Post-War Language: Death and Exile in Iraqi Literature After 2003

What kind of language can do justice to capturing the horrors of war in any society ravaged by wars? In this article, I would like to take the readers in a journey to ponder two issues: First, what does it mean when language becomes the only “home” to inhabit when all else is lost for displaced and exiled writers (and people)? Second, why writers and intellectuals seek to find an alternative language to capture the horrors of war? I try to unpack these important questions by looking at selected literary works from post-occupation Iraq. Before that, it is important to note that the need for revolutionizing language as a medium in capturing post-war realities is far from unique to the Iraqi context.

If the Canadian novelist, Margret Atwood, is correct to write, “war is what happens when language fails,” then it follows, that the pre-war language used by all sides involved is necessarily inadequate to capture the post-war atrocities as well as come up with a vision for another possible future. As soon as I finished reading Hassan Blasim’s collection of short stories, The Corpse Exhibition, when it first came out, I asked myself, how could such ugliness be depicted so beautifully? Is it the language? Is it a language that goes beyond the limited binaries of the beautiful and the ugly? Is it the notion that a great mind is one that is capable of capturing, holding, and expressing two or more opposing ideas at once? Perhaps there are multiple ways to approach these questions. Yet, it seems to me, that the very language with which post-war writers write is critical for unpacking some of these questions. What Balasim does in his use of the graphic, shocking, violent, yet also eloquent and beautiful language is not unique to post-2003 Iraqi literature. Indeed, one could argue that changing, challenging, and revolutionizing language as we know it becomes a necessity in every post-war society to capture the horrors of war. To be from certain places; places where there is an abundance of death and rubble mixed with blood and broken glass, survivors would have likely come as close to death as possible. To look death in the face without dying can make some survivors reconsider the meaning of life, and therefore how to live, how to speak, and how to do language. It creates a language within the language we already have, or replaces it altogether, as the latter becomes inadequate in capturing the reality on the ground. It can perhaps even change how we “make living”, because the purpose of earning a living is no longer to just stay alive, but rather to learn how to choose our death, amidst all the meaningless and free death surrounding us. To survive death, some of us can start seeing another form of hope in hopelessness, even in the hopelessness and helplessness of language itself. Simone de Beauvoir writes, “if you live long enough, you will see that every victory turns into a defeat.” These words, for me as a war survivor, are not necessarily sad or hopeless. On the contrary, they simply remind me that a time comes when everything falls apart. They remind me that even my body parts will be defeated eventually as one organ fails after another for one reason or another. Sad? Perhaps. But nonetheless it is an awakening call to choose what to do with this short interval between womb and tomb. What to do in this waiting room for death, also known as life.

The ugliness of war for many survivors challenges Friedrich Nietzsche’s worn out wisdom claiming that “that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Perhaps we should also consider that that which doesn’t kill us can also make us barely alive in a shattered world. Rainer Maria Rilke writes, “shattered people are best represented by bits and pieces.” But to represent shattered people and shattered societies in bits and pieces, one ought to find another language to do so. A language that departs from and revolts against everything we know about language itself. A language that is not only painfully aware of what it is writing about, but also aware of the linguistic luxuries and deceitfulness of those who control thinking and knowledge production; those who make the rules of what a good literary language should look like. In some ways, it is a language that is deeply mindful of what the Swedish poet, Tomas Tranströmer, meant when he declared that “language marches in step with the executioners. Therefore we must get a new language.”

But, one might ask, why does language become such a precious medium for post-war writers and thinkers? One way to further understand this question, I believe, is to take seriously what many displaced and dislocated writers and thinkers over the centuries have felt upon losing everything they once held dear, particularly upon losing home. For such writers, and I include myself among them, language becomes the only “home” left to inhabit. The only space that nobody can demolish with bombs or bulldozers. Surviving wars and violence made me realize the power of George Orwell’s words when he writes in 1984, “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.” And it is precisely inside my skull where the only home I ever had remains today. It is precisely there where the language, or the multiple languages that I speak live. They make me hopeful at times, or feeling helpless in multiple languages at others! My skull is my home.

