Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here in European Journal of The English Studies

By Katharina Motyl & Mahmoud Arghavan
European Journal of English Studies
July 16th, 2018

Shortly after the US-led invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, the Iraqi National Library was burnt to the ground, and some fifteen thousand artefacts were looted from the National Museum of Iraq, which housed cultural treasures from the Mesopotamian, Babylonian and Persian civilisations. In the spring of 2004, the public learned that US military personnel had subjected Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison to (sexual forms of) torture and captured their humiliation in photographs. While the Abu Ghraib torture scandal made headlines in Western media for weeks, the perished Iraqi cultural treasures received far less of a media echo.

In contrast to the Western media’s selective coverage, Iraqi/Arab writers such as Philip Metres, Dunya Mikhail and Sinan Antoon are as much concerned about the destruction of Iraq’s cultural heritage as they are about the US’s violation of Iraqi bodies. In fact, their literary responses to the so-called ‘War on Terror’ understand these events as representing two sides of the same coin. They posit that the US’s establishment of its imperial presence in Iraq did more than destroy Iraqi biological life through warfare, and reduce some surviving Iraqis to the condition of bare life, that is, of ‘life exposed to death’ (Agamben, 1998: 88), through torture and abuse. Many Iraqi/Arab writers indeed perceive the destruction wrought upon Iraqi culture as particularly traumatic. Inaugurated by the US invasion, the ensuing destabi- lisation of the region has further exacerbated this situation, as evidenced by ISIS’s destruction of ancient artefacts in Mosul museum. It is not that these writers value an Assyrian vase or a rare manuscript more than a human life. Rather, they are aware that these artefacts con- stituted precious reservoirs of Iraqi self-representation and resistance. They further stress that throughout Iraq’s troubled history literature and the arts have provided the Iraqi pop- ulation with the strength and respite necessary to pull through. Yet, the Iraqi writers’ very act of continuing to write post-2003, as this essay argues, constitutes a performative survival of neocolonial necropolitics.

As will become clear in our readings, Iraqi/Arab writers portray the US invasion and occu- pation as an all-encompassing attack on Iraqi life. In line with Giorgio Agamben’s distinction between zoe (biological life) and bios (social life),1 the literary texts discussed in this essay insist that the ‘War on Terror’ has not only entailed an assault on Iraqi biological life but has signi cantly impaired Iraqi social life by destroying or failing to protect Iraq’s cultural herit- age.2 Complementing Agamben, we build upon Achille Mbembe’s work on the e ects of European colonialism on the African continent to characterise the only remaining global superpower’s onslaught on Iraqi life as neocolonial necropolitics. By employing ‘shock and awe’ tactics, the US government aimed at a ‘maximum destruction of [Iraqi] persons’ (Mbembe, 2003: 40), and subjected surviving Iraqis to ‘conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead’ (40, emphasis in original).

All texts under consideration in this essay re ect on the role literature can, or should, assume in view of the devastation caused by the ‘War on Terror’, thus grappling with the age-old dilemma of how to produce art in the face of man-made destruction, which Theodor Adorno so poignantly captures in his statement ‘Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ (1977: 30, our translation). We begin with a discussion of Philip Metres’3 abu ghraib arias. This experimental long poem deploys various visual strategies to perform the sense of unmaking that US military personnel created in Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison by subjecting them to torture in an attempt to inscribe the US’s imperial presence into the bodies of ‘natives’ who had opposed it.

Metres’ poem highlights literature’s function to bear witness, as it gives voice to the torture victims whose su ering was silenced in the o cial investigation of the scandal or was repressed owing to its traumatic nature. In the subsequent section, we discuss select responses to the car bomb that devastated Baghdad’s al-Mutanabbi Street, the heart of Iraq’s literary and intellectual life, in March 2007. In particular, we draw attention to Dunya Mikhail’s poem ‘A half-burned page on al-Mutanabbi Street’, which ruminates on the value of writing in contexts where literature is targeted for its cultural pre-eminence as repository of knowledge or spiritual guide. By quoting from an Andalusian poet whose works survived the reconquista, Mikhail’s poem highlights the longevity of the ideas transmitted in, and the aesthetic e ects of, literature.

We follow this with a discussion of Sinan Antoon’s novel The Corpse Washer, which represents the destruction of Iraqi cultural life as an indirect conse- quence of the US invasion. The ubiquity of death in post-2003 Iraq forces Antoon’s protagonist to abandon his dream of becoming a professional sculptor and to follow in his father’s footsteps as a corpse washer.

