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Baghdad burning: women write war in Iraq.

WAR has been a way of life for Iraqis for the past thirty years. Internal wars and then wars with neighbors, especially Iran after its 1979 Islamic revolution, have marked the rhythm of existence in the world's oldest civilization. The interference of the United States on Saddam Hussein's behalf in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 empowered the new president until the miscalculation of U.S. support for his August 1990 venture into Kuwait turned the former sponsor into a formidable enemy. In January 1991 the world's remaining superpower let loose on Iraq its full arsenal, and Saddam became Enemy Number One. September 11, 200l, provided the pretext to crush any remaining opposition to a U.S. presence in the land of Abraham. In March 2003 the United States and its allies invaded and occupied Iraq.

Almost thirty years of war, and writers were writing throughout. Whereas the earlier conflicts produced state-sponsored literature that was conventionally published and distributed, this latest stage has seen a transformation in the production of war stories. Young women and men have turned to the Internet to publish their experiences. These bloggers are writing for a global audience that they keep abreast of social and political developments in their occupied country.

In Women and the War Story (1996), I discussed local literary approaches to the Iran-Iraq War. (1) I focused on writers who lived in Iraq during the hard times of the war since the situation of the exiled writers was so different. Although many praised the war--not so surprising since the war stories to which I had access were published by the Iraqi Ministry of Culture--some authors bypassed the censor to condemn a war they were expected to extol. The women's texts in particular exhibited considerable courage, especially during the last year of the war. The Iraqi women then, and also after the Gulf War and today, eschew their expected role of Mater Dolorosa. They do not quietly lament and submit to a fate that might be cruel, pointless violence. They fight this violence with their pens.

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The stories in Aliya Talib's Al-Mamarrat (1988; Corridors) mock the "dulce et decorum est" of war and its official narration, and the hollowness of heroism haunts every apparent encomium to the combatants. (2) Spartan mothers who are proud to sacrifice their sons for a cause they do not understand must be accounted partially responsible for the persistence of the war. Suhayla Salman's short stories, al-Liqa' (1988; The meeting), openly criticize the official mandate for women to bear boys, preferably five of them, to become the next victims to this brutal war. (3) One woman on a pilgrimage to Imam Reza's tomb in the enemy city of Mashhad in northeast Iran prays for a girl, vowing, "I'll kill myself if it's a boy!" Lutfiya Dulaymi's Budhur al-nar (1988; Seeds of fire) is, I believe, the only Iraqi war novel by a woman. (4) Although she had written patriotic stories at the beginning of the war, by the late 1980s she changed. She exposed Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons, most notoriously in the 1988 Halabja massacre of Kurds, through the allegorical story of a woman artist. Working for an advertising agency during the 1980s, she balks at an assignment to draw an ad for insecticide, suspecting a connection with the war. She tells her director that she cannot fulfill the assignment because she fears that the chemical company soliciting the advertisement is not producing insecticide but rather ammunition for chemical warfare.

These three women knew that their stories might be published but not distributed since the government had control of the market. Talib, Salman, and al-Dulaymi were virtually assured that what readership they might have would not extend far beyond the Iraqi border. Until today these writings remain in Arabic.

The 1991 Gulf War and the ensuing years of crippling sanctions drove more women to write. Dunya Mikhail's poetry evokes the "night of nightmares" of January 17, 1991, that marked the beginning of the U.S. all-out attack on the Iraqi citizenry who were made to pay for their leader's reckless arrogance. (5) Ibtisam 'Abdallah's Matar aswad, matar ahmar (Black rain, red rain) adds that the planes swooped so low that the citizens on the ground could see the pilots flash victory signs to each other. (6) Betool Khedairi's Kam badat al-sama qaribah (1999; Eng. A Sky So Close, 200l) also takes the reader into the heart of that war.
 It's raining bombs. You can't imagine what we're going through. A
 black rain covers the gardens, the streets, and the rooftops,
 resembling black decomposing remains; it makes the days uglier than
 the nights. The economic embargo has made us cut our hair short to
 economize in the use of soap and water.... A young man looks for
 his fingers blown off amid the debris....

