A Legacy of Ruins: Iraqi Letters and Intellectuals Under Saddam's Regime

By Mahmoud Saeed

In 1978, while in his 20s, the young writer Sattar Jabr Naser caused a controversy in Baghdad with his book, "Reflections on the Book of Ali al-Wardi: Glimpses of the Modern History of Iraq." Naser denied that he was seeking fame by studying the flaws of his teacher, but insisted that he wanted to accomplish what his teacher could not. However, the destiny awaiting him was indifferent to his motives.

On his way home from the university, he disappeared, and all of his family's efforts to locate him failed. Three months later, he reappeared, but pale, skinny, and with symptoms of torture by the Iraqi security forces. Naser's only crime was not joining the Iraqi Baath Party. Instead of staying at home, as his family expected, Naser put together a list of the detainees he met in prison and took it upon himself to inform their parents of their whereabouts. Naser disappeared for the second time a week later, never to be seen again. Many believed that his activities while briefly out of prison led to his abduction for the government had kept him under surveillance. With the discovery of scores of mass graves in Iraq following the American and British occupation, Naser's family is more hopeful than ever of finding any trace of their son, if only his remains.

Naser's story is an example of what many writers went through during Saddam's regime. There is no question that Iraq was afflicted by other repressive regimes throughout its history, but all pale in comparison to the Baathist regime, which ruled Iraq from the early 1960s.

Mountains of evidence testify to the Baathist regime's brutality toward and persecution of intellectuals and artists, but one particularly telling statistic is the number of stories that were published in Iraqi newspapers and magazines before and after the Baath Party seized power for the first time. Before the Baath came to power in 1963 the number ranged from 20 to 30 stories a month. However, not even a single story was published during the remaining 326 days of 1963, according to a study by Bassem Abd al-Hamid Hamoudi in Al Aqlam Magazine. In 1964 only eight stories and novels were published. This extreme disparity is unquestionably linked to the terror the Baathists imposed on Iraq, a repression which resulted either in imprisoning or forcing into exile large numbers of intellectuals and artists.

A brief glance at the list of the Iraqi intellectuals who were jailed reveals important names like poets like Abd al-Wahab al-Bayati, Baland al-Haydari, Saadi Youssef, Moussa al-Nakdi, and authors like Ali al-Shawk, Ali Jawad al-Taher, and others. Some detainees, like poets Youssef al-Sayigh, Fawzi Karim, author Aziz al-Sayyed Jasim, and others gave in and were released from prison to confer praise on the regime.

The intellectuals and artists who chose to support the Baathists are hardly noteworthy; genuine Iraqi intellectuals and artists were not Baathists, and a majority of them were either jailed or forced into exile. After 1969, the Baathist regime had those working for the state dismissed from their jobs if they did not join the Baath Party. The first move came against those working in television, including directors, program producers, actors, and technicians. They had to choose between joining the party or losing their jobs, possibly even facing prosecution. The majority complied with the regime's orders.

Following the regime's economic war against intellectuals and artists, a new campaign of "legitimation" unfolded: The Iraqi Writers Union conducted an election in which Baathist candidates competed unchallenged. The credible and serious literary figures pulled out of the union's elections after they became aware of fraudulent electoral processes. When coercion apparently failed to gain the compliance of some literary figures, the regime tried the strategy of financial incentives by doling out generous "awards." Important figures like the famed poet Al Jawahiri, Abd al-Razzaq Abd al-Wahed, and Lamia Abbas Amara, just to mention a few, received such awards.

These incentives were not confined to Iraqis but also awarded to other Arab writers, perhaps the most important of whom was the noted Egyptian novelist and author Gamal al-Ghitani. (Al-Ghitani was the center of controversy after one of Saddam Hussein's poets-Raad Bandar, a friend of Uday Saddam Hussein- accused him of writing the dictator's novel, "Zubaiba and the King." This controversy was reported in major articles in Al Hayat and An Nahar Literary Supplement. Both publications did cast doubt on the credibility of the accusation.) In the end, these incentives succeeded in finding a group of authors and poets who benefitted from propaganda, and they achieved temporary glory by combining creativity and falsification.

In order for the Baath party to bolster the lacking literary value of its regime, it resorted to organizing a series of cultural festivals, such as "Marbid," "The Days of Baghdad," and "Festivities of Babylon." They invited important Arab literary figures to these events including Nizar Kabbani, Mahmoud Darwish, Jamal al-Ghitany, and the Lebanese singer Fairuz. The Party awarded titles to whoever had sold out his literary work, conscience, and morals to the government: for example, poet Hamid Saeed was granted the title of the poet of the "Two Euphrates," Sami Mahdi the title of the "Poet of the War," Raad Bandar the "Poet of Al Qadissiyya," and Jawad al-Hattab the "Poet of the Mother of all Battles."

The regime's record on censorship bordered on foolishness. It banned a book by Fakhr al-Razzi which interpreted the Koran only because it was printed in 1952 in Tehran. Another book about Zionism was banned because it was written from a Soviet perspective. Scores of magazines were banned just because they printed pictures of Hafez al-Assad, Anwar al-Sadat, and Communist or Iranian officials. The Baath party also banned films featuring the late dancer Tahiyya Karioka, mainly because she was active in Jammat al-Silm, a leftist pro-peace group.

No one escaped censorship, regardless of their position. The minister of information Abdallah al-Kamali, poet and writer of the Iraqi National anthem, was executed because he was quoted referring to Saddam's illiteracy in a private meeting. Though he was executed, the national anthem that he wrote was broadcast daily before the news on state radio and television.

This writer had a long experience with the Baathist regime which resulted more than once in imprisonment as well as the banning most of his literary productions from being published or sold in Iraq. I have published 11 books, including novels and collections of short stories, and the only one which was allowed in Iraq is the first collection of stories, "Port Said and Others Stories," which was published six years before the Baath Party seized power.

The Baathist era in Iraq was a dark one, and though our nightmare is over, ruins remain as the constant legacy of that dark past.


This article was translated from Arabic by Al Jadid staff

This essay appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 9, Nos. 42/43 (Winter/Spring 2003)

Translation Copyright 2003 © by Al Jadid


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