Bearing witness to bare life: Philip Metres’ abu ghraib arias

In his long poem abu ghraib arias ( rst published in 2012), Philip Metres juxtaposes fragments from testimonies of Abu Ghraib torture victims, interviews with US soldiers on duty at Abu Ghraib prison, a Standard Operating Procedure manual for one of the detention camps at Guantánamo, the Bible and the Code of Hammurabi,4 thereby creating new webs of meaning.

The resultant textual collage, we wish to suggest, constitutes ‘ aring-up’ of truth, as Metres’ poem gives shape to that which was silenced in the course of the investigation of the torture scandal or could not be spoken, since torture victims often repress their traumatic experi- ence. Metres, in other words, visualises the unheard, thus bearing witness to the reduction of Iraqi civilians to bare life at Abu Ghraib prison, and to the second injury constituted by the silencing of the victims’ voices on the part of the US government, which redacted investi- gation reports, ostensibly for reasons of national security (Danner, 2004; McKelvey, 2007).

The most striking aspect of abu ghraib arias is the poem’s visuality. The poem is charac- terised by fragmentation; in particular, those sections that are focalised by the torture victims appear as torn pieces scattered on the page, an e ect achieved by the heavy use of omission.5 It stands to reason that the resultant blank spaces represent memory gaps; to be more speci c, victims of trauma commonly experience ‘amnesia for the speci cs of traumatic experiences but not the feelings associated with them’(van der Kolk and van der Hart, 1995: 172). The textual fragments in abu ghraib arias can thus be read as a combination of memory shreds and ‘ arings-up’ from the unconscious of the individual torture victim.6 Moreover, the device of fragmentation visually performs the sense of unmaking, that is, a sense of unravelled subjectivity and an erosion of trust in the human bond, which Elaine Scarry (1985) has identified as the key effect of torture.

Besides omission, the poem’s visual strategies include the use of cursive font, fading (grey) print and blackened passages. The cursive font is deciphered easily: it generally identi es passages taken from the Bible or the Code of Hammurabi. The blackened passages conjure up the notion of censorship, inviting the reader to contemplate what information was sup- pressed, redacted or destroyed once the events at Abu Ghraib prison became public knowl- edge and investigations began. The poem oscillates between the completely white and the completely black page, with the white spaces representing torture victims’ memory gaps caused by trauma and the black spaces representing the government’s attempt to withhold information relating to torture at Abu Ghraib. Thus the poetic fragments in abu ghraib arias constitute ‘ arings-up’ of the truth not in the sense of empirical veri ability, but in the sense of torture victims’ (self-)embodied truth.

The poem’s title, abu ghraib arias, simultaneously evokes the highbrow realm of opera, which is often regarded as the highest artistic achievement of Western civilisation, and the menial business of torture, which involves laying one’s hands on somebody and making them scream, bleed, excrete. By improbably conjoining these two notions in the poem’s title, Metres seems to suggest that civilisation and torture are in some way bound to one another, reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s observation that ‘[t]here is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’ (1940: 7).

In Torture and the Twilight of Empire, a comparative analysis of France’s use of torture in Algeria and the US’s use of torture in Iraq, Marnia Lazreg argues that torture is a strategy imperial powers deploy when their legitimacy has come under attack; rather than being an ‘epiphenomenon of … war’, as is often claimed, torture is used systematically to instil terror in the native population so as ‘to forestall the collapse of the empire’ (2008: 3). The following excerpt from abu ghraib arias, entitled (echo/ex/), emphasises two interrelated characteristics of the US’s use of torture at Abu Ghraib prison: rst, detainees were subjected to sexual torture, and second, civilians, including women and children, constituted the majority of detainees at the overcrowded Abu Ghraib prison.

