The Inexpressible in Iraqi Women’s Narratives of War

The Inexpressible in Iraqi Women’s Narratives of War

Dr. Angham A. Abdullah

This paper examines selected extracts by Iraqi women writers of the war with Iran in the 1980s, the First Gulf War in the 1990s and the occupation of Iraq in 2003. The three wars that Iraqis have witnessed brought about a series of human tragedies which traumatized those who survived the atrocities and became witnesses to the wars. For each war, I examine a text which centers on that specific period in the lives of Iraqis. For the war of the 1980s, I will analyze Ibtisam Abdullah’s story “al- Akhar fil Mir’ah” (The Other in the Mirror 1999).1 For the war of the 1990s and the subsequent sanctions I will analyze Maysalun Hadi’s novella al-‘Alam Naqiṣan Waḥid (The World Minus One 1999). Lutfiyya al-Dulaymi’s novel Women of Saturn is chosen to represent the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003.2 The study examines the way in which the narratives resist the idea of war in a way that participates in subverting the Iraqi political propaganda of war. By bringing private experiences into the public domain, these writers create a historical narrative of a shared experience of cruelty, distress, damage and marginalization that leads to political challenges for the narratives. Their work functions as a testimony that resists war by unveiling the complexity of the history of war and its bearing on the survivors/victims.
Key Words: War, resistance, testimony, marginalization and survival


As testimonial narratives of resistance, Iraqi women’s narratives of the periods of war, sanctions, occupation and its aftermath not only critique the cruelties of the Iraqi Ba’th party and of war, but also provide future generations with an account of a history of violence, displacement and disarray. The women writers I focus on provide female civilian points of view which tackle the human suffering and agony on the home front. In the analysis of these extracts, I examine how this fiction expresses the authors’ positions as “underground historians” (Steiner, 1973: 32) who, due to the restrictions and censorship of their government, are expressing “the inexpressible” (Allen, 1995: 256). My main concern is with texts critiquing war and dictatorship.

In her description of Arab women’s writing, Lebanese novelist Etel Adnan refers to the way in which such writing is affected by intersecting “circles of oppression” and “circles of repression” (1982: 104). Such texts become a site for representing possibilities of resistance to political and social forms of “oppression” and “repression.” What characterizes Iraqi women’s narratives of war is that these narratives represent the way in which Iraqis become victims of “circles of oppression” brought about by a dictatorial regime and by wars.

The Ba’thist regime politicized historical memory in the 1970s and early 1980s and engaged in rewriting the history of the country on a scale never before seen in Iraq (Davis, 2005: 3). In an effort to rewrite history, Saddam’s government tried to “cultivate ideals of honour, glory and self-sacrifice” (Benigo, 1998: 153) in order to embellish the ugly reality of war. This in turn created a discourse that promoted a view of the male as champion on the battlefront and the female as powerless on the home front. Any writing which did not conform to the Ba’thist master historical narrative was prohibited. Overt resistance to war was not tolerated by the government of Saddam Hussein. Writers who fell short of obedience were penalized or, if compliant, rewarded depending on their attitude towards the state (Mustafa, 2008: xvi). Some writers supported the Ba’th ideology out of fear of punishment. This group of writers is considered by the Iraqi critic Salam ‘Abud to be an outcome of the “culture of violence” in which “Iraqi artists had either to collaborate with the regime or go into physical or inner exile” (2002: 156). However, others developed restrained forms of resistance that kept the spark of opposition alive until the fall of the regime (Scott, 1990: 87). These writers resorted to silence and preferred to publish their work after the fall of the regime. Eric Davis argues that Iraqi intellectuals in the 1980s “subvert the state’s goals by incorporating multiple levels of meanings into their texts” (2005: 11). The choice of theme and technique enabled writers to veil their anti-war attitudes so that their texts would pass the censor in a way that makes these texts particularly interesting. One of these writers is Ibtisam Abdullah whose story I have chosen here to represent the type of writing that appeared during the period of the 1980s.

