A Guide to Modern Iraqi Literature in Translation

By Rebecca Joubin

Iraq’s Modern Arabic Literature: A Guide to English Translations since 1950
By Salih J. Altoma
The Scarecrow Press, 2010

The Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, the Iraq-Kuwait War and the Gulf War of 1990-1991, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the harsh economic sanctions that lasted more than 13 years have made Iraq a source of both academic and nonacademic war study. The Iraq tragedy has also inspired American literary works. However, according to Salih Altoma, there has been a noteworthy absense of attention given to Iraqi writers. For although Iraqi writers, poets, and novelists have surmounted tremendous obstacles both within Iraq and in exile – continuing their creative output since the 1950s – their work has been largely marginalized. To redress this dearth of recognition for Iraq’s large canon of modern literature, Salih Altoma wrote “Iraq’s Modern Arabic Literature: A Guide to English Translations since 1950.”

In order to guide the researcher through the ever-growing canon of Iraqi literature published in translation since the 1950s, this comprehensive guide presents an exhaustive list of books that have been translated in various English- speaking countries, as well as a thoroughly researched list of secondary sources such as reviews, interviews with authors, and academic articles on Iraqi literary output. In this volume, Altoma also aims to represent a wide variety of writers who are not specialists in the field of Iraqi literature, for the purpose of showing how interest has also been developing amongst the general population. Altoma makes it clear from the outset that this bibliography concentrates on Iraq’s Arabic literature, and works by Iraqi writers who write in English are for the most part excluded from this piece. According to Altoma, Iraqi literature written in English deserves its own separate study.

Altoma explains that up until now translations and critical studies have focused on the contributions of Iraqi poets since the 1950s, and the work of these consequently comprises the largest section in this volume. This poetry focuses on issues of exile, resistance to the former Iraqi regime, and war-related themes. What distinguishes Altoma’s seminal bibliographic compendium is that it not only lists the wide variety of sources and books that are now available in translation, but it additionally suggests areas for further study. For example, Altoma views traditional and neo-classical poets as being minimally represented in both translations and academic studies. And while Iraqi poetry has been widely studied, there is a paucity of studies on other Iraqi literary genres, such as drama, the novel, and the short story. Additionally, there is largely an absence of anthologies and collections dedicated to individual Iraqi poets, and also very little representation of women short-story writers and novelists. By giving space to what is currently absent, he calls for further studies. Salih “Altoma’s Iraq’s Modern Arabic Literature: A Guide to English Translations since 1950" is a must read for all who currently do research on Iraq, as well as for those seeking to begin their research.

This review appearred in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 63, 2010.

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