(echo /ex/)
i saw ████ fucking a kid Behold
now i am
what i saw naked and
saw ██████████████████████████████████
the cell
on the other side
for god’s help ████████ in his ass
lift up his eyes
cu ed together
all the doors with sheets
I will go down now
sheets again on the doors the phosphoric light
dust and ash
standing under without me seeing
i was there
(Metres, 2015: 22; reproduced with kind permission of alice James Books))

According to Lazreg, the types of torture imperial powers perpetrate typically have a ‘sexual core’ (2008: 1). Most commonly, the torture victim is forced to participate in sexual acts against their will with the aim of breaking their spirit.7 This section from abu ghraib arias references the rape of a minor (‘I saw ████ fucking a kid’) and sodomisation with objects (‘the phosphoric light … for God’s help … in his ass’). The passage ‘Now I am … what I saw … naked and tied’ suggests that what this Iraqi experienced at Abu Ghraib – being subjected to sexual torture, and realising the malice of which humans are capable – was so disturbing that it changed their personality: the person still behaves as though they were reduced to bare life (‘naked’) and their spirit is permanently constrained (‘tied’). The passage ‘I was there … without me seeing’ alludes to the hoods US military personnel often placed over detainees’ heads while subjecting them to torture, as well as to the erosion of the senses that torture victims commonly experience.

The prevalence of sexual types of torture at Abu Ghraib could be attributed to the fact that the Bush administration, the CIA and army generals believed that Arabs were particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation. This ‘insight’ is one of the central theses of Rafael Patai’s Orientalist treatise The Arab Mind of 1973, which ‘is probably the single most popular and widely read book on … Arabs in the US military’, according to a professor at a US military college (qtd in Whitaker, 2004: n.p.). Albrecht Koschorke argues that Arabs, who are presumed to consider sexuality a deeply private matter and to view the West as sexually depraved, were subjected to sexual tortures to show them their own animality. He sums up the American logic thus: ‘You Arabs may act bashful and religiously devout, but we’re bringing your perversity to light, and even your own bodies belie you’ (2005: 13, our translation). The photographs documenting the sexual torture of detainees, in Koschorke’s reading, were taken to produce indelible proof of that animality. Another purpose of taking these photo- graphs seems to have been ‘to blackmail those depicted with the threat that their families would see their humiliation and … sexual shame’ (Butler, 2009: 89).

Metres’ excerpt also underlines that children were sexually abused at Abu Ghraib prison, raising the question as to why children were among the detainees, in the rst place. Faced with an increasing insurgency in the summer of 2003, US military started marching into Iraqi towns, detaining whomever they could nd in the hope of procuring information on the insurgency. As the Schlesinger Report mentions, US soldiers ‘reverted to rounding up any and all suspicious-looking persons all too often including women and children’ (qtd in Danner, 2004: 348). Moreover, photographs depicting abuse of female detainees exist; they were among the images whistle-blower Joe Darby turned over to an army investigator. According to human rights expert Steven H. Miles, who studied the government documents relating to the Abu Ghraib scandal, the sections detailing the abuse of female detainees were heavily redacted. Miles believes that the Bush administration suppressed information about the deaths of a woman and a child at Abu Ghraib prison because these deaths expose as propaganda the representation of Abu Ghraib detainees as al-Qaeda combatants:‘There’s been a move to depict the prisoners as al-Qaeda … and it’s hard to do that if you’re talking about women and kids’ (qtd in McKelvey, 2007: 197). The fact that US soldiers raped, tortured and possibly killed Iraqi women most categorically debunks the Bush administration’s claim that freeing local women from oppression was one of the key incentives for invading Afghanistan and Iraq.

In sum, by lending voice to the Iraqi torture victims, Metres’ abu ghraib arias not only demysti es the US’s grand narrative of counterterrorism, but also ful ls a crucial literary function: bearing witness to those whose su ering went unheard. First, on the historic-factual level, the text raises awareness of the internment and torture of civilians at Abu Ghraib prison. Thus, the poem lifts the veil on actions that the Bush administration had classi ed as sus- tained counterterrorism e orts, and enables the reader to re ect upon the violence and dehumanisation that Operation Iraqi Freedom entailed, although it had allegedly been launched to bring freedom and democracy to Iraqis. Second, on the aesthetic level, abu ghraib arias solves the artist’s perennial dilemma of representing the unspeakable by deploy- ing visual strategies to approximate the unheard experiences of those Iraqis tortured at Abu Ghraib prison. This mixing of sensory registers performs the sense of unmaking to which the Iraqi torture victims were subjected, as does the text’s extreme degree of fragmentation.