To provide a simple illustration as to how important language as a “home” becomes for displaced and exiled writers, there are countless examples just from Europe after the two devastating world wars. To mention just a few: when asked during an interview with Günter Gaus in 1964 about what remains with her of her lost life in Germany, Hannah Arendt responds, “What remains? The language remains…there is no substitution to the mother tongue.” The Romanian philosopher, Emil Cioran, who was exiled into France and who wrote some of his best philosophical works in French, writes in that second language, “one does not inhabit a country; one inhabits a language. That is our country, our fatherland—and no other.” Theodore Adorno who continued to write in the German language, wrote, “For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.”

But still, we may ask, when language becomes the only home to inhabit for post-war writers, why the dire need to “get a new language”? Why the need to do language in the way Balasim and many post-occupation Iraqi writers do it? If language becomes the only “home” when all else is lost, perhaps, like any home, language, too, must be a good representation of our experiences, tastes, joys, sorrows, losses, and pains. It must be a sincere reflection of our past, present and our vision of the future, hence the necessity to come up with a language capable of accounting for everything that happened. In fact, this new language must also be able to equally capture everything that shouldn’t have happened. Ghassan Kanafani writes, “Do you know what the ‘homeland’ is, Safia? The homeland is for all of this not to happen.” So, one might ask, can a post-war writer capture “all of this that should not be happening” without at the same time stretching and breaking the rules, boundaries, and aesthetics of language as we know it, or as critics like to see it? Without turning language into an explosive device with which to combat the explosive reality of the writer?

Reacting to how certain critics insist on divorcing language from experience, the Serbian-American poet, Charles Simic, referring specifically to deconstructionist critics, writes that such critics, “remind me of middle-class parents who do not allow their children to play in the street.” In this sense, a language like that of Balasim and other post-occupation Iraqi writers who understood the unbearable limits of the polite, embellished, and neutral literary language in exposing the frightening gap between experience and language, are not only children playing in the streets. They are authors whose favorite literary hobby is to let their words dance on the dead bodies of the victims; their language is bathed with the blood of the post-war victims, they insist on playing the silent and loud screams of these victims as  symphonies for the readers to hear. In doing so, they are, in many ways, paying homage for the dead. The English diasporic novelist Zadie Smith writes, “you never know, until it happens, what you will owe the dead.” I find it important for us to reflect on what this statement means for writers writing about the corpses of their fellow humans, whether in their own countries or elsewhere. Indeed, to pay their dues to the dead, to know what they owe the dead, these writers must come up with another language to tell the stories of the dead. Their language is not just powerful words thrown together like dice throws to form intriguing sentences. Instead, each sentence is like a dead body sown with another sentence-another dead body- to produce works to disturb comfortable readers so that they are less numb and desensitized to the daily free death and blood baths of wars and explosions.

The Iraqi novelist, Ahmed Sadaawi, for example, literally and metaphorically revolts against language and storytelling as we know them in his award-winning novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, to tell the horrific realities of the occupation and the subsequent sectarian violence in post-2003 Iraq. In many ways, he, like Rilke writes, captures the shattered bodies of Iraqi people in bits and pieces. The novel revolves around a nameless figure, an Iraqi version of Frankenstein, which is made by a garbage man, Hadi al- ‘Atak, from the remains of the bodies of bombing victims. Frankenstein turns into a living person to avenge the killers of the victims from whom his body is made. The novel shows how killing begets nothing but more revenge and more killing. Saadawi has been cited as saying that his nameless figure in the novel is not really nameless—it is all of us! In fact, fantasy in his novel, upon further reflection, is not a fantasy at all. Saadawi once shared one of the multiple real accidents that inspired him to write the novel, which was during the peak of sectarian killings and violence in Iraq; a time when hospitals were littered with corpses and body parts of barely identified victims: “One day at a hospital, someone came looking for the corpse of his brother. They told him that all the corpses for the day had been delivered to the families of the victims, except some unidentified body parts from different corpses.” And because it was hard to identify the body parts, they suggested to the man that he takes enough body parts that make a full dead body to bury as his brother! In an interview with Al-Monitor, Saadawi said that fantasy is just one of the aspects of this novel, which also includes many social and political dimensions. “Fantasy is not an escape or alienation from reality. It is rather a way to reach greater depth in this reality, which is packed with fantasy as a daily behavioral and rhetorical practice, no matter how organized and logical it looks. We see fantasy as a general headline for the supernatural that prevails over social and popular consciousness. We see it as an inclination to believe illogical explanations or think in a specific spiritual and metaphysical way of salvation from depression and despair,” Saadawi noted. Saadawi sees the “nameless” Frankenstein character as a symbolic figure that is a representation of the Iraqi political reality that surfaced in 2003, which failed to preserve and protect the country. In this sense, this post-war language is indeed a roadmap of the Iraqi cultural and political reality—it tells us so much about its bloody past and present, but it also sounds the alarm bells of what needs to be done, if we want a more tolerable future.

