The West and its cliched view of Iraq

Looking outwards with the knowledge from within: a conversation with the Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon on the future of his homeland. Interview by Lena Bopp

By Lena Bopp

Sinan Antoon, right from the start you’ve viewed the protests in Iraq with a great deal of hope. What will remain of the movement after the killing of the Iranian military leader Soleimani?

Sinan Antoon: One of the demonstrators’ key demands refers to sovereignty. The people want to regain sovereignty over their nation and its resources and they reject all foreign influence, from both Iran and America. "Neither Iran nor America" are the chants in Baghdad, Basra and Nasiriyah. The killing of Soleimani and the Iranian retaliation are both violations of Iraqi sovereignty, and they show once again how weak, and perhaps even how treacherous, the Iraqi regime is. The danger of a new war threatens to distract attention away from the protest movement and it has enabled several militias, for example in Nasiriyah, to attack demonstrators. But I think the protesters’ resolve and powers of resistance are stronger.

What can the protests in Iraq achieve?

Antoon: No one expected the protests to grow to such a scale and last for more than three months. What little credibility Iraq’s political class might have enjoyed in the first place has now been completely eradicated: 600 demonstrators were killed, tens of thousands injured or crippled for life. The regime and the militias have deployed all the tricks in the book to crush the protests, without success.

The Iraqi parliament has called on American forces to leave the country. Is this because they fear their nation could become the arena for an Iranian-American confrontation, or is this move an expression of an older anger at the Americans?

Antoon: The parliament is not a legitimate or credible representation of the Iraqi people. The demonstrators have called for a new electoral law and a new constitution, because they have lost faith in all these corrupt individuals who display greater loyalty to foreign forces and their coterie than to their own country. We need to remember this when appraising parliament’s decision. Most Iraqis are tired of seeing their nation and their daily lives as a battlefield for regional and global conflicts. Because the militias sponsored by Iran attempted to crush the protests with such shameless brutality, the anger at Iranian influence may well be bigger, but many Iraqis, including demonstrators, are saying: we remember all too well who opened the doors to the Iranians in 2003 and who brought sectarianism into politics…

Just how resilient is the Iraqi regime, do you think?

Antoon: I don’t believe it is resilient. It is brutal. But the young people will continue to protest, they have no other option. The chasm doesn’t just exist between the generations, but also between the political class living in luxury in the Green Zone in Baghdad and the many men and women taking part in the protests who frequently come from poor areas. The good thing about the developments of the past two or three years is that most demonstrations have avoided using sectarian slogans. A new sense of what it means to be an Iraqi has emerged, one that isn’t characterised by affiliation to a particular confession or group. That’s really important. The political parties’ sectarian discourse is obsolete. They no longer have any way of scaring the people. That’s why they’re using bullets. They don’t have anything else left.

Born in Iraq, you emigrated to the United States in 1991. You write in Arabic, but your books are all translated into English. Do you see yourself as an Iraqi or as an American author?

Antoon: As an Iraqi author. My mother was American, I grew up in Iraq. For a long time, all my relatives said I was half-American, until I believed it myself. Still, it wasn’t easy to arrive in a country that had just bombed my homeland back into the pre-industrial age before slapping it with sanctions.

How does one write about violence without exploiting it?

Antoon: In Iraq, the destruction of the state and state institutions has pushed people towards a nationalist stance from which they mourn the past. Or they allow themselves to be split into camps. That was the way things were in 2003: at the time, you were either for Saddam or for the American invasion. A dual position was not allowed. So for me as a writer, the challenge is this: how does one portray Iraq in the course of its history without lapsing into sectarianism or nationalism? How does one do justice to the complexity of the situation of 2003, for example, without picking up the dichotomy of dictatorship and invasion? It is counterproductive to portray Iraq as nothing but a place of chaos and violence, because doing so simply replicates the idea that Iraq has no history, that things were always this way.

Cover of Sinan Antoon's "The Book of Collateral Damage", translated into English by Jonathan Wright (published by Yale University Press)
Sinan Antoon: "Das 'Book of Collateral Damage' ist kein autobiographisches Buch, obwohl es Ähnlichkeiten geben kann. Mein Befremden in den Vereinigten Staaten hat nicht nur mit der amerikanischen Politik gegenüber dem Irak zu tun, sondern auch mit dem Weißsein und mit der Art, in der amerikanische Liberale ihre Komplizenschaft in der Gewaltgeschichte des Landes gegenüber Afroamerikanern und Ureinwohnern ignorieren."

That’s very true: when we talk about Iraq, then usually as a region ravaged by war – we rarely talk about its culture.

Antoon: And when we do, then about archaeology. I don’t want to generalise, but there’s a tendency to regard certain parts of the world as museums, with a once-magnificent culture that has somehow been frozen in time.

So when you talk about modern Iraqi culture, what are you referring to? To a milieu based in Iraq or in exile?

Antoon: Both of these. But I’d actually like to mention something else. Few people in the West are aware that 20th century Iraq was a vibrant, propitious society and I see myself as a product of this tradition. For example: modern Arabic poetry as a revolt against traditional literature began in the 1950s in Iraq. Two poets, a man and a woman, Badr Shakir al Sayyab and Nazik al Malaika, began to write in free verse form, breaking with the traditional form of Arabic poetry. This didn’t just come out of the blue, it arose from a nascent middle class, a good system of education and of course a rich past. The same goes for art. Yes, there were Assyrians and Sumerians, but why do we never talk about the 20th century? Why do people know so little about it? Who is benefitting from this?

And what’s your answer to that question?

Antoon: Not many people will like my response. I believe it is part of an orientalist narrative that regards civilisations as a linear continuum, in which the West is somehow always out at the front. It happens intuitively, not explicitly. And in the United States, this narrative also serves to make it clear that these old civilisations need to be protected. The paradox is: we bomb them, and we save them. Yet, as well as the horror under Saddam Hussein and the Gulf War of 1991, it was also the sanctions between 1990 and 2003 that destroyed the economic and social fabric of Iraq.

This is the subject of your latest publication. "The Book of Collateral Damage" is a kind of archive, a catalogue full of things that used to exist in Iraq; things that have now been lost.

Antoon: I imagine the terrible concept of collateral damage as a black hole swallowing everything up: houses, people, animals, trees. Everything that represents life. But the book also deals with the impossibility of archiving. I have tried, through the character of a crazy book seller, to explore the question of how to write the story of a war without excluding anything. But if you want to include everything destroyed in just the first minute of a war, then you’ll never get past that first minute.

In "The Book of Collateral Damage" there’s a character that resembles you. An academic who’s escaped Iraq and who’s struggling to find his place in New York …

Antoon: It’s not an autobiographical book, although there might be some similarities. My sense of alienation in the U.S. isn’t just due to American policies on Iraq, it also has to do with 'whiteness' and the way in which American liberals ignore their complicity in the nation’s history of violence against Afro-Americans and native peoples. All these damned liberals are always in favour of war, they learn nothing and view the state uncritically. Then there's the way they always say "we". Sometimes I think: if there’s one good thing about living in a dictatorship it’s that you learn there is no "we". In dictatorships people know that there’s a populace and a government, and these are not the same thing.

Interview conducted by Lena Bopp

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2020

Translated from the German by Nina Coon