Corpse Exhibition: Iraqi Literature after 2003

On September 29, 2017 miriam cooke organized a two-part symposium (the first at Duke University and the second to be held in Iraq) on Iraqi literature published after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The outpouring of dystopian novels, short stories, memoirs and poetry has been intense over the past 14 years, yet scholarly interest has lagged. The symposium was designed to respond to this lag. Speakers contextualized the occupation within a history of American imperialism in order not to exceptionalize Iraqi suffering but rather to understand where it fits in an overall strategy to dominate the region.

After a screening of Ahlaam and Abd al-Sattar’s overview of Iraqi literature under the Ba'ath regime, the symposium featured two readings and four presentations. Louis Yako recited some of his poetry and Sinan Antoon read from his newly translated The Baghdad Eucharist.  Both writers also presented papers and both addressed the trope of corpses that haunts post-2003 Iraqi literature. It was Hassan Blasim’s 2013 The Corpse Exhibition that provided the title for the symposium.

Louis Yako’s “Death & Exile in Balasim's Writing” asked why post-war writers needed “to do language in the way Balasim and many post-occupation Iraqi writers do it? If language becomes the only “home” when all else is lost, perhaps, like any home, language, too, must be a good representation of our experiences, tastes, joys, sorrows, losses, and pains. In fact, this new language must also be able to equally capture everything that shouldn’t have happened… Perhaps asking for a perfect language to capture what happened is akin to asking for all human atrocities to vanish at a blink of an eye.”* Sinan Antoon’s “Writing Iraq after 2003” discussed his 2010 The Corpse Washer (translated into English in 2013). He called for a change in focus so that resilience, survival and creativity replace the morbid fascination with the dead. Ikram Masmoudi examined the poetics of space, elaborating on her 2015 War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction that engages with the literary representation of wars, sanctions, and draconian censorship Iraqis endured since Saddam Hussein became president in 1980. She again identified Agamben’s homo sacer in the deserters, traumatized soldiers and prisoners whose deaths cannot be mourned or avenged. Amanda Al-Raba'a’s “Translators, Ethics, and Gender in Iraq War literature” analyzed the role of interpreters in life as in fiction. Caught in the barzakh between two cultures and languages, they belong to both and to neither and thus have to negotiate the fine line between complicity, betrayal and martyrdom.

Participants in the "Corpse Exhibition: Iraqi Literature after 2003" Symposium

It is hoped that the situation in Iraq will allow us to follow through on the planned second half of the symposium that will focus on writers.

*Yako’s paper was published on October 6, 2017 in Counterpunch accessed 15 January 2018