Balasim’s short stories in The Corpse Exhibition are no less tragic and shocking than Saadawi’s novel. Yet Balasim extends the horror and the consequences of wars and violence beyond Iraqi borders. He seeks to capture the magnitude of atrocities suffered by both the living and the dead, at home and in exile. Balasim’s shocking language is itself a reflection of the writer’s shock of how the world could become so numb and indifferent towards what has been going on in Iraq. In the Arabic introduction to Balasim’s collection of short stories, ‘Adnan al-Mubarak notes that Balasim uses “his literary knife to cut the wounds of the Iraqi reality open.” In doing so, he presents to Arab readers an aesthetic language with which they have little familiarity. Balasim, al-Mubarak writes, presents a different kind of literary beauty; a beauty derived and distilled from the ugly reality of life and history. The writer is unapologetic and uncompromising in confronting the dilemmas of existence. In this way, writing for Balasim is an explosive act that first and foremost aims at reckoning with the post-war reality. Al-Mubarak also notes that, just as Jean Paul Sartre spent so much time reflecting on the frightening gap between being and nothingness, Balasim spends so much time reflecting on the gap between language and reality (or experience). To situate Balasim’s work within world literature, al-Mubarak reminds us that, for Balasim, the disasters in his country are inseparable from the existential dilemmas and the reality of the human condition at large. Indeed, the recent history of Iraq, with all its bloody struggles, is part and parcel of worldwide atrocities committed against humanity everywhere. The excessive brutality in Balasim’s stories, then, aims at shocking our numbed consciousness and perhaps even forces us to confront our arrogant self-image on the “goodness” of the human nature.

In the first story in this collection, The Reality and the Record, and I use the original Arabic version of the book, we immediately notice how Balasim blurs the boundaries between the real and the imaginary. What can be told for the record for those seeking asylum or refugee status and what is too horrific to be told and even believed by listeners. The writer presents the character of the driver who confesses that all the sectarian crimes, all the recorded videos of different actors claiming responsibility for these crimes in his story are in fact recorded by the same person—the driver himself, who was kidnapped by a militant group and forced to make these different recordings. They move him from one dark room to another, forcing him to record different videos claiming that he belongs to the treacherous Kurds, the Christian disbelievers, the Saudi terrorists, the Syrian Baathist intelligence forces, the Iranian National Guard, and so on. In each recording, he had a specific script of the crimes and atrocities he had supposedly committed for which he claims responsibly in the name of each group.  In doing so, Balasim asks readers to expand their imagination to ask how far atrocities and killing can go in a war zone. The horrors of wars are so beyond comprehension that even an attempt to distinguish between the real and the imagined becomes futile. The living experiences of war are so horrific that each survivor, especially those who seek a refugee status in another country, will have two versions of the story: one to be archived by the authorities who will grant them asylum or refugee status, and another, the real story, which remains imprisoned in the chests of the survivors—they live with their real stories quietly and perhaps many real stories die with them. There is a moment in the story where the main character seeking asylum asks authorities bluntly, “I don’t know which details of my story you need exactly to hear to grant me asylum.” In stating so, Balasim is not suggesting that the asylum-seeker’s story is false, but rather, it is so horrific that he only wants to tell enough of it to be eligible for asylum. After all, to retell a story is to relive it. Why relive horrific details if one can avoid it? There is a moment in the story where narrator says that men killing each other is not particularly shocking. Man, he writes, is not the only living creature that kills for the sake of bread, love, or power—all different animals in the wilderness do so, too, in various ways, but man is the only creature that kills for their beliefs. Perhaps doing away with the latter will not solve the problem of men killing each other, it would simply make it more bearable, or perhaps decrease the number of the killings, if we at least stop killing each other for our faiths and beliefs.