‘they’ve assassinated history and knowledge’: Literary responses to the destruction of Iraqi cultural life

The devastation of Baghdad’s al-Mutanabbi Street by a car bomb on 5 March 2007 has been the subject of numerous pieces of poetry, short ction and non- ction. The explosion – a result of the factional strife that ensued after the US invasion – killed at least 26 people and destroyed most of the titles on o er by the various booksellers, including rare manuscripts (see Shahid, 2007). The attack was perceived as a crushing blow not only by Iraq’s intelligent- sia, but also by literati and scholars around the globe, some of whom organised projects in solidarity. One such project was realised by Oakland-based poets Beau Beausoleil and Deema Shehabi (2012), who convened and edited a volume entitled Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: Poets and Writers Respond to the March 5, 2007, Bombing of Baghdad’s ‘Street of the Booksellers’.

In her essay‘Al-Mutanabbi Street’, Iraqi journalist Raya Asee recalls her reaction when rst learning of the attack: ‘they’ve assassinated history and knowledge, this time, not just people’ (2012: 126). Asee is not the only Iraqi writer who likens the devastation of the ‘Street of the Booksellers’ to the attack on Baghdad waged by Mongol leader Hulago in 1258 CE, which, according to folklore, was so violent and destroyed so many books that the Tigris rst turned red from the blood, and then black from the ink: ‘Has Hulago … come back? Will the river turn the colour of ink again – like it did when they threw all our books and all the treasures of our history in the water!?’ (125).

From the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century CE, through colonisation by the Ottoman Empire and later the British Empire, through the establishment of the Ba’athist dictatorship in the 1970s, to the draconian UN sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the population of what is modern-day Iraq has frequently experienced violence, hardship and domination by foreign powers. Reading, writing and discussing lit- erature in the cafés on al-Mutanabbi Street provided refuge from these experiences as well as common ground for persons with diverging political ideologies: ‘I stand in the ruins of the Shabandar, the only remaining literary café in Baghdad. … Where did all the poets, writers, journalists, retired people, liberals, Communists and even Ba’athists go? … During sanctions, this street was our survival’ (126). In this passage, Asee highlights that there are instances in which cultural and spiritual nourishment (as provided by social life) may, in fact, secure physical survival (i.e. the continuation of biological life).

Some Iraqi writers identify the destruction of Iraqi culture and knowledge, which consti- tute sources of Iraqi self-representation and resistance, as the US occupation’s profoundest consequence. In her poem ‘The Murderer’, which was originally penned in Arabic, Bushra al-Bustani, a professor of Arabic and poet residing in Mosul, writes:

The Professor lies on the roadside.
No one dares approach her.
Her lecture planted questions in students’ eyes and persistence in their souls.
The American killed her because she said to him:
‘You won’t replace our bread with your McDonald’s,
Nor our knowledge with your post-modernism.’
(al-Bustani, 2012: 158)

This passage not only highlights that the US pro ted economically from the invasion of Iraq, which opened new markets to US products (metonymically represented by an American fast-food giant whose fare, the poet fears, will undermine Iraqi culinary customs). The poem also suggests that the occupying force sought to delegitimise Iraqi ways of knowing. The poem’s imagining a professor – who both allegorically signi es Iraqi learnedness and dis- seminates her awareness of the aforementioned issues to students – as deliberately assas- sinated by Americans, paints the US occupation in a totalitarian light. In pointing to the economic interests behind the occupation and its debasing of local customs, al-Bustani clearly casts the US as an imperial presence, albeit while deploying an unfortunate overgen- eralisation (‘the American’).

Dunya Mikhail’s (2012) poem ‘A half-burned page on al-Mutanabbi Street’8 shares al-Bustani’s concern whether Iraqi knowledge will survive the occupation, but arrives at a decidedly more optimistic conclusion. Mikhail’s poem visually performs books’ and bodies’ having been torn apart and ‘scattered’ (l. 6, 10) by the car bomb. It constitutes a poetological rumination on the value of literature and the legitimacy of reading the world symbolically – that is, for meaning – in light of events which prima facie lend credence to the nihilist philosophical position that life has no meaning. Throughout the poem’s two stanzas, which are written in free verse and feature one word’s separation from the next by large spaces, the speaker poses a series of questions to herself regarding the value of literature in the face of man-made devastation as she beholds a ‘single page from a half-burned book’ (l. 3) that descends through the air, attaching itself to the chest of a woman killed in the bomb attack. The poem ends with an intertextual reference; a quotation (rendered ‘space-less’) from Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi’s poem ‘The Pigeon’s Ru ’,9 which the page on the slain woman’s chest is revealed to display. Thus, the speaker – and by extension, the reader – is ultimately reassured that the ideas expressed in and the aesthetic e ects of literary texts will reverberate and provide guidance for humanity for aeons even if their material manifestations have been destroyed.