Given the fact that Ibtisam Abdullah’s “The Other in the Mirror” was actually published in Iraq during the 1980s, it was state-sponsored by the Ba’th regime. However, Abdullah endeavors to portray a counter image of war to the one propagated by Saddam Hussein’s government. The story is told from the point of view of the unnamed female protagonist. The very first lines of the story describe how the absence of the protagonist’s husband on the battlefield wears her down: “All I have learned these years is how to kill time with silence. It’s a profession I began to master after he went to war. Or after he was drafted” (Abdullah, 2008: 185). The narrator’s description of her gloomy state, which is not going “to change anytime soon” (185) not only indicates her desperation, but implicitly refers to the prolonged war, with no end in sight. Moreover, the protagonist’s use of the word “drafted” also signifies a veiled condemnation of war in which men are enrolled against their will. The protagonist’s reference to how she engages in killing time “with silence” intensifies the depressing routine of her life. The tediousness of her life is strengthened by the notion of the silence engulfing her and eradicating her facial features: “evenings and nights […] wear down my shoulders and eyelids and by night’s end dim lines spread across my face. My nose alone sticks out, presiding over a landscape of features vanquished by the barriers of mute darkness” (185). The metaphor of the “mute darkness” overwhelming her refers to the death-like state that she experiences with the slow passage of the night hours. By not naming the protagonist, the writer tries to deepen the sense of the death in life that she is undergoing. By obliterating the protagonist’s individual identity, the writer turns her story into a kind of everywoman’s story, rather than the tale of a unique woman.

However, the lonely protagonist comforts herself by declaring that she “can put up with that,” highlighting her determination to live through this difficult situation. Despite the pain that she undergoes at the slow pace of her lonely days, a faint hope reappears every now and then to rekindle her faith in a better future “that might bring something else” (186). As such, the episode above is analogous to the structure of a story which, though governed by anguish, nevertheless bears signs of relief through the narrator’s focus on her ways of coping with the situation. To outlive her “crisis of survival” (Bloom, 2004: 14), the protagonist achieves an imaginary reunion with her absent husband. In the text, the narrator describes how she makes up her own ways of connecting with him in his absence: “I place his teacup on the small table in the kitchen and talk to him. Joke with him or reproach him. Sometimes I even create scenes and quarrel with him. His vacant seat always seemed filled with his presence” (185). The imaginary presence of the absent husband helps to fill the long days of waiting, but does not bring him back. This image of the presence/absence of the husband/soldier foreshadows his state of change, which I will examine later, when the actual presence of the man turns out to be a kind of absence for his wife.

As the narrative progresses, the focus shifts from the protagonist’s condition to her husband’s “sharper changes” (186) during his leaves from the war front. Caruth describes trauma as a “reaction to an unexpected, violent event or events that are not fully assimilated as they occur, but return later in […] other repetitive forms” (1995: 91). The repetition of the word “change” throughout the narrative always occurs with reference to the husband’s traumatized state. Vickroy argues that repetition can be a sign that a character “is caught in stasis, not able to move on and resolve the initial trauma” (2015: 99–100). The insistent progression of the husband’s state of change is strengthened by means of the “mirror” that he keeps holding “to stare for long frightened moments at his face” (186). The act of staring at the mirror recurs in the text to emphasize the physical and spiritual shift in the man/soldier:

One night he gazed at his face in the mirror, but after some scrutiny
turned to me and surprised me with a question, “What has changed in
me?” He repeated the question, “What has changed in me?” “What do
you think?” “I don’t know. I don’t seem to know myself anymore.
A strong feeling tells me I’ve changed. That much I’m sure of […] I
mean my face, my features. Don’t you see that?” […] “I don’t know,”
I said. “Perhaps some paleness in the face.” He […] then whispered to
himself, “Yes, I’m sure I’ve changed. No, it’s not the paleness. What
I mean is that I have a different face.” (186)

Despite the protagonist’s realization of her husband’s trauma, she strives not to tell him the truth of how awful he appears, both physically and morally. Instead, she tries her best to reassure her husband and support him: “I’d still love you even if the change were for the worse. Do you hear me? I’d still love you. I don’t know if he really believed me, for he said nothing […] He turned his back to me and left the house” (187). While the protagonist tries hard to divert her husband’s attention from the idea of change by showing love and care, he becomes indifferent. This intensifies my earlier suggestion that the soldier’s “crisis of survival” reflects the intensity of his divided self. The enigma lies in the fact that, although he turns to his wife for reassurance, the husband is unable to believe her words. Hence, the gap between them grows.

