Like the other Daeshis in the book, this Emir is neither fleshed out nor fully inhabited. These stories, after all, belong to the escaped women. Still, we do learn something of his life, as when he shows an enslaved woman named Badia photos of his family on his computer, including:
his American wife, his one-year-old son, and his infant daughter. The two children were playing on swings in a park. He said he’d been a teacher in an elementary school.
“Isn’t it haram for you to abandon two small children who might be wondering where their father is?” “
I go to America every once in a while, to see my family, then I come back.”
“I’d like to go to America one day.”
“You can go to your room now.”
The only time soldiers from US forces appear in the narrative is when they don’t. Abdullah, the titular “beekeeper,” tells Mikhail about his community’s escape from Daeshis. “To tell you the truth, it was an unusual protection force, as it was mostly made up of women. Throughout that harsh and difficult journey we’d hoped an American or European plane would come to airlift us all to safety, but that never happened.” And here, as so many other places, the Americans are known by their absence.
From our contemporary vantage, we can clearly see that Viet Thanh Nguyen is right. How could the Great Vietnam War Novel have been written by an American? After all, the long-term consequences of that war— what it meant for Vietnam, for the region, for the world—were felt largely by the Vietnamese. When US soldiers and observers lost interest and “moved on,” there the Vietnamese still were. As Hassan Blasim notes, US soldiers also came and left Iraq. The war had a psychological impact on them and on the US, certainly, but it did not change the fabric of their families, communities, governments, societies, and histories. The novels written by US observers will be first-person affairs about individual morality and suffering. Some of them may be excellent, but it’s unlikely they will stick around to see the war as it keeps unfolding through time and space. Thus it is, eventually, to Iraqi novels we must look for a larger moral, social, and historical view, including a view of ourselves.