A half-burned page on al-Mutanabbi Street

Is this a sign then?
Floating in the air, this single page,
A single page from a half-burned book?
A half-burned book on Mutanabbi Street Mutanabbi Street whose tales were cut short
by a bomb?
A bomb that scattered all those pages?
As if searching desperately for a meaning?
This very page from `The Pigeon’s Ru ’ Flew up and oated down
Between the scattered bodies
To cling to her chest?

Aren’t these the same lines once recited to her?
‘As I come to you, I hurry
Like the full moon crossing the sky And as I leave – if I leave –
I move slowly like the high stars xed in slowness.’
(Mikhail, 2012: 72; reproduced with kind permission of PM Press)

The poem’s enciphered rst line, ‘Is this a sign then?’, only becomes intelligible through the information provided in the rest of the rst stanza, which leaves the reader as puzzled as the speaker when the latter beholds the carnage wreaked by the bomb attack. Through the serial deployment of the stylistic device of anadiplosis, i.e. the repetition of the words from the end of one line at the beginning of the next, the speaker reconstructs the events that led to the half-burned page oating through the air in reverse chronology, thus ren- dering this passage reminiscent of the rewinding of a lm. Since ashbacks to the precipi- tating event are common in trauma victims, this passage suggests that the attack on the heart of Baghdad’s literary and intellectual life has left the speaker in a traumatised state. Asking herself a series of questions – inter alia, whether the oating page’s attaching itself to the chest of the slain woman ‘is a sign then? / … As if searching desperately for a meaning?’ (l. 1; 7) – the speaker is portrayed as questioning whether literature has any value in the face of the human potential for malice evident in the attack on al-Mutanabbi Street, and, in turn, whether it is useful to read the world, that is, to interpret lived experience for meaning.

While the speaker seems to sympathise with the philosophical position of nihilism in the poem’s rst part, the second stanza eventually suggests that the poem ‘The Pigeon’s Ru ’, which is discernible on the half-burned page that has fallen onto the slain woman, was once quoted to the latter by her lover. Thus, the relationship between literature and humanity is likened to a romantic relationship. The lover (i.e. the speaker in ‘The Pigeon’s Ru ’) in turn, via simile, likens his loyalty by his beloved’s side to the endurance of stars in the night sky: ‘“And as I leave – if I leave – / I move slowly like the high stars / xed in slowness”’ (l. 16–18). Here, by imbuing literature with the characteristics of stars, Mikhail’s poem ultimately posits that, akin to stars that continue to shine for thousands of years after they have burned out, literary texts will remain potent repositories of ideas and continue to provide moral guidance for humanity10 long after their material manifestations (books, for instance) have perished. Mikhail further emphasises this longevity of literature by quoting from Moorish intellectual al-Andalusi’spoem‘ThePigeon’sRu ’,pennedin1022CE,whichwastransmittedtoposterity despite the Christian reconquista of Andalusia.

The ubiquity of death and the impossibility of art: Sinan Antoon’s novel The Corpse Washer
Sinan Antoon’s11 novel The Corpse Washer (2013) addresses various in ections of life and death in occupied Iraq. It relates the story of Jawad, the autodiegetic narrator, who is artis- tically talented and refuses to follow in his father’s professional footsteps as a corpse washer.

Much to the latter’s dismay, Jawad enrols in the Baghdad Academy of Fine Arts, aspiring to become a sculptor. Although Jawad has experienced the Iraq–Iran War (1980–1988) and the Gulf War (1990–1991), losing loved ones in both, and has survived Saddam Hussein’s dicta- torship and the draconian UN sanctions, he is unprepared for the ubiquity of death in the wake of the US invasion. While he is unable to nd a job relevant to his degree in ne arts, his family’s corpse-washing business ourishes. When his father dies, the omnipresence of death forces Jawad to renounce his artistic ambitions in favour of washing and shrouding the dead for a living. After two years, he decides to leave Iraq behind in order to save his sanity and to study art in Europe. However, as Jawad is not allowed to cross the border, he returns to his old life in Baghdad as a corpse washer.

Death plagues the entire story, playing an in uential role in Iraqi people’s lives and shaping the survivors’ destinies. The frequent wars12 in which Iraq has been involved constantly a ict the characters of the novel, biologically, socially and psychologically. For instance, Reem, the protagonist’s ancée and a lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts, is diagnosed with breast cancer, presumably caused by the US army’s use of depleted uranium during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s. Ammoury, Jawad’s brother, a talented medical school grad- uate, was killed in the war with Iran just two months before Iran agreed upon a cease re. During the 2003 invasion, Jawad’s father dies of a heart attack while the Americans are shelling the city of Kazemieh.

