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Solitude and dream: literature post-9/11

HZIraqi novelist Haifa Zangana survived torture under Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1970s and was subsequently forced into exile in London. So even though she was by then observing from a distance, Zangana’s fiction was not unaffected by what she calls the “mayhem and destruction” brought to Iraq by the 9-year long US-led occupation. After 2003, Zangana, already the celebrated author of three novels, including Women on a Journey: Between Baghdad and London, stopped writing fiction and joined the anti-war movement. Since then, she has written extensively about the huge toll of the occupation on Iraqi civilians in articles for publications including the Guardian, and in non-fiction books such as The Torturer in the Mirror, a collection of essays that questions the US’s justification for torture after 9/11.

In this interview, she talks about when fiction became insufficient for grasping the magnitude of a post-9/11 reality.

Frances Pinter: Some writers object to realistic depiction of torture in fiction for fear that showing an authority’s repressive methods in detail validates torture and assists the perpetrators in terrorizing people. What moral dilemmas have you faced when depicting torture?

Haifa Zangana: I tried my best not to go into great details of torture which I was either subjected to or witnessed. Intentionally, I kept the scenes of torture relatively sketchy — not because a realistic depiction might validate the act of torture but because I felt that I should not subject the reader to a minute-by-minute acount of inhuman behaviour. My main dilemma was: do I want to “torture” the reader? Or to give her/ him the feeling of what had happened at that particular time?  I chose the latter. Probably what was leading me at the time of writing, also, was my feeling a sketch can be more powerful than a painting.

FP: In your autobiographical novel, Dreaming of Baghdad, you describe your traumatic experience of being imprisoned and tortured in Qasr al-Nihaya, the detention centre for political prisoners in Iraq. Adiba, a character with a similar past in Women on a Journey: Between Baghdad and London, is also a torture survivor. How different was the process of depicting your own torture and describing torture through a character of your creation?

HZ: Totally different. It took me almost eight years to write Dreaming of Baghdad (a tiny book by the standards of the novel). In the process, I tried to work at a distance myself, while slowly and painfully extracting people and events from the past, from the safe darkness of memory and moving them and myself to the uncertainty of the present in order to have the courage and understanding to look back without being paralysed by fear, bitterness and resentment.

HZHaifa Zangana at an event in London.
Flickr/Jake Brown. Some rights reserved.

Adiba, as a character, came at a later stage in my writing, which would not have been possible without writing Dreaming of Baghdad first.  It was much easier to write “her”. She was a group of Iraqi women put together, but not specifically me. In that sense, I was spared a direct look at my own past, my sense of humiliation, powerlessness and its subsequent nightmares. Adiba, on the other hand, became the bearer of some of these feelings while seeking an end to an exhausting journey. The funny thing is I am often approached by Iraqi women, at literary events, telling me that they know who Adiba is.  She is a friend, they whisper. Needless to say, I hadn't met or heard of their friend but I see these encounters as an indication of some success in going beyond the personal.

FP: Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter denounced, in 2005, the “tapestry of lies” behind the US-led occupation of Iraq and the death and misery it brought upon hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. In his acceptance speech, he said that as a citizen one must ask: “What is true, what is false?” As a writer, however, “a thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false”. What made you stop writing fiction after 2003, and devote yourself to writing articles and other non-fiction about the occupation?

HZ: The main thing that made me stop writing fiction was the barrenness of the imaginary. The shock and awe that the US subjected Iraqis to in 2003 was not limited to the bombardment and destruction of the country’s infrastructure; the abuses and torture in Abu Ghraib and other detention centres also pushed Iraqis towards a shift in their priorities. In the mayhem of death and destruction, writing fiction became a luxury that many Iraqi writers, including myself, could not afford, as if parallel to the invasion of our country, our imagination was invaded too.  No room was left but for images of men washing blood off pavements, of a pyramid of naked detainees, women queuing in front of morgues looking for their loved ones and troops forcing women and children to watch as they deliberately humiliated their husbands, sons or fathers, sometimes ordering them to take pictures with US soldiers’ cameras.  This newly manufactured reality paralysed the imagination, especially in the first six years of the occupation, rendering literary work futile. Here, I listen to the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who describes bandits that

          came through the sky to kill children

          and the blood of children ran through the streets

          without fuss, like children’s blood.

          […]

          And you'll ask: why doesn’t his poetry

          speak of dreams and leaves

          and the great volcanoes of his native land?

          Come and see the blood in the streets.

          Come and see

          The blood in the streets.

          Come and see the blood

          In the streets! [1]

FP: It has been argued that fiction helps to foster respect for human rights: by showing a character’s inner feelings, a novel can demonstrate that all people are fundamentally similar, and so it becomes harder for the reader to justify treating others with cruelty. Do you think that non-fiction can nonetheless be more effective than novels in spreading an understanding of human rights?

HZ: I think what fiction offers is basically an understanding of self and others in relation to place and time. That does not lead necessarily to a realisation that “all people are fundamentally similar”. However, people are and should be equal and this simple message is the heart of human rights, reflected directly or indirectly in many literary forms. Yet it seems almost impossible to implement in many parts of the world. Torture is not just about physical pain that can be forgotten the moment the torture will stop or the tortured released, it is not a moment captured in a horrifically inhuman photo that can be put aside to be forgotten or shelved in a dark spot of memory.  For the tortured, it is a lifelong scar. Almost forty years after my release from Qasr al-Nihaya, I still cannot sleep in the dark. I often wake up at 2 a.m. expecting to be led out of my cell to be interrogated. Therefore, there is a need for multifaceted actions to spread better understanding of human rights and to put an end to the practise of torture. Art, filmmaking, poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing (journalism in particular), are all needed to highlight and address this endemic issue.