In the second story, The Berlin Truck, inspired by the young Syrian refugees who died by suffocation inside a smuggler’s truck, Balasim once again sheds light on the darkness of the stories of war and exile. It begins with, “this story took place in the dark.” The main character in the story describes how he toiled as a refugee in Turkey to make money that he later pays to one of the smugglers specialized in “smuggling Middle Eastern human cattle to the farms of the West.” The narrator tells us that his need to write this story is for it to become like “a stain of shit or a wild flower on humanity’s sleeping robe.” Surely enough, the story is filled with human pain, hunger, thirst, fighting to remain alive while boxed in the back of a dark truck; smuggled refugees defecating and urinating on each other, and then killing each other. In this story, Balasim shows in the most graphic- yet convincing- way why for many, choosing such a dangerous path becomes the only option. He shows that allowing yourself to be smuggled in such an inhumane way is an option for those who have no other options.

For Balasim the relationship between language and reality or the lived experience of the writer as well as the characters in each story, is so critical that writers can die when unable to find the right language with which to express their reality. Likewise, when reality robs writers of their language and setting, that, too, can lead to death or suicide. In another short story titled, Ali’s Bag, the narrator, very likely Balasim himself, states, “it often seems to me that I will spend my life writing about the stories and the surreal events I experienced in the secret corridors of exile. It is a cancer from which I know not how to cure myself. I worry that my end will be like that of the Iraqi writer, Khaled al-Hamrani who spent his life writing about the bazar near his home. When the bazar was demolished and replaced with new buildings, al-Hamrani committed suicide leaving behind six collections of short stories—all dealing with the bazar and its inner secrets.” I find this story within a story significant, because it once again shows the intimate relationship between writers and the experiences about which they write. In this case, depriving this Iraqi writer of his setting or his most nourishing literary experience in a sense killed his writing by killing the language he had worked all his life cultivating to write about the inner secrets of the bazar.

There is death and corpses in each of Balasim’s stories. So much that one wonders whether each character in each story is no more than a corpse brought back to life by the writer to have them testify and bear witness to what happened to them before they were killed. The story, The Corpse Exhibition, the most horrific of all, poses the big question of what it means when some people master the art of killing. Death and suicide follow the characters in their wakefulness and in their sleep alike. In another powerful story in the collection, The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes, Balasim deals with the issue of identity in exile. It is about the struggle of an Iraqi man in the Netherlands whose real name is Salim Abdul-Hussein, but to distance himself from Iraq and what Iraqiness represents in the Western imagination and memory as well in his own violent experience with death and war, Salim decides to adopt another name, Carlos, and to forget all about his past life in Iraq. Yet, Balasim, like other post-war writers, including for example those who wrote during and after the Lebanese civil war, shows to us how escape is impossible when everything that happened will remain alive inside the heads of those who survive. In this way, we are strongly reminded of the well-known poem, The City, by C.P. Cavafy:

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

In the story, Balasim shows how all Salim’s attempts to denounce his Iraqi past fail. Salim, who adopts the name Carlos and claims to be a Mexican who had once lived in Iraq because of his father’s job, repeatedly tells those around him how he hates everything about that “tribal, savage, and barbaric country” full of death and blood. In doing so, it is as if he is telling others this script to convince himself about his new identity. It is more about him than about what he wants others to know about Iraq. The narrator tells us that Salim was very happy with his new name, Carlos. He loved the beauty of Amsterdam. He vowed not to speak in Arabic or mingle with Arabs and Iraqis. He loudly says, “enough misery, backwardness, death, shit, urine, and camels!” But, alas, his Iraqiness and his violent past never leave him alone, and they start to infiltrate his nightmares. His nightmares are in stark contrast with his attempts to become more Dutch than the Dutch by attaining the Dutch citizenship, marrying a Dutch woman, mastering the Dutch language, and so on. He often dreamt of young children in the old neighborhood where he was born and raised, chasing him and mocking his new name and identity in exile. Moreover, in his dreams and nightmares, Carlos was unable to speak in Dutch, despite having mastered the language. On one nightmare Carlos gets so frustrated with his “old Salim” identity that he starts shooting to kill his old self, but all the bullets miss Salim who jumps from the window of the high-rise building where Carlos lived with his Dutch wife. The wife is awoken by a scream. As she looks out the window, she sees Carlos dead on the pavement, with a pond of blood around his head. The narrator closes the story with: “Perhaps Fuentes will forgive the Dutch newspapers for their titles reading ‘an Iraqi man commits suicide by throwing himself from the sixth floor,’ instead of writing ‘a Dutch man commits suicide,’ but he will never forgive his siblings who returned his dead body to be buried in a cemetery in Najaf.” In this way, Balasim’s characters in exile are cursed by the home they lost wherever they go. Whatever methods and ways they use to forget, to discard, or wash off home form their memories, it always comes back not only to haunt them, but to influence their understanding of their new surroundings and lives in a way that the influence itself can be deadly. It resembles how the Austrian poet, Ingeborg Bachmann, puts it when she writes, “Once one has survived something then survival itself interferes with understanding, and you don’t even know which lives came before and which is your life of today, you even mix up your own lives.” It is perhaps ironic that Bachmann herself never survived this interference of the past with her present as she herself committed suicide in 1973 at the age of 47!