 We've acquired new habits. Shrapnel stopped us from sleeping on
 the rooftops. We are put off eating fish, polluted from nibbling
 corpses in the Shatt al-Arab River. (7)


And these new habits had to be maintained since the U.S. war on Iraq did not cease when it was said to have ended in March 1991. In her next novel, Ghayib (2004; Eng. Absent, 2005), set in late-1990s Baghdad, Khedairi notes the almost daily bombing that was not reported in the U.S. media and the desperate normality of life in a war that is said not to be war. (8)

After the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, Dunya Mikhail responded in her anthology The War Works Hard (2005). The war, writes Mikhail, "continues working, day and night / It inspires tyrants / to deliver long speeches, / awards medals to generals / and themes to poets. / It contributes to the industry / of artificial limbs, / provides food for flies." (9) Again, she turned her people's suffering into poems that assured the world they would not give up. From her new base in the United States she has been able to find a translator and publisher for her poems. In 2001 Mikhail was awarded the U.N. Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing, and in 2005 her collection The War Works Hard won PEN's Award for Poetry in Translation.

THE CHAOS AND MAYHEM of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq found a new literary outlet, the blogosphere. This medium made room for new writers: young women and men comfortable with the Internet, fluent in English, and anxious to communicate with the outside world. Several women have chosen to chronicle their lives in war. Coming from different backgrounds (there is a group blog by some Kurdish women), most use pseudonyms like HNK, Marshmallow 26, and Chikitita, but the best known is Riverbend. She began to post her blog in August 2003, predicting the "fake elections," denouncing the Iraqi "puppets," and mocking Operation Enduring Freedom. (10) Keeping the world abreast of her reactions to social and political developments during the first years of the U.S. occupation of her country, she provided a vivid chronicle of how the average Iraqi experienced the occupation: electricity cuts; horrible heat; the abduction of family members; and the state of constant alertness with bags by the door full of "sturdy clothes, bottles of water, important documents (like birth certificates and ID papers), and some spare money ... in case the ceiling came crashing down or the American tanks came plowing through the neighborhood."

Keenly aware of her foreign readers, for whom she provided local and cultural information, Riverbend wrote in idiomatic American English. Her blog was eloquent testimony to her enthrallment with American culture, and it provided an important alternative perspective to the one projected by world media and their embedded journalists. With time and a growing readership, her blog became a lifeline.

This literary piece of cyberspace is ongoing, dynamic, and far from ephemeral since in 2005 she published her first year of blogs in Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq. Her messages are carefully crafted with a keen sense of satire: "So now the heads of terrorism in the world seem to be Osama bin Laden, Aimen al Dhawahiri, and Abu Mussa'ab al Zarqawi. Here's some food for thought--Osama is from Saudi Arabia, al Dhawahiri is Egyptian and al Zarqawi is Jordanian. Which countries in the region are America's best allies?" Riverbend sarcastically dissects U.S. official discourse so transparent in the streets of Baghdad: President Bush's inarticulate speeches about the improvements in the lives of Iraqis brought about by the occupation are coupled with reports of U.S. troops murdering Iraqi girls. On November 22, 2003, two hotels and the Ministry of Oil were bombed, and donkeys were found in the area
 leading colorful carts with missile launchers and missiles
 camouflaged with hay. The donkeys, looking guilty and morose, were
 promptly taken into custody for questioning and were not available
 for a statement.... Could this be the first real tie to al-Qaeda?
 After months of trying to connect Iraq to terrorist activities,
 this latest attack could prove to be the Pentagon's "missing link."
 After all, donkeys and mules are very widely used in Afghanistan
 [so] their presence in Baghdad is highly suspicious. It is, as yet,
 unclear whether the donkeys are foreign guerrillas who crossed into
 Iraq from one of the neighboring countries, or are actually a part
 of a local al-Qaeda cell. Baghdad residents are wondering: could
 these culprits be the first donkeys sent to Guantanamo?


