A Pen Dipped in Blood
Over at the SignandSight Web site (an invaluable resource for translated essays from the world of European magazines) there is a damning essay by Najem Wali, an Iraqi writer now living in Berlin. Using as a peg the annual gathering of the Arab Writers Union in Cairo last month, Wali unleashes a measured but scorching indictment of the Union’s rank moral bankruptcy.
At the meeting last month there were representatives from all Arab countries in attendance. Correction: all nations except Iraq, which was not invited (as it had not been invited to Damascus in 2004 and Algiers in 2005). The reason for this snub was that the Iraqis are suspected of maintaining relations “with the Zionist enemy.” That formulation, mind you, is a quote from the head of the Egyptian Writers Union. Egypt, nominally an ally of Israel (or, at least, nominally not an enemy).
Of course, when Iraq was firmly under the jackboot of Tikriti terror the Union was more than happy to welcome Iraqi representatives. Wali describes the Iraqi Union of the these days as follows:
For 35 years, during the rule of the Baath party, the union of Iraqi writers was formally and organisationally bound to the so-called “Special office,” which was directly responsible to the ruling party. This meant that the entire union had to follow the ideological and political line of Saddam Hussein’s so-called “National information office.” At the time, it was under the directorship of Tariq Aziz, who was directly and personally subject to Saddam Hussein. The election procedure in the writer’s union was strictly regulated. To qualify for the office of the president, one had to fulfil very specific requirements: the candidate had to demonstrate “intellectual immaculateness” and “pure Arabic origin.” And he had to conduct his work together with the “People’s militia” and “Saddam’s Fedayeen.”
Ahh…but these dealings are just a piece of a far more appalling whole. One could make a long list of intellectuals who have been incarcerated in various Arab countries – and Wali does: the poet Ali al-Damini and several colleagues languishing in a Saudi Arabian jail. In Syria, countless intellectuals are vegetating in the jails of the Baath dictatorship. The poet Faradsch Birqadar was put away fifteen years ago (a book about his time in jail appeared recently in Beirut). The Syrian thinkers Michel Kilo and Arif Dalila have spent the last year in jail. “In none of these cases did the Arab writers union publish a single statement demanding the release of these men,” Wali writes.
It turns out that there may be another reason for the anger directed at the post-Saddam Iraq: financial. Saddam was a great patron of their sycophantic prose. In return, no other Arab land received such high praise as Baathist Iraq.
Hundreds of intellectuals and artists were guests of Saddam Hussein’s men and travelled from one festival to the next. The Marbad Poetry Festival and the Abu Tamam Poetry festival were annual events. The state-run Babel Festival took place on the occasion of Saddam Hussein’s birthday; Arab ensembles performed side to side with famous European theatre troupes (the Ruhr ensemble among others).
The Iraqi government bribed so generously that dozens of novels and poems sang praises of the heroism of the Iraqi warriors and swore the fall of the “Zionist” and “Persian” enemies. The Egyptian “avant guard” director Tawfiq Saleh directed the film “Long Days,” which tells the story of the “combative” life of Saddam (the hero of the film was Saddam’s son-in-law, who was later killed by Uday). His Egyptian colleague Salah Abu Saif published “Al-Qadissijja,” which propagated racist ideology and praised the war against the “Persian spy.” Mahmoud Darwish (pictured above), the famous Palestinian poet, called the Iraqi Minister of Information (Propaganda) the “Minister of Poets.” More: he praised “feminine Baghdad” because he only saw beautiful women in its streets – their husbands were on the front lines of the war against Iran, fighting for the “lime moon.” Commissioned by the Iraqi Defense Ministry, the Egyptian novelist Gamal al-Ghitani wrote the book “The Guards of the East Front,” in praise of the murder of the Kurds in northern Iraq.
In the forthcoming issue of The Nation you will find an essay on Palestinian poetry titled “Lines of Resistance.” It is very much the sort of Third Worldist fare we have come to expect from the House of Shatz. Naturally, Mahmoud Darwish figures prominently in the piece. He is celebrated as a figure of resistance. There is truth to this characterization, but there is also much cowardice in his legacy.
(Hat Tip: Norm Geras)