The battle between life-a rming forces and destructive forces is ever present in the novel. Jawad represents life with all its pains and joys. Death, however, is personi ed as Jawad’s authoritarian, greedy chief who rules over his life day and night. Jawad objects: ‘Death is not content with what it takes from me in my waking hours, it insists on haunting me even in my sleep. Isn’t it enough that I toil all day tending to its eternal guests, preparing them to sleep in its lap?’ (Antoon, 2013: 3). Jawad remembers that before the US occupation and the ensuing civil war, even in the time of the UN embargo, ‘death was timid and more measured’ than today (3).

The young protagonist’s story can be read as an allegory of Iraq’s history. Both Jawad and the Iraqi people are denied the political sovereignty necessary for realising their dreams independent of foreign in uences. The people native to the region of modern-day Iraq, similar to many people residing in formerly colonised countries of the Global South, barely enjoyed the sovereignty to develop their full potential, which, as Mbembe remarks, in ects a ‘society’s capacity for self-creation through recourse to institutions inspired by speci c social and imaginary signi cations’ (2003: 13).

In a broader perspective, the US military occupation synecdochically represents a long history of Iraqis’ subjugation by foreign powers, including the Persian Empire, the Abbasid Caliphate (seventh century to twelfth century CE), Mongol rulers, the Ottoman Empire and the British Empire. The hardships faced by the Iraqi population during the Ba’ath dictatorship (1968–2003) were further exacerbated by the sanctions imposed by the UN after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Despite this long history of subjugation, until the Mongol conquest of Baghdad, Iraq’s capital had been widely regarded as ‘the cradle of civilisation’, whose inhabitants played an important role in preserving ancient knowledge by translating texts from Latin and Greek into Arabic. Today, the scienti c and philosophical resources Iraqis have historically cultivated barely receive the recognition they deserve, let alone the care and protection required for their preservation under an occupying force. As Jawad’s art teacher, Mr Ismael – who becomes another victim of war, having been drafted into military service just before the commencement of the war with Iran in September 1980 –, teaches his students: ‘art was intimately linked with immortality: a challenge to death and time, a celebration of life’ (Antoon, 2013: 31). He goes on to remind his students:

that our ancestors in Mesopotamia were the rst to pose all these questions in their myths and in the epic of Gilgamesh, and that Iraq was the rst and biggest art workshop in the world. In addition to inventing writing and building the rst cities and temples, the rst works of art and statues had appeared in ancient Iraq during the Sumerian era and now ll museums all over the world. Many still remained underground. He said that we all were inheritors of the great treasure of civilisation that enriches our present and future and makes modern Iraqi art so fertile.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Jawad’s familiarity with losses precipitated by political events, the protagonist is fascinated when the sculptor Giacometti’s works are introduced to him at the art academy. He is especially taken with a sculpture entitled ‘Man Walking’ because he feels that ‘the man he sculpted was sad and isolated’ (41). His professor, Isam al-Janabi, con rms Jawad’s impression, stating that ‘many critics say that his works express an existentialist attitude toward the emptiness and meaninglessness of life’ (41). Giacometti’s sculptures embody what bare life might look like: ‘Humans in Giacometti’s world, be they men or women, appeared sad and lonely, with no clear features, emerging from the unknown and striding toward it’ (42).
Mghaysil, the morgue operated by Jawad’s family, where many episodes of the story are set, is an allegory of modern Iraq. The causes of death, re ected in the bodies that are being washed and shrouded, change throughout the story, from natural ones such as stroke or accidental ones such as re before the Iran–Iraq War to exclusively war-related causes after 1980. Antoon portrays the social life in post-2003 Iraq as all but paralysing, eventually prompting Jawad to relinquish his artistic ambitions and follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a corpse washer. In contrast to the devastating e ects of the US invasion on artistic and intellectual life, any business related to the destruction of Iraqi lives ourished: ‘death is more generous, thanks to the Americans’ (104). In addition, kidnapping, killing or dismem- bering bodies became lucrative careers as people’s lives ‘became a currency that was easy to circulate and liquidate’ (108).