On September 11, 2004, she watches a bootleg copy of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and wonders whether Americans feel safer since the war on terror became a war on Iraqis, whose dead over the course of eighteen months numbered eight times greater than those who died in the World Trade Center.

Beyond black humor, Riverbend provides a powerful multiple critique that targets several foes simultaneously. She is able to articulate her recognition of the danger in the U.S. government policies that map on to British legacies; the American boys and girls even when she recognizes their humanity; and the "power hungry freaks," a.k.a, the Puppets, the U.S. state was supporting. And for every defense of Islam the religion, she indicts the criminal Islamist individuals and groups that try to control all, not only Muslim women's presence and appearance in a country that used to boast the highest levels of education and employment for women in the Arab world. They are part of a new world disorder where the political appeal to religion resonates: people who are losing everything need jobs (Islamists exchange social goods for political support) but also transcendental values to shape their lives.

Riverbend's attitude toward the Americans swings between anger at Donald Rumsfeld and a gloating President Bush and an empathy she demands from others for the disoriented kids from Middle America lurching around the streets of Baghdad. September 11, she writes, was not tragic "because 3,000 Americans died ... but because 3,000 humans died." This recognition of the humanity and commitments of others is at the heart of a cosmopolitanism that she characterizes as deeply Iraqi. On October 21, 2003, she writes: "The majority of Iraqis have a deep respect for other cultures and religions ... and that's what civilization is. It's not mobile phones, computers, skyscrapers, and McDonald's It's having enough security in your own faith and culture to allow people the sanctity of theirs."

By April 2004, however, sympathy for the young American soldiers simmering in the sun has evaporated, and the reader is surprised it has taken so long. The photographs of tortured prisoners from Abu Ghraib that obsessed the people and the media incensed Dunya Mikhail. In the following lines of "An Urgent Call," she indicts the American woman who humiliated Iraqi prisoners: "This is an urgent call/for the American soldier Lynndie / to immediately return to her homeland.... Take a sick leave / and release your baby/from your body, / but don't forget / to hide those terrible pictures, / the pictures of you dancing in the mud.... You don't want your child to cry out:/The prisoners are naked." (11)

RIVERBEND'S AND MIKHAIL'S responses to the daily pressures and sometimes the horror of life in Iraq under U.S. military rule derive from but also move beyond the particular to evoke universal reactions to warmongering. Their personal stories and poems intersect with the political to reveal its crass unconcern for the individual. They recall Talib, Salman, al-Dulaymi, 'Abdallah, and Khedairi, who had also rejected senseless violence, whoever the perpetrator might be. These narratives reveal a people keenly aware of the stakes in the national struggle and of their own role as victims. In this most recent stage, Riverbend assures her readers that Iraqis--like all oppressed people with their own hidden transcripts who are well aware of their oppressors' agendas--know what the occupiers believe to be their own state secrets. (12) Every Iraqi knows that the U.S. government is giving the reconstruction jobs to Dick Cheney's Halliburton, not to Iraq's highly qualified engineers. Every Iraqi knows that the U.S. leaders are exploiting the situation for their own economic benefit, while deluding themselves that they are fooling the Iraqis with ridiculous justifications for the war on terror.