The state of alteration the husband experiences is more generally referred to as a struggle between “the unbearable nature of an event and the unbearable nature of its survival” (Caruth, 1995: 7). The husband’s inability to comprehend the change he feels increases the periods of silence between him and his wife. The prevalence of silence is intensified in the minimal dialogue throughout the text. It becomes confined to the subject of change and later on to that of the situation at the warfront. At the same time, the long silences which recur throughout the text turn the husband’s bodily presence into a state of spiritual absence. The protagonist thus struggles with her husband’s physical absence by creating his imaginary presence, and then finds herself in a position where she has to cope with his spiritual absence when he is actually physically present.
Despite her unvoiced grief at her husband’s gradual deterioration, the protagonist remains hopeful that a day will come when he returns to his pre-war self. The protagonist is determined to support her husband: “I became very much the wall he needed to lean against during those times of ebb and flow that left the psyche drained” (188). The protagonist’s position as a source of encouragement and reassurance is summarized in the metaphor of the “wall” on which her husband depends. The reference to a wall could be read by the censor as a symbol of Iraqi women’s continuous support for the men/fighters who go to war for the sake of defending the women/land and thus serve the war propaganda. I look at the “wall” as a symbol of the way in which women overcome their “crisis of survival” and refute the propaganda about their weak position as inferior to men. The symbol of the “wall”, which stands firm in the face of difficulties, signifies women’s perseverance and is contrasted with the weakness of the men/fighters.

The psychological injury experienced by the husband is emphasized by his description of how he “kills” time at the battlefront: “What scares me is the lull when we are in the trenches, the silent wait when we run out of words. The silence we sometimes try to kill with meaningless words” (189). This use of “we” denotes a shared feeling of fear out of the “silent wait” the soldiers experience in the trenches during the intervals between one air-raid and the next.

The penultimate scene portrays the protagonist’s failure as she tries to pull the mirror away from her husband who, in turn, tightens his grip on it: “Are you crazy? It’s just a mirror,” I said. “No, it’s the truth” (190). The protagonist’s attempt to take the mirror denotes her rejection of the truth of his change. Her act is meant to shift her husband’s attention away from the change he is undergoing. As such, the mirror symbolizes the “truth” for both wife and husband. In the last paragraph, the protagonist describes her furious husband’s reaction as he still clings onto the mirror: “His eyes widened and flashed. He raised his hand and threw the mirror at me. Its broken pieces flew all over the room. A long wound opened on my chest, and blood flowed between the two of us” (190).

The throwing of the mirror articulates the otherness in the husband, who no longer knows any language other than that of violence. The physical wound he inflicts on his wife signals the arrival of war in the home. She cannot hold his transformation at bay. However, while the physical “wound” of the protagonist is likely to heal, the spiritual “wound” within her husband seems to deepen. The war thus succeeds in wounding the protagonist but fails to destroy her. This is evident in the narrative structure, which begins with the protagonist remembering the events of the story unfolding alongside her husband’s transformation. The testimony the unnamed protagonist provides about her ways of coping with the absence/presence state of her husband and his traumatic transformation, along with the stories he brings her from the war front, is a narrative about the history of a communal trauma. This trauma not only involves the soldiers at the battlefront but also implicates the wives, who are doomed to endure a double burden at home.

The image of the soldiers’ “weakness” challenges the Iraqi government’s dominant discourse of that time about the legendary Iraqi male fighter who knows no fear and is ready to sacrifice himself. The protagonist’s position as a caring, loving and patient listener “not daring to interrupt,” (188) lest her husband returns to his earlier spells of silence, casts her at one level into a conventional feminine, supporting role. But it also highlights her strength in coping with his damage. Since the text was officially endorsed, the presence of the censor did not stop the writer from describing the brutality of war and exposing the ways in which gender hierarchies operate.

During the second half of the 1990s, and as a result of the long period of sanctions following the First Gulf War, the hold of the Iraqi government loosened and writers became bolder in portraying Iraqi life. At this stage, their writings focused on the large-scale destruction caused by the wars and portrayed the effects of sanctions on the lives of Iraqis. Irada al-Jabburi suggests that “this situation offered more space and freedom of speech to writers who described it and were very bold in portraying the status quo in a way that brought about a type of writing called ‘Kutub al-Hisar’ (the sanctions’ books)” (Skype Interview with Abdullah, 8 Nov. 2011). Lutfiyya al-Dulaymi describes this kind of writing as a “text of resistance” (Interview with Kurayshan, 2 Oct. 2000). Resistance, in al-Dulaymi’s view, carries a double meaning in that it is not only a manifestation of clinging to life against the death brought by the US-imposed embargo, but also a resistance to the Iraqi policy of propagating war and to the tyranny of the ruling system.

