Showcasing the writing of Iraqi women

Close to the wounds, but even closer to hope

The second volume of “Mit den Augen von Inana” (Through the Eyes of Inanna) is an impressive collection of purely female perspectives on modern Iraq, from the Saddam era through to the contemporary Tahrir Revolution. Christopher Resch spoke to three of the authors

Anyone who prevails over the patriarchy will not be deterred by coronavirus. In view of the ongoing pandemic, the fact that these three Iraqi writers and a German journalist are on a reading tour of Germany is nothing short of a quiet sensation. Amal Ibrahim, Azhar Ali Hussein, Rola Buraq and Birgit Svensson are presenting the second volume of their “Inana” anthology – a hugely fascinating window on Iraq, as seen through the eyes of women and women alone.

The volume “Mit den Augen von Inana” (Through the Eyes of Inanna) brings together nine short stories and 17 poems by established female writers, as well as six texts by upcoming female authors. The 32 women originate from all corners of Iraq and represent Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and Christian backgrounds. And this is precisely what makes the book so readable, says initiator Birgit Svensson: “Each of the women has seen and experienced completely different things.”

And that’s why the title fits so well, says Svensson – Inanna, the famous Sumerian goddess of love and war, fertility and destruction, is also contradictory and multi-faceted. And: together with her father, she fought for power in ancient Uruk – and won, as a woman. That a naked relief of the goddess is depicted on the book cover is a sensation in conservative Iraqi society, says Svensson.

“Women have played a very large part in the changes in today’s Iraq,” says Amal Ibrahim. The Baghdad-based poet and translator co-edited the volume and was involved in the first Inanna volume, published in 2013 in Arabic then German in 2015.

“The changes are tangible everywhere, not least in literature, but actually in all areas of society,” she says. That women stood up to the manifold, systematic structure of repression in male-dominated Iraq was apparent above all on Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, she adds.

Amal Ibrahim al-Nussairi, Azhar Ali Hussei and Rola Buraq from the "Inana" project (photo: Birgit Svensson)
A different take on everyday life and lived reality in today's Iraq: some poems and short stories are an outcry against the religious and patriarchal society that has recently re-established itself and restricts women's freedom. The reality of life in Iraq shines through in many of the texts presented here

Protesting against outside interference

For more than a year, Iraqis have been demonstrating there for a better future. The protests are being sustained for the most part by young activists, but go beyond confessional, social and generational boundaries, explains Azhar Ali Hussein.

“Of course, we’re also demonstrating for more jobs and better perspectives,” says the writer and television journalist from Baghdad. “But it goes deeper than that. We’re demanding that the state finally becomes able to defend itself against Iranian and Saudi interference.”

The Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has resolved to do a great deal since taking office in May 2020. He wants to push back Iranian influence and thereby begin the work of drying out the swamp of corruption – a Sisyphean task. For this reason, al-Khadami certainly has sympathisers among the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square. But there are still abductions, gunshots, violence: “They are doing everything to ensure that the protests die,” says Birgit Svensson. Most of the perpetrators are members of the Shia militias.

There are thought to be around 30 such paramilitary organisations loosely grouped under the Hashd al-Shaabi umbrella. Some of these and other “Popular Mobilisation Forces” existed during the Saddam Hussein era and were created in even greater numbers after 2003 in the wake of the U.S. invasion.

In 2017, the Hashd al-Shaabi successfully defeated IS and were supposed to have been integrated into the Iraqi security forces. But they are nevertheless heavily influenced by Iran, which trains them, pays their wages and sees them as a vehicle for governance in Iraq.

Cover of "Mit den Augen von Inana. Zweite Anthologie zeitgenössischer Autorinnen aus dem Irak", edited by Amal Ibrahim al-Nussairi and Birgit Svensson, translated from Arabic by Stephan Milich and Gunther Orth (published in German by Schiler & Mucke)
The authors of the second volume of "With the eyes of Inana" have entered a new phase of writing. Young women writers reflect a completely different picture of their everyday life and the lived reality in Iraq today than their older colleagues. Now the focus is on dealing with religion, religious extremists and also the wave of refugees to Europe

Literature from the extremist heartland

Rola Buraq experienced the Islamic State’s reign of terror at first hand. She is the youngest of the three writers travelling to Germany and is currently writing a thesis on Arabic literature in Mosul, her home city – regarded as a heartland of religious extremists in Iraq.

From 2014 to 2017, IS was in charge here. Because any attempt to escape would be punished with death or some horrific form of revenge exacted on the family, Rola Buraq felt she had no choice but to remain in the city. “The worst thing was the uncertainty. There was no way of knowing how long it would last, or whether it would end at all,” she says.

Now, although IS has been vanquished militarily, there are a huge number of children who were deliberately indoctrinated and are profoundly traumatised, for example through witnessing public executions, says Rola Buraq. “We should be fearful for the future of this city,” she adds. The network of Inanna women is a ray of light: Today, women are acting in senior positions for the civil society of Mosul.

That would have been totally unthinkable – even before IS, the city was seen as highly conservative. “We didn’t have any writers from Mosul involved in the first book, and now there are three,“ says Birgit Svensson.

In this respect, writing doesn’t just provide each individual woman with the opportunity to break out, but also facilitates departure on a collective level.



With humour and vitality

Rola Buraq also emphasises that during the IS Caliphate, people were especially moved by the plight of the Yazidis. The story of their repression is a sad and long one, most recently continued by the attempted genocide by IS. Yazidi women suffered in particular; in many cases they were enslaved, raped and abused. “The war doesn’t end with a short journey, one victim, one loss,” Rola Buraq writes in her poem in “Muster“ (Pattern) from the Inanna volume.

Azhar Ali Hussein’s contribution “Schaufenster“ (Shop Window) describes situations that for all their sadness and bitterness, also allow Iraqi humour and vitality to shine through. In her poem “Biografien” (Biographies), Amal Ibrahim describes the innocence, but also the wounds left by a childhood in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein, the embargo following the invasion of Kuwait, the American-British invasion in 2003, the civil war between Sunnis and Shias and finally the IS Caliphate: the writers’ poetry and prose integrates all these epochs, mirroring them in the women’s personal experiences and reflections.

The result is a cross section of work that is both highly individual but with such a range of perspectives to lend it broad resonance, “a contemporary document of modern Iraqi history”, in the words of the Goethe Institute, also involved in the project.

While the first Inanna volume also included work by female Iraqi writers in exile, “Inanna 2” is a purely Iraqi affair: All texts are written by authors who live and work in Iraq. This is an opportunity for them to process their feelings, needs, hopes and fears.

But the Inanna network now extends much further, says Amal Ibrahim: It has initiated exchange between the women of Iraq and for a while now, it has been about more than just writing – but about active participation and involvement in the shaping of Iraqi society.

Christopher Resch

© 2020

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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