FP: As well as giving up fiction following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, you stopped writing poetry and literary essays for a while in the 1970s, during a period of intense political activism. How does political activism affect the creative process?

HZ: Sometimes, political activism can enhance the creative process by feeding it with new experiences, new people and expand understanding of specific issues, but only if one is capable of reaching the right balance between the specific nature of activism and the vast open domain of creativity. Otherwise, the writer has to choose between the two. It depends on the writer her/ himself. In my case, despite my longing for literary writing, my priority has been clear.

FP: There is an extensive body of writing about prisons in Modern Arabic literature, with many Arab authors recounting experiences of political imprisonment and torture under repressive regimes. Some of the most enduring icons of the post-9/11 decade, however, are depictions of gross human rights abuses committed by democratic countries that legalized torture in the name of national security: the hooded man; the leashed man; the Guantánamo prisoners in their orange jumpsuits; Abu Ghraib, where you were once imprisoned by Saddam’s regime… How has this new set of references permeated literature in the countries impacted by the so-called “War on Terror”?

HZ: Let me talk about Iraq as a case study. Some Iraqi writers and artists, who initially believed in the US “liberation” and the declared aims of establishing democracy and human rights, soon began to lose hope. Photos and testimonies of detainees released from Abu Ghraib, Bucca in the southern Iraqi desert, Cropper at Baghdad International Airport, and other, unnamed prisons, showed a totally different picture. US and British troops were actually raping women and sodomising men and children. These acts and the images of torture you mention are a clear indication of the occupier’s racist policy of control and humiliation. They are engraved in our collective memory.

In The Torturer in the Mirror, which I co-authored with Ramsey Clark and Thomas Ehrlich Reifer, I wanted specifically to highlight the “oneness” of torturers, whether Americans acting on behalf of a democratically elected government, or Iraqis acting on behalf of a tyrannical regime. They have one aim in mind: to break your will.  When you are stripped of your clothes, you are stripped of your self-respect and dignity, and gradually of your humanity. You are reduced to begging for the most basic of needs: a drink of water or to go to the toilet or, for a woman, to have some sanitary towels. Fear of pain and of losing control of your body, will make you think of nothing but the next time you will be beaten up. You are forced to be awake for days on end with the horrifying anticipation of seeing your friends, relatives or loved ones tortured in front of you or threatened to be tortured. You will be interrogated time and again until you accept finally to do as you are ordered regardless of what you believe and of the truth. When you confess to crimes you have not committed, causing the arrest of others, you will live with the shame for the rest of your life, with the knowledge that you betrayed those people. If you are lucky enough to be released, you will avoid looking into any one’s eyes for fear of seeing your broken self reflected back at you. You will carry a bleeding wound inside you and it will either change you into a broken person, or mean that you will be waiting for the right moment to take revenge from your torturers, the state and sometimes the whole of society.

I am referring to this particular aspect of the trauma to explain why some writers and artists who are still in Iraq are not willing to make work that reflects the violence and suffering that surrounds them or has been inflicted on them. They paint nostalgic landscapes, old Baghdadi houses and dream-like figures. The least connected to reality. As one artist explains: “Who wants to hang a picture of a decapitated corpse over their dining table?". Could that be escapism? A way to filter brutal reality where death is omnipresent and all colours but black are meaningless? Sometimes artists, poets and writers are accused of being terrorists, as a way of silencing them, of suffocating people’s freedom of imagination. However, some writers and artists continue to defy what Saadi Youssef, the prominent Iraqi poet, has called “bullet censorship”. Sculptor Abdel-Karim Khalil is one of them. Famous for his Prisoner of Abu Ghraib, a marble sculpture depicting the hooded detainee with outstretched arms, he continues to make realistic, horrifying figures, as if it is the only way to get rid of them.

Bearing in mind that 60 % of Iraqi writers have had to flee the country since 2003, it is understandable that most of the written fiction, in years of occupation, has been published outside Iraq including 65 novels dealing with the 2003 invasion alone.

FP: At a recent literary event hosted by Redress, you mentioned that you missed fiction. Why?

HZ: I miss the freedom of solitude and dream.  To spend as much time as I like with my characters, in my created space. Following them from one place to another or not moving at all. Seeing the continuity in their lives without knowing what the process of writing is leading us to. Fiction gives you the power to create a world that does not deny you access to the past, that gives you the power to decide the future. It is an act of creation woven with the joy of exploring language and images. It feels like the Iraq that I miss.

Additional research by Eva Sanchis

1 ↑ From Nathaniel Tarn's translation of 'I'm Explaining a Few Things' in Selected Poems: A Bilingual Edition, by Pablo Neruda (London: Cape, 1970)

About the authors

Frances Pinter is a publisher with a passionate interest in human rights. Her most recent projects have included being the founding publisher of Bloomsbury Academic and she’s now about to launch a new community interest company called Knowledge Unlatched. She holds visiting fellowships at the London School of Economics and the Big innovation Centre in London. She is a trustee of REDRESS and also a trustee of the theatre company Ice & Fire.

Haifa Zangana (هيفاء زنكنة - born 1950 in Baghdad, Iraq) is an Iraqi novelist, author and artist. She is most notably known for writing Women on a Journey: Between Baghdad and London and City of Widows: An Iraqi Woman's Account of War and Resistance. Her recent books are Dreaming of Baghdad and The Torturer in the Mirror with Ramsey Clark and Thomas Ehrlich Reifer.


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