Maysalun Hadi’s The World Minus One expresses this resistance. Yet, the text escapes censorship. Sarmak argues that Hadi is one of a handful of Arab writers who have made great use of the wars to change their oeuvre in a way that has produced “a resistant, humanitarian and creative type of writing in the age of crisis” (2004: 13–14). In The World Minus One, two parents lose their only son, ‘Ali, in the war. Because the body was left unburied, the father cannot be sure of his son’s identity and is overwhelmed with doubts about whether he is burying the wrong body.

In this text, Hadi destabilizes the notion of the “martyr.” The term “martyr” was officially used in Iraq to label any soldier killed in the war zone while fighting the Iranians. Saddam’s statement that “Martyrs are the most generous” was found everywhere: on street corners, on school walls, university gates, on the radio and on television as part of the regime’s attempt to elevate the death of Iraqi soldiers and to promote the idea of a just war against a savage enemy.3

In Hadi’s text, the theme of death gains a complex meaning through showing the human body as degraded to the level of an animal’s carcass in the awful smell it produces. In the text, when ‘Ali’s father approaches “‘Ali’s” corpse to check, “the smell […] sickens him” (Hadi, 1999: 17), and when the corpse is taken to Baghdad to be readied for burial, someone says: “no shroud is required […] the martyr is buried wearing his military uniform” (20). At the same moment ‘Ali’s father feels that the corpse smells like a “fatisah (decayed carcass) […] left over by the side of the road for days” (21). The fact that the body has been left for three weeks without proper burial evokes in the father the image of a dead animal left unattended. The juxtaposition of “the martyr” with the olfactory image of the disgusting “smell” and the recurrence of the word fatisah throughout the text refutes the notion that death in war has sanctity and places the deceased in the position of a rotten carcass, for which a fast burial is the best remedy. This idea contradicts the Islamic story of what happens to the corpse of the martyr.4

The concept of the “martyr” is further challenged by Hadi through the image of worms attacking the dead body. When ’Ali’s father hears the news of his son’s death three weeks after the aeroplane accident, he thinks: “three weeks are not enough time for the armies of worms to attack his son’s body” (15). This thought references an “ordinary” death, since the bodies of “martyrs” supposedly do not decay. The image of the worms keeps recurring in the father’s mind whenever the idea of opening the tomb after burial occurs to him. ‘Ali’s father’s paradox stems from “the intricacy of the recurring images” (Lifton, 1991: xi) that haunt his mind and become almost “incomprehensible” (Caruth, 1996: 6). He believes that, once he attempts to open the tomb, he will face a body “wasted away by worms and humidity” (44). ‘Ali’s father realizes that it is nearly impossible to try to re-check the identity of the corpse in the cemetery as it decomposes. This means that he will never be certain whether the body in the ground is his son, a fact that leaves open the traumatic paradox of his survival. This “continuing predicament” (Bloom, 2004: 14) is furthered by the constant presence of the absent ‘Ali in the mind of the father, who soon realizes that he is not alone in his suffering.

The World Minus One not only critiques Saddam Hussein’s manipulation of the concept of the martyr to serve his war agenda, but also criticizes the Iraqi regime’s practice of silencing grief. As the war in Iraq grew fiercer and more casualties were brought back home, the Iraqi regime put restrictions on mourning ceremonies because these would instigate social gatherings. The point was to hide the human cost of war from view. Black placards were allowed outside martyrs’ houses, with the name of the martyr and the date of his death on them. These placards were not permitted to stay outside the house for more than two weeks (Whittleton, Muhsin and Hazelton, 1986: 248). Tony Walter suggests that “emotions have to be suppressed if the war effort is to continue” (1999: 132). The silencing of grief is thus constructed as a national necessity in wartime. Yet, this practice in Iraq could not hide the growing number of black placards, along with women in black mourning dresses everywhere in the country, denoting more war victims.
In the following excerpt, the mourning customs begin when “‘Ali’s corpse” is brought to his parents’ house. The novelist describes the way in which the neighbourhood women show their sympathy towards the family of the deceased:

Rapidly, the house is crammed with them, the men and women of
the vicinity. One woman comes in with a torn dress, another with
pulled hair and a third one with a mournful sound. All women cry
with the names of their sons. All sons are martyrs. All are distant and
will be present at this noisy, peaceful, scorching and crazy funeral
wedding. (18)