As Jawad re ects:
We’d thought the value of human life had reached rock-bottom under the dictatorship and that it would now rebound, but the opposite happened. Corpses piled up like goals scored by death on behalf of rabid teams in a never-ending game. That is the thought that came to mind when I heard ‘Another car bomb targeted …’

A series of suicide bomb attacks resulting from the Sunni–Shia factional strife that ensued after the US invasion have not only added more bodies to such ‘corpse piles’, but have e ec- tively normalised death and integrated it into the everyday lives of Iraqis. Antoon once personi es death as a postman who brings letters every day. The likening of human lives to letters is signi cant here because it reminds us that in modernity, as Mbembe states, ‘the subject is the master and the controlling author of his or her own meaning’ (2003: 13). However, under the US occupation, as in any‘state of emergency’scenario, the postman has been authorised to undermine people’s autonomy, penning their letters in their stead. The postman brings ‘the bloodied and torn envelopes’ to Jawad, who would ‘wrap them carefully in white so they may reach their nal readers – the grave’ (Antoon, 2013: 3). Jawad’s exas- perated imaginary dialogue with his dead father underscores how ubiquitous death has become in occupied Iraq: ‘But letters are piling up, Father! Tenfold more than what you used to see in the span of a week now pass before me in a day or two’ (3).

Ultimately, Jawad’s thwarted escape to the Swiss art world and his return to the realm of the dead as a corpse washer are suggestive of his survival of necropolitics as bare life: a liv- ing-dead amongst the dead.

Writing as performing survival of neocolonial necropolitics

As will have become apparent, the texts under consideration in this essay have a poetological component or re ect on the role of art in the face of large-scale death, human su ering and
cultural annihilation. The ‘torn text’ abu ghraib arias constitutes the result of Metres’ grappling with the di culty of imagining and representing the unmaking to which the US empire subjected Iraqis by using torture. Mikhail’s poem contemplates whether writing literature makes a di erence in contexts where death is ubiquitous and literature is deliberately tar- geted. While some Iraqi contributions to Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here highlight the impor- tance of reading and exchanging ideas on Baghdad’s ‘Street of the Booksellers’ for the city’s population during the trials of the last decades, Antoon’s novel exposes the impossibility of producing art in the face of necropolitics, a condition which is inimical to the creative process.

The two questions these writers grapple with – Does art have any meaning in the face of war, colonial annihilation and other manifestations of human malice? And if so, how are said atrocities to be represented? – evoke the artist’s perennial dilemma captured in Theodor Adorno’s justly famous statement ‘Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ (1977: 30, our translation). This statement has been widely interpreted as an injunction against writing poetry. However, Elaine Martin suggests that Adorno’s statement is best understood as an aporia:
De ned as an irresolvable impasse as a result of equally plausible yet inconsistent premises the term ‘aporia’ succinctly captures the essence of Adorno’s deliberations on post-Shoah art: the imperative to represent the egregious crimes and the impossibility of doing so.
(Martin, 2006: 2)

What Adorno seems to have postulated, then, is that writerly engagement with crimes against humanity should not fall back on an aesthetics of Light Romanticism. In this way, he implicitly critiqued a traditional Kunstverständnis which conceptualises art’s primary function as enabling the recipient’s experience of beauty (see Adorno, 1984). In (neo)colonial contexts, a third dimension is added to the conundrum ‘native’ writers face. Since literature serves as a repository of a ‘native’ society’s knowledge about its own history and epistemology, it becomes a crucial form of cultural self-representation, one that also functions as an antidote to the distortions produced by colonialist Othering of ‘native’ cultures. Thus, the imperative to continue their society’s cultural self-representation by writing may outweigh the self- doubts ‘native’ writers may have regarding the impossibility of representing the atrocities visited upon their society. After all, if Iraqis were able to associate the bomb attack on al-Mu- tanabbi Street with the Tigris having turned red, then black after the Mongol invasion of Baghdad, this was not only due to the fact that this event had become engrained in Iraqi cultural memory, but also to the fact that contemporary writers had preserved it for the generations to come. Thus, Iraqi writers’ very act of writing post-2003 constitutes a perform- ative survival of the US empire’s necropolitical assault on Iraqi biological and social life.

