Letter from Iraq: Literature Between Exile and Detachment

Letter from Iraq: Literature between Exile and Detachment
By Kusay A Askar


When speaking about the Arabic literature of Iraq, it is important to envision it as divided into two parts: literature inside Iraq and what I refer to as emigrant literature, that which is written by Iraqis living abroad.

Lion of Babylon, the ancient symbol of Iraqi force
Lion of Babylon, the ancient symbol of Iraqi force

The condition of literature in Iraq is a bleak one. Its hopeless state reflects a country that is suffering from neglect, corruption, and administrative chaos. The intervention of political parties and religious groups in the country’s affairs affects everything, and literature and poetry are not free from their influence.

Many Arabs, in their daily lives, use neither the classic Arabic (the Holy Quran language) nor the modern Arabic (the language of the newspapers and media), but rely, rather, on local dialects, particularly in the more rural or tribal sectors of society. There is a striking difference between the former iterations of Arabic and the local dialects. As a result, the majority of poets are not able to write in the elevated language of the arts and need a linguistic proofreader.

It is not just the literature itself that has been affected, but poetry festivals in Iraq, since the fall of the previous regime in 2003, have changed drastically. They are almost exclusively limited to the prose poem, and, as a result, the public isn’t being exposed to a modern classic poem or foot poem beyond the prose poem that has overwhelmed Iraqi literature since the 1980s. The majority of poets think that the prose poem is easier than the classic modern poem of note music or foot poem (1). So we can say there are now millions of prose poem poets (2) in Iraq.

Badr Shaker Sayyab, pioneer of modern Arabic poetry Basra 1926-1964
Badr Shaker Sayyab, pioneer of modern Arabic poetry Basra 1926-1964

There were amazing senior academics behind the ascent of great Iraqi literature between the mid-1930s until about 1980. But now there is nothing!

Considering emigrant literature, we need to make two divisions once again: the first category is expatriation literature and the other is the alienation literature.

I emigrated from Iraq in 1979 and I have been trying to take advantage of my long stay in Denmark and the United Kingdom to investigate these two types of emigrant literature and criticism. For the sake of this letter, I choose to focus on the former.

The first pattern, the emigrant literature, is different from the cultural school founded by Gibran in the second middle of the nineteenth century.

In the story and the novel, there is a common motif between Iraq and the country of emigration: the hero or the heroine is trying to achieve his (her) integration, to naturalize the self in a new society and avoid being perceived negatively and developing an inferiority complex.

Regarding criticism, I have created a new way of understanding based on the word. When the receiver reads the poetic text, he or she will quickly gravitate towards the word or sentence that has the most impact on his/her feelings. After that, the reader will anchor this word as a focal point to analyze other images and metaphors according to their closeness or distance from that focal word.


(1) foot poem= blank verse =free verse

(2) poetry in prose


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