The distress of ‘Ali’s family overwhelms the women of the neighborhood, who express their sorrow with a traditional act of lament. The sight of the coffin propels the women into hysterical cries, in which each cries out the name of her son. The loss of ‘Ali becomes the women’s loss as well, as they try to call back their own sons who are “martyrs,” “distant” or missing, and ‘Ali’s name mingles with all the other names. The novelist’s juxtaposition of the contrasting images of the “noisy” and the “peaceful” atmosphere with that of the “crazy funeral wedding” suggests that the solemnity of the death event is overcome by the crazy dances of women, who produce sounds which reverberate and overwhelm everybody around them, as is the case with wedding parties.5

The mourning gathering lasts for three days. Women and men, family and friends visit the family of the deceased to present their condolences. The women condolers “look similar to one another […] in their groans, the memories they bring about the dead one […] and the way they call ‘Ali’s mother’s tears down” (23). The black dresses of the women, the manner in which they sit and the way in which they recall the dead person happens every time these women visit a bereaved family for consolation.

Besides helping ‘Ali’s mother to get rid of her sorrow, the women make use of ‘Ali’s funeral to grieve over their own bereavements. The collective crying of the women at the funeral and the neighborhood women shouting and dancing at the arrival of the dead body imply a group performance of lament. The same performance and the same lament recur in other houses, leading more and more women to join in this universal mourning that works against all attempts to silence it.

By describing the ugly face of war under strict censorship, the writers of the narratives of the 1980s and 1990s are thus located as underground historians who strive to record history in a way that does not conform to the Iraqi regime’s endeavor to rewrite the country’s history. The idea of the narration of history from an underground position is also evident in the narratives of the 2003 US Occupation. In al-Dulaymi’s Women of Saturn, the basement where the central character hides from the explosions outside is depicted as a place that tells the history of Baghdad through the old documents she finds there.

In the aftermath of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, resistance in women’s writings took a different approach. During this period, writers were engaged with representing the new period of desolation, violence, destitution and uncertainty for Iraqis. From the very first days following Saddam’s removal, anarchy and disorder triumphed in the streets of many Iraqi cities, especially Baghdad. Saddam’s presidential palaces, ministries, hospitals, factories, homes, schools and shops were plundered. Burkemen argues that the burning of the National Library of Baghdad destroyed the library’s archive of thousands of manuscripts, books, and Iraqi newspapers (2003: n.p.).

The act of burning books symbolizes the large-scale destruction of libraries and cultural symbols in Iraq immediately after the US military invasion. The attack on the cultural resources that connect the Iraqi people to 7,000 years of history, “is part of the process of systematically destroying their national identity” (Martin, 2003: n.p.). As such, the burning of books echoes past acts of cultural annihilation conducted by the Mongols in Iraq, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Nazis and the Allied troops in Germany, who used books as fuel for barbecues during World War II (Knuth, 2006: 179). Knuth suggests that the vandalizing of libraries is a kind of “libricide” committed by extremists on the grounds that books and libraries are sources of adversarial principles which they despise (2006: 201). The novel thus becomes an act of historical preservation, documenting actual events in fictional form and thereby continuing their memories.

In addition, the religious and tribal groups that came to the fore “opened the gates to retribalize and resubordinate women” (Efrati, 1999: 171). Throughout the period of occupation, different religious extremist groups became infamous, either in their resistance to the occupation, or in terrorizing the population by carrying out random acts of killing. In many instances, ethnic cleansing and revenge stood behind the rape and killing of women. Sectarian killings of men led to the displacement of families from their homes into refugee camps inside Iraq and increased the numbers of households headed by women (al-Jawaheri, 2008: 144).

In her novel Women of Saturn, al-Dulaymi uses Saturn to represent Baghdad during the post-occupation phase. In the text, Saturn is described as “a dark jinxed male planet that is cold and barren […] Saturn’s misfortune lasts for 30 years followed by 30 more years of good fortune” (2010: 136). The association between Saturn’s qualities of misfortune, darkness, death and sterility over “30 years” alludes to the succession of wars during the 1980s, 1990s and 2003. During the post-occupation period, conditions worsened for women: “women are pursued by the US marines, the armed men, the fundamentalists, the militias and the officials” (100). The features of Saturn and the situation of women during wars justify the correlation made in the title between women and Saturn.

During periods of military conflict, Hayat leaves her room and descends to the house’s underground cellar that acts as a shelter not only for Hayat but also for her women friends, Manar, Rawiyah, Halah and the French journalist Prisca Bernard. “They nearly live with me in our house, the women’s house” (42). Years before, this basement was a hiding place for Hayat’s uncle, Sheikh Qaydar, who went missing while looking for his wife, kidnapped in the aftermath of 2003. Qaydar’s love for Baghdad urged him to “embark on a manuscript project in which he chronicles Baghdad’s history during the 19th and 20th centuries accompanied by his lute” (27). In the basement, Hayat finds papers by Sheikh Qaydar in which he describes the decades of devastation that Baghdad witnessed.

