You are considered one of Iraq’s most beloved novelists and your career spans more than half a century. At the same time, you served as a judge for 37 years. How exactly did you balance these two fundamentally different experiences?
I was born into a family of lawyers, and from early childhood I understood that I was expected to follow in this tradition. Yet, as a child I read novels constantly, primarily books from the Western canon of literature that were available in translation in Iraq. By the time I was 15, I was already writing short stories for myself, albeit in secret. When it came time to enter university, I entered law school to appease my family, but I continued to write short stories and novels. In 1949, during law school, I wrote my first short novel, which was never published. Although my stories were first published soon after that, I was never satisfied with anything I wrote. In fact, I despised my writing. To overcome this, I began reading books with a wholly critical eye, identifying both their positive and negative aspects, and this helped ease myself into accepting my own work. In 1950, I wrote “Green Eyes,” a short story about a prostitute, which took three years to get published. Though it was not the first work I published, it was the first in which I felt I had succeeded in terms of literary technique. When I completed law school, I worked in the civil court, and in 1956 I became a judge, all the while writing stories.
You ask how I could balance such fundamentally different professions, but I must admit that my position as a judge actually enhanced my writing. I was from a bourgeois family and had little exposure to the outside world. My job as a judge, for the first time, enabled me to enter the very depths of Iraqi society. I learned about the poor and their problems;they try to solve one problem, then become embroiled in more complex predicaments. Provided with such rich material about my society, I wrote profusely, despite the heavy criticism I received for balancing these two positions. But I continued to write, and practiced law, without the faintest interest in what people thought.
The visual reigns in your stories, and it is often said that you introduced this cinematic technique to Iraqi literature. I can still remember certain scenes in “The Faraway Man” that were so incredibly colorful and realistic. Tell us about your literary technique and experience creating “The Faraway Man.”
In addition to reading profusely from early childhood, I was always drawn toward cinema. Fellini and Bergman were among my favorite directors. To me, their films were visual poetry and I sought to follow their example. Thus my novels are filled with profound descriptions as I try to engage the reader. My goal is to formulate the image in the mind of my reader, and allow him or her to relive the moment in all its intensity. No boundary may exist between the text and reader. Despite the pervasive detail, my language is simple and direct, without the faintest trace of exaggeration.
In general, when a story idea comes to me, I am not able to function or do anything at all. I go through a depression and everything else in my life seems secondary. From 1963-66, I was heavily immersed in dealing with the technique of the story which would turn into “The Faraway Man.” Ideas were stirring haphazardly in my head, but they only came together when a friend told me the story of his aunt who had been raped. Now my main concern was applying this idea within the context of the Iraqi society with which I was familiar. The technique of multiple perspectives, such as that of Hussain, the drunkard, and Sana, the young innocent child – brought an enormous challenge to the writing process. It was not until 1979 that I would finally lay my pen to rest and sought to see my new novel through to publication.
But publication did not come easily. In Iraq, the censorship committee refused it since the character Adnan, a Baathist figure, seemed to be the one who had raped the aunt. To the authorities, this was a direct assault on the regime and they demanded that I remove this part of the story. They also were angered that I dared talk about serious matters such as Iraqi politics in the national dialect.
Because I could not appease them, I attempted to publish it in Beirut. The civil war raged in Lebanon, so I met with a Lebanese publisher in Damascus. Three months later, I had still not heard anything and figured his publishing house was not interested. Although I understood that it would be hard to publish anything written in the Iraqi dialect in Beirut, I still pursued publication. In 1980, despite the dangers involved, I set out to Beirut for a meeting with the Ibn Rushd publishing house. To my utter bewilderment, our meeting in the evening turned into a sort of party. Those responsible for determining the fate of my novel were drunk by the end of the evening, and still not one word had been mentioned about my book. Just as I figured the night had ended in futility, the publisher approached me and said he would be honored to publish my novel.
You wrote for quite a while before Saddam Hussein and you have written since his time. Did his presence have an effect on your literature?
In general, during Saddam’s time I wanted to continue writing, and thus I was careful not to arouse his antagonism. I never paid him compliments, but neither was I antagonistic or hostile toward him. I did not scream or curse, and in general, since my criticism was not considered direct or impolite, the authorities left me alone. Even when “The Faraway Man” was published in Beirut, and in 1980 distributed successfully in Iraq, the authorities left me alone. Because the story was highly critical of the Baath Party, people often wondered how I had not been imprisoned. Indeed, there were Baath members who reprobated my work, but there were also others who were so mesmerized by this novel that seemed to touch people’s hearts that they did not interfere in its distribution. In the end, I think the reality was that those in authority did not really understand it.
During the early 1980’s, I was drawn to Paris, since “The Faraway Man” was being translated there by a Tunisian writer. During the (translation) process we had fallen in love, and I wanted to find a way to join her. But at that time, it was extremely difficult to leave the country. Faced with no other option, I wrote a letter to Saddam informing him that my book was being translated into French, but that the Tunisian writer was having a hard time deciphering the Iraqi dialect. Thus, for the success of the project it would be necessary for me to work with her in Paris. He was convinced and agreed to allow me to travel for a stint in Paris. After 37 years of service I retired as a judge in 1983, and set off to Paris where I could begin to focus solely on my writing. I married my translator, and we remained in Paris from 1983 until 1986, and then returned to Iraq, where I was never really considered “in,” and always struggled to survive economically. I still felt lucky since I was allowed to write unhindered.
But something happened in 1989 which made me feel the tide of acceptance was turning against me. I was nominated for a Saddam Hussein culture prize and was on the verge of winning. However, without telling me why, the jury disqualified me. Rumor had it that Saddam had interfered in the process and said he preferred his prize be granted to an Egyptian writer. Those around me told me not to start asking questions about this matter, so as not to agitate Saddam.
Every time there was a knock on the door, though, my wife was scared the authorities had come to pick me up. Rather than live in fear, in 1990 we decided to pack our bags and set off for Tunis. While residing in Tunis, however, I was often invited back to Iraq for conferences and thus I traveled back and forth.
Have you visited Iraq since Saddam’s fall?
In 2004, the Cultural Ministry invited many exiled Iraqi intellectuals to attend a conference. On this occasion I traveled to Baghdad, which I found desolate; violence had taken over. It was such a heartbreaking experience that I only stayed 10 days and then decided never to return.
In your opinion, is there a cultural scene now in Iraq?
There is nothing left in Iraq but death and violence. Who wants to attend a gallery exhibition and risk being killed on the way home? A few months ago they even bombed al-Mutanabi Street, the last remnant of culture in Iraq. In fact, they are not just attacking intellectuals and figures on the cultural scene. The militias also murder those in professions such as medicine, engineering, law and academics. It seems there are those who want to murder the very heart of Iraqi society so that the people will live in constant fear. It is disheartening for me to acknowledge that Iraq is all but destroyed and still not the faintest hint of a solution flutters before us.
This interview appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 13, nos. 58/59 (2007)
Copyright (c) 2007-2008 by Al JadidAir Jordan XIV Low