Riverbend continues to post and challenge the world to pay attention to the great injustices visited upon the Iraqis:
 As I write this, Oprah is on Channel 4 (one of the MBC channels we
 get on Nilesat), showing Americans how to get out of debt. Her
 guest speaker is telling a studio full of American women who seem
 to have over-shopped that they could probably do with fewer
 designer products. As they talk about increasing incomes and
 fortunes, Sabrine al-Janabi, a young Iraqi woman, is on Al Jazeera
 telling how Iraqi security forces abducted her from her home and
 raped her.... She might just be the bravest Iraqi woman ever.
 Everyone knows American forces and Iraqi security forces are raping
 women (and men), but this is possibly the first woman who publicly
 comes out and tells about it using her actual name.... Some people
 will call her a liar. Others (including pro-war Iraqis) will call
 her a prostitute--shame on you in advance.... She's just one of
 tens, possibly hundreds, of Iraqi women who are violated in their
 own homes and in Iraqi prisons. She looks like cousins I have. She
 looks like friends. She looks like a neighbor I sometimes used to
 pause to gossip with in the street. (February 20, 2007)


Go home, Lynndie, pleads Mikhail, this is no place for an American mother, for an American woman or American man, or, indeed, for any non-Iraqi. An Iraqi woman names an American woman, and we are no longer in the space of the abstract where causes, cruelty, and absurd justifications for violence flourish. The recognition of the humanity of the torturer echoes across time and space in the call for an end to the senselessness of war.

When I wrote in the mid-1990s about the women and men who penned their stories about the Iran-Iraq War, I did not know these writers, I wondered who they might be, and I sometimes even doubted that they were using their own names. Their books were sent to me from an official Iraqi agency and had been published by government-sponsored houses, so I assumed that their authors were in the pay of the Saddam Hussein regime. I was surprised to find that many of the texts I had received were far from propaganda, and I grew to admire those courageous souls who had risked a great deal to tell the truth as they saw it. But the truth that they told remained hidden in a system that carefully controlled the distribution of culture both inside and outside of the country. There were dozens and dozens of people who had been published, and yet their literature did not leave the country--such is the fate of intellectual production under authoritarian rule. Then, in 1994, the World Wide Web changed everything. Information technology easily cut through the barriers that before had been impermeable. It is now no longer necessary to fight the censor or to find a publisher to get one's story out or to worry about its distribution. Anyone with any kind of access to a computer can tell her story to the world.

Whether they write novels, short stories, poetry, or blogs, for the past quarter of a century creative Iraqi women have been sending dispatches from their homes that are the front. No jeremiads, their war stories insist on the evil of warriors who claim that the violence they practice on civilians is justified and legal. Readers of these women catch the pulse of life in situations of absolute injustice whether inflicted by Saddam Hussein or the American Operation Enduring Freedom.

Durham, North Carolina

(1) Miriam Cooke, Women and the War Story (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

(2) Aliya Talib, al-Mamarrat (Baghdad: Dar al-Shu'un al-Thaqafiyya al-Amma, 1988).

(3) Suhayla Salman, al-Liqa' (Baghdad: Dar al-Shu'un al-Thaqafiyya al-Amma, 1988).

(4) Lutfiya Dulaymi, Budhur al-nar (Baghdad: Dar al-Shu'un alThaqafiyya al-Amma, 1988).

(5) Dunya Mikhail, Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, ed. Louise I. Hartung (Cairo: Ishtar Publishing House, 1999), 12-13.

(6) Ibtisam 'Abdallah, Matar aswad, matar ahmar (London: Bazzaz, 1994).

(7) Betool Khedairi, A Sky So Close (New York: Pantheon Books, 2001), 203, 225.

(8) Betool Khedairi, Absent (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2005).

(9) Dunya Mikhail, The War Works Hard (New York: New Directions, 2003), 6-7. Four poems from the collection first appeared in the January-April 2005 issue of WLT (40-41).

(10) See http://riverbendblog.blogspot.com. Excerpts appear in Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq (New York: Feminist Press, 2005).

(11) Mikhail, The War Works Hard, 13-14.

(12) James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

MIRIAM COOKE is Professor of Arab Culture at Duke University and the author of several books about war, gender, and religion in the Arab world, including War's Other Voices: Women on the Lebanese Civil War (1987), Women and the War Story (1996), and Women Claim Islam: Creating Islamic Feminism through Literature (2001).
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Author:Cooke, Miriam
Publication:World Literature Today
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Nov 1, 2007
Words:3026
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