Describing Baghdad, Hayat states: “Baghdad is eating its people up and my death is only a question of time. What is time? What is death? And what is Baghdad? A ghoul? A massive pot? A giant black hole that would devour itself?” (100). During the war years of the 1980s and 1990s, most deaths took place on the warfront and sometimes on the home front as a result of an enemy air raid on civilian targets. In 2003, and the years that followed, the possibility of death increased due to the US marines, militia groups, extremists, thieves and explosives. This suggests that Hayat is in confrontation with death in Baghdad. The rhetorical questions regarding “time” and “death” portray the uncertainty that overwhelms Iraqis as to their destinies. Living in a state of disarray and fear of the unknown that can “devour” one’s life at any minute is equivalent to a state of death. The vision of Baghdad as “a ghoul” symbolizes the killings and lawlessness which triumphed during the post-occupation period and undermines the US government’s claims about its endeavor to “spread the seeds of democracy in Iraq” (, 2013: n.p.). The allusion to Baghdad as a “black hole” recurs in the writings of Hayat’s uncle, where the destiny of Baghdad is suggested in a prophecy about the city, which seems to have fallen under the bad omen of Saturn.

Although Hayat finds refuge in her basement, she still “imagines the murderers lurking beyond dawn […] Evil strolls around to ridicule us, it frequently masquerades to become a rocket, a bearded man, an explosive or a betraying friend” (10–11). The idea of the “evil” that roams abroad signifies the hardship of survival in the midst of anarchy. In the text, Hayat is targeted during the burning of the neighborhood’s library, during which unidentified men pile up books in the front yard of the library by “throwing encyclopedias, dictionaries and books of history from the upper windows of the library, spraying them with gasoline and setting them on fire. I dashed towards the fire shouting and screaming: ‘Why? Why? What you are committing is haram, haram’” (34). Haram is an Arabic term which means forbidden. The use of the word haram in Islam refers to a sinful deed which is forbidden by Allah. Acts which are haram are typically prohibited in the religious texts of the Quran and the Sunnah. The category of haram is the highest status of prohibition.

The depiction of Hayat frantically running to save the looted library is the antithesis to the act of burning and plundering the library. Ironically, Hayat uses the word haram to stop the looters, who use the same word whenever they threaten women. The looters’ indifference to Hayat’s cries reflects their double standard in dealing with what is haram. Their criminal acts blur the lines between what is and is not haram. While they commit their crimes under the banner of haram, the plunderers do not consider the damaging of the library and the books to be religiously prohibited deeds. Instead, they go even further in attempting to kill Hayat:

I was shot before reaching the building, probably by one of those who
started the fire, or he might be a member of the same group which sent
me a threatening letter […] I infrequently regained consciousness
at the noise of the blasts and the bullets around me. The pillagers were
engaged in taking away computers, cabinets, office desks, heaters
and air conditioners. They thought I was dead, and so did the bearded
armed man who desired a corpse in the darkness under the charred
mulberry trees […] I was so weak that I couldn’t scream when the
necrophiliac groped my body, lifted my bloody shirt […] when his
fingers reached my blood-soaked jeans […] I woke and yelled in
madness. I scratched his face, pushed him away and grabbed his leg. He
uttered a dreadful gasp and disappeared. I was unconscious afterwards.

Silencing Hayat is intended to prevent her from documenting the history of Baghdad and from testifying to its destruction. Her shooting constitutes an escalation from the threatening letter she previously received because of her work in journalism. The image of the “bearded necrophiliac” in his attempt to assault Hayat is ironic. The beard suggests that this man is a religious figure who, the text implies, violates the religious law he is meant to uphold. This image is significant in its relation to the concept of haram. In religious terms, the acts of shooting, looting, and the burning of the library are haram and so is the “bearded” man’s assault. The text thus offers a sustained critique of the death of moral and religious values articulated through the violations in which these men engage. This is also related to the description of Saturn as a “male planet” responsible for the calamities inflicted on women.

By relating narratives of past and present torture, Hayat presents a counter story to the dominant political discourse. Hayat’s narrative has become, in al-Dulaymi’s words, “a text of resistance” (Interview with Kurayshan, 2 Oct. 2000) to all forms of dehumanization as they were experienced under Saddam Hussein’s government and sustained by the US forces. Hayat narrates because she feels that there are crimes that must not be forgotten and there are “victims whose suffering cries less for vengeance than for narration” (Ricoeur, 1988: 189–191).