In this context, Iraqi diaspora writers such as Sinan Antoon and Dunya Mikhail also used their relative privilege of not living under existential threat to re ect on the devastation of both their compatriots and their homeland’s cultural heritage, thereby making their own contribution to the survival of Iraqi intellectual traditions. Furthermore, by originally penning their works in Arabic, Sinan Antoon, Dunya Mikhail and other subaltern writers speak, both literally and discursively, to a non-Western, non-Anglophone interlocutor. In Post-Orientalism: Knowledge and Power in a Time of Terror, Hamid Dabashi suggests that postcolonial critics have to ‘put an end to the idea of “Europe”, or a fortiori “the West”, as the principle interlocutor of the world – for it is not. It is a terrible and terrifying abstraction’ (Dabashi, 2009: 272). To that end, Dabashi is critical of Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak for having:

a white Euro-American interlocutor at the center of [their] narrative attention, moral outrage, and argumentative persistence – as if trying hard to convince him (and it is always a ‘him’) of the atrocities of colonialism around the globe – as if unless and until this ctive white male interlocutor is not convinced that the horrors of colonialism actually took place, then they did not in fact happen at all. (273)

Collectively, the Iraqi writers covered in this essay, particularly those who rst published their work in Arabic, launch a postcolonial epistemic insurrection. They do so by changing ‘the very alphabet of reading the world’ (278), and by speaking to the world in a language that is not ‘trapped in a circuitous discourse of merely talking back to the self-appointed interlocutors of the world’ (278). Writing against the US empire’s assault on Iraqi biological and social life, and thus performing a de ant act of survival in the face of neocolonial nec- ropolitics, they ‘write back’ (see Ashcroft, Gri ths and Ti n, 2002) with a twist: by writing in Arabic, they signal that their implied reader is not, in fact, the (neo)colonial power, but fellow subaltern Iraqis/Arabs.


1.    Contrasting the two notions, Agamben uses zoe to denote ‘the simple fact of living common to all living beings’, while he uses bios to indicate ‘the form or way of living proper to an individual or a group’ (1998: 1). Building on Agamben, we understand bios as a quali ed mode of life that exceeds the mere fact of being alive. Since the elds of politics, culture and education, which are integral to such a quali ed mode of life, presuppose sociality, we use the shorthand social life throughout this essay. 

2.    According to Harvard library specialist for the Middle East, Je Spurr, although organisations such as the International Council of Museums had repeatedly warned the US Department of Defense in the days leading up to the invasion that it was required by The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Con ict to secure culturally important sites in Iraq, the US military undertook no steps to protect sites such as the National Museum of Iraq or intervene once they were targeted by arson, looting etc. American troops were, however, deployed to protect the Ministry of Oil from attack (Spurr, 2005). 

3.    Philip Metres is a Lebanese American scholar and poet who writes in English. 

4.    This Babylonian law code is considered one of the rst legal regimes in human history. 

5.    Metres has described the genesis of his poem thus: ‘I have engaged in a process of writing 
by erasure’ (Metres, 2008: 1601). He chose sections from the unredacted testimonies by Abu Ghraib torture victims, and let certain words or word sequences disappear or fade to grey while blackening others, and combined the result with fragments from the other abovementioned sources. 

6.    The sections focalised by the prison guards, i.e. the perpetrators, do not feature omission. 

7.    Another form of torture literally destroys the torture victim’s sexuality; during the Algerian War of Independence, for instance, French torturers routinely castrated Algerian FLN ghters, e.g. 
by electrocuting or smashing their testicles (Lazreg, 2008: 124–125). 

8.    Dunya Mikhail is a Baghdad-born poet who has resided in the US since 1996. This poem was 
rst written in Arabic. 

9.    The poem’s original Arabic title is ‘Tawq al Hamama’; it was penned in 1022 CE. Ibn Hazm al- 
Andalusi (994–1064 CE) was a leading Andalusian Islamic theologian and poet. 

10.    That the star imagery foregrounds the function of literature as moral compass becomes particularly clear when one considers that humans relied on the stars for orientation throughout 
most of history.

11. Sinan Antoon is a writer, scholar and translator who was born in Iraq, but has resided in the US since 1991. He rst published this novel in Arabic as Wahdaha shajarat al-rumman in 2010. He translated the novel into English himself. 140 K. MOTYL AND M. ARGHAVAN

12. ‘In the winter of 2003 it seemed that, once again, war was coming. … we got ready for wars as if we were welcoming a visitor we knew very well, hoping to make his stay a pleasant one’ (Antoon, 2013: 61).

Back to Beau Beausoleil’s Editor Page | Back to Deema Shehabi’s Editor Page