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Banipal has always paid great attention to Iraqi literature. Over the years we have published features containing both fiction and poetry by Iraqi authors. Banipal 61 marks the first time we have concentrated solely on the Iraqi novel and not included poetry. This is purely to introduce some good examples of Iraqi novels, not for any other reason. It was not in our mind to make any judgement between fiction and poetry. Four Iraqi critics write in this feature that Iraqi intellectuals are nowadays expressing themselves through fiction, not poetry.
Hussain Alsgaaf writes that poetry’s dominance in Iraq is receding faced with the “overwhelming spate of Iraqi novels” after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In his book on the Iraqi novel he says that since the occupation of Iraq in 2003, nearly 600 novels have been published by Iraqi writers, more than in the whole of the 20th century.
Abdullah Ibrahim states definitively that poetry has never been dominant over the narrative genre. He is known for the phrase “Narrative is the register of the Arabs”, and has spent his professional life studying the multiple Arabic narrative genres through history. We reproduce on the next page an excerpt from an interview he gave explaining that poetry’s stealing the limelight was due to its particular form of performance and support, but that narrative genres always existed through history.
Farouk Yousif writes that the novel The American Dust by Zuheir al-Hiti, who was not known in literary circles, stunned people with its high literary level, alerting readers to the flourishing of fiction compared with poetry “which Iraqis pioneered in the Arab world”. Salih Altoma’s review of the nine-volume Encyclopedia of Arabic Narrative by Abdullah Ibrahim raises other interesting ideas, and it is worth mentioning that in September 2017 Baghdad publisher Sutur reprinted Jalal Khaled by Mahmoud Ahmed al-Sayed, first published in 1928 and said to be the first Iraqi novel.
The novels we present here are set in Iraq over the last 50-odd years. Two novels are set after the Ba’athist 1968 coup and during the 1970s, a time when, as Salima Salih mentions in her novel The Abyss, “the war had not yet begun” and Iraqi intellectuals were sitting in cafés discussing philosophy and major literary figures. Abdullah Sakhi’s best-selling novel Paths of Loss is a passionate chronicle of the impoverished al-Thawra City of Baghdad and of how the Ba’athist regime violently extended their control of society through executions and assassinations.
Two novels are set after the American occupation and distintegration of Iraq. The first is Dhia Jubaili’s The Cloven Man, in which two halves of an Iraqi man, having been cloven in two by ISIS killers, try to make their way back to Baghdad. The second, Zuheir al-Hiti’s The American Dust, follows the ill-fortunes of a young Iraqi woman from Baghdad’s Green Zone, to Berlin, Nicosia and back. As we went to press on the issue, Ahmed Saadawi was pronounced to be on the longlist of the Man Booker International Prize for his novel Frankenstein in Baghdad (and is now on the shortlist, and will be in the UK later in May for the Award Ceremony and other events), while his latest novel, The Chalk Door, excerpted in this feature, develops the theme of Iraqi society convulsing into a number of alternative worlds following the American occupation.
Mohamed Hayawi’s novel Bayt al-Sudan is set in his home town of al-Nasiriyah during the period between of the invasion of Kuwait and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, and is a fast-moving story of a young man searching for his identity, surrounded by beautiful singers and dancers who live for Friday night parties.
We felt it was important to widen the discussion to include The Necklace by the late Hamid al-Iqabi. Set in modern times, the author has created an illuminating journey into the present via characters readers may think are drawn from the history of Islam, but who, he assures readers, “have had no previous existence outside the pages of this text”.
In addition, there is a review of Iraqi author Zuheir al-Jezairy's memoir Najaf: al-Dhakira wal-Madina (Najaf: Memoir and the City) which unravels the contradiction at the heart of Najaf, and an interview with fellow Iraqi Luay Abdul-Ilah about his novel Divine Names, now in English translation.
The issue opens with selected works by two poets – Abdallah Zrika from Morocco and Ashur Etwebi from Libya.
Every year in Spring we are pleased to present, in collaboration with the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, excerpts from the six novels shortlisted for the 2018 Award, whose authors hail from Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and Syria.
The specially commissioned front cover recalls the old double-decker red buses that were so famous in Baghdad.
We end the issue with a compassionate and moving tribute by Sami Zubaida to the Iraqi scholar, author and intellectual Faleh Abdul Jabar, whose sudden and untimely death was a shock to us all.