In representing human suffering, Iraqi women novelists of war realize their moral responsibility as historians towards the victims/survivors. The writers of the 1980s and 1990s have breached the barriers of censorship to rise above their fear of punishment (Grace, 2007: 189). By empowering women characters and by portraying the human tragedy, the texts troubled the gendered Iraqi policy against women and undermined the dominant discourse of war as glory. The writers’ evaluation of the conflict places their work within the context of a critique of the history that is the source of the conflict. This produces changes to the ways in which history is conceptualized and narrated.

By analyzing the traumatic experiences of women, the author who writes about the occupation in 2003 displays the impact of war on civilian life and reveals “the other side of the invasion in a way that undermines the one-sided illiberality of the mainstream media and White House political speeches” (Mehta, 2010: 81). Building on biographical experience, the writer produces a record “which is almost impossible to counter by the US occupation” (Zangana, 2004: 143).

The movement between past and present in the texts creates a sense of circularity in the narratives, where the present duplicates the past and gives an impression of the rewriting of a narrative of history. Hayat asserts that “The country is overburdened with stories and we have to keep narrating them” (65) since narrating these stories is a weapon against the annihilation of memory practiced during the post-occupation period in Iraq. In the texts, narration turns into “a constant obligation to the woes of history” (Felman, 1990: 115). Narrating the collective experience of victims and of Baghdad as a wounded space is an attempt to recreate a collective memory of Iraqi society so as to do justice to both the living and the dead. Contemporary Iraqi women’s fiction of war embodies women’s artistic responses to that context and offers testimonial accounts of history from the home front by women who are resisting the Iraqi regime’s attempt to rewrite history and to silence grief. It suggests that gender roles are challenged and resisted, and that this is done from a female perspective.


1. Ibtisam Abdullah’s short story “al- Akhar fil Mir’ah” (“The Other in the Mirror”) is from her anthology Bakhur (Incense 1999). The story was written in Arabic and translated into English by Mustafa Shakir.

2. Maysalun Hadi’s The World Minus One is published in Arabic. The excerpts used in the analysis of the novella, along with the excerpts from Lutfiyya al-Dulaymi’s Ladies of Saturn, are translated by the author.

3. Sons or brothers/sisters of martyrs were awarded bonus points in the examinations taken during the final year at school on which admission to university depends.

4. Shahid is the person who sees and witnesses, and he is therefore the witness, as if he is the martyr. A martyr in Islam is a true believer who sacrifices himself willingly in defence of his religion, his country and the honour of his family. God supposedly honours martyrs and places them in higher ranks in paradise. They are buried in the same clothes they were wearing when they died. Due to their distinguished rank, their bodies supposedly do not decay, and good smells emanate from their corpses. (See al-A’araji, 1997: 168-172)
5. In most cases, women console each other by shouts, cries, and the recitation of lines of poetry which lament the dead person and describe the best qualities of the dead. This is mostly accompanied by breast-beating, the tearing of clothes and hair-pulling to express their deep sorrow and distress.


al-Aaʿraji, Nazeq. (1997) ‘Maysalun Hadi fi al-‘Alam Naqisan Wahid: Qubur al-Harb al-Faghera Afwahaha’ [‘Maysalun Hadi in The World Minus One: The Tombs of War are Widely Open’], in Abdullah, Naijm. (ed.) al-Farasha wal- ‘Ankabut: Dirasat fi Adab Maysalun Hadi al-Qasasi wal-Riwa’i [The Butterfly and the Spider: Studies in Maysalun Hadi’s Fiction]. Amman: Dar al-Shuruq.

Abdullah, Ibtisam. (2008) ‘al-Aʾkhar fil Miraʾ’ [‘The Other in the Mirror’], in Mustafa, Shakir. (ed.) Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology. New York: Syracuse University Press.

ʿAbud, Salam. (2002) Thaqafat al‘Unf fi al-Iraq [The Culture of Violence in Iraq] Cologne: al-Kamil.

Adnan, Etel. (1982) From A to Z. California: Post-Apollo Press.

Allen, Roger. (1995) The Arabic Novel: An Historical and Critical Introduction. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press.

Bengio, Ofra. (1998) Saddam’s Words: Political Discourse in Iraq. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bloom, Harold. (ed.) (2004) Literature of the Holocaust. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers.

Burkeman, Oliver. (2003) ‘Ancient Archive Lost in Baghdad Library Blaze.’ The Guardian. Available: [20 May 2012].

Caruth, Cathy. (ed.) (1995) Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Caruth, Cathy. (1996) Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Davis, Eric. (2005) Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

al-Dulaymi, Lutfiyya. (2010) Sayyidat Zuhal: Sirat Nas wa Madina [Women of Saturn: Biography of a People and a City] Amman: Fadaaʾt Publishers.

al-Dulaymi, Lutfiyya. (2000) Interviewed by Mohammad Kurayshan in al-Jazirah Net. ‘Athar al- Hesar ʿAla al-Adab al-Iraqi.’ [The Effect of the Embargo on Iraqi Literature]. Available: Nov. 2012].

Efrati, Noga. (1999) ‘Productive or Reproductive?: The Roles of Iraqi Women During the Iran-Iraq War.’ Middle East Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, pp. 27–44.

Efrati, Noga. (2005) ‘Negotiating Rights in Iraq: Women and the Personal Status Law.’ Middle East Journal, vol. 59, no. 4, pp. 577–595.

Felman, Shoshana and Laub, Dori. (1990) Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History. London: Routledge.

Grace, Daphne M. (2007) ‘Arab Women Write the Trauma of Imprisonment and Exile’, in al-Hassan Golley, Nawar. (ed.) Arab Women’s Lives Retold: Exploring Identity through Writing. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Hadi, Maysalun. (1999) al-ʿAlam Naqisan Wahid [The World Minus One] Amman: Dar Osama.

al-Jawaheri, Yasmin. (2008) Women in Iraq: The Gender Impact of International Sanctions. London: I.B.Tauris & Co.

Knuth, Rebecca. (2006) Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction. Westport: Praeger Publishers.

Lifton, Robert Jay. (1991) Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Martin, Patrick. (2003) ‘The sacking of Iraq’s museums: US wages war against culture and history,’ the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI). Available: [25 July 2003].
Mehta, Brinda J. (2010) ‘Writing against War and Occupation in Iraq: Gender, Social Critique and Creative Resistance in Dunya Mikhaʾil’s The War Works Hard’, International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies, vol. 4, no.1& 2, pp. 79-100.

Mustafa, Shakir. (ed. and trans.) (2008) Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology. New York: Syracuse University Press.

Ricoeur, Paul. (1988) Time and Narrative, trans. By K. Blamey and D. Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sarmak, Husayn. (2004) Maysalun Hadi Wa Adab ‘Asr al-Mehna [Maysalun Hadi and the Literature of the Age of Crisis]. Amman: Dar al-Shuruq.

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

Steiner, George. (1973) ‘The Writer as Remembrance: A Note on Poetics,’ in Yearbook of Comparative Literature, vol. 22, no. 53. ‘Spreading the Seeds of Democracy’, n.d. Available [13 January 2013].

Vickroy, Laurie. (2015) Reading Trauma Narratives: The Contemporary Novel and the Psychology of Oppression. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Walter, Tony. (1999) On Bereavement: The Culture of Grief. Buckingham: Open
University Press.

Whittleton, Celine, Muḥsin Jabir and Fran Hazelton. (eds.) (1986)‘Whither Iraq? Saddam’s Iraq: Revolution or Reaction?’, in Committee Against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq. London: Zed Books.

Zangana, Haifaʾ. (2004) ‘Quiet, or I’ll Call Democracy’, The Guardian. Available:, [23 April 2014].


I was born in Mosul, Iraq. I had my Bachelor degree in Arabic-English translation and Masters in English Literature from Mosul University in 1992. I worked as a translator and lecturer of Comparative Literature and World Literature in Iraq, Jordan, Yemen and Oman (1995-2009). I had my PhD in Women’s Studies from Centre for Women’s Studies, University of York in 2015. Currently, I work as a part-time lecturer of Advanced Arabic and translation at the Department for Continuing Education, University of Oxford.

I am a co-translator of a recently published book on Iraqi artist Firyal al Adhamy’s sculpture Don’t Unveil My Colours A Country Sleeps There. In addition, I am in the process of publishing my PhD thesis into a book.

The paper I am presenting is based on my thesis “Contemporary Iraqi Women’s Fiction of War” where the writers’ experiences of war, my personal experience as a witness and victim of war and those of the characters in the texts I analyse intermingle to produce an endless story of survival.

Email Me

© Angham Abdullah

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.