In another story, The Bad Habit of Undressing, Balasim’s character in exile struggles with what seems to be an imaginary wolf in his apartment; a wolf that chases him around everywhere and interferes with his ability to go on with his daily life. Everywhere he goes in his apartment, he finds this wolf lurking to attack him. In this way, Balasim tries to show that the horrors of what was left behind, are like a wolf that never leaves survivors alone. Like Bachmann’s notion, this wolf interferes with everything that goes on in the life of the exiled person, and may even lead to his demise.

In yet another story, similar to the previous one, but presented in a more comic, or rather, tragi-comic way, Balasim shows how “surviving” the atrocities of war can produce a type of person who is permanently cursed by their inability to subscribe to collective human ways of thinking, doing, sensing, and expressing in this world. The story is built around Albert Camus’ notion that the body not the ideas is what needs to be preserved or protected. For Balasim, doing so entails that one ceases to use collective and agreed upon human expressions and reactions that unite us in fear or in times of joy. It is to challenge these expressions at an individual level. The story titled The Inauspicious Smile, presents to us a character that is cursed by his inability to rid himself of a smile that is permanently printed on his face. The smile becomes particularly a big source of trouble and misfortune when the character is in situations where smiling is the last expected reaction, like watching a sad movie about death and dying, attending a funeral, or mistakenly entering a neo-Nazi bar in Finland, where the last thing they want to see is a smiling Middle Eastern, Semitic, Arab face.

In the end, I see that one important message that Balasim tries to convey in his language, particularly about death and exile, is to make us rethink the privileged, misleading, and worn out notion that the world is one little happy global village. The author’s stories and characters, instead, draw attention to the millions of lost lives for whom this world is not a village, for whom staying is not possible, mobility is almost impossible, and if they succeed in moving after paying a very dear price to get to “Camelot”, the destroyed villages they left behind will continue chasing them in their daydreams and nightmares. Balasim clearly articulates this message in a story titled Sun and Paradise. The story is about a village most of whose residents leave as a result of war, violence, and death practices committed by its new rulers. The story ends with the narrator telling us, “One morning, as I was sitting on a branch of an apple tree in Sawsan’s mother’s house, an idea crossed my mind and preoccupied my waiting time: what if the paradise was this abandoned village?” In this way, the writer is not necessarily negating the possibility of finding paradise elsewhere, but in fact, reminding us that the paradise we are searching for may well be the village we left burning behind us, as we see in Cavafy’s poem cited earlier.

Balasim’s language, despite its shocking style, remains deeply poetic and one full of mourning for human losses in Iraq and the world. Whether the author succeeds in finding another language to convey the post-war horrors will remain an open question for debate. But, for me, the author, like many writers and intellectuals from post-war societies, still poetically reminds us that pre-war language is itself a cause and even a trophy of war and of the occupiers. He, therefore, asks also poetically, as Pablo Neruda once asked, “In what language does rain fall over tormented cities?” In posing this poetic question, Neruda and many writers perhaps are being mindful to acknowledge that, regardless of how we use post-war language, language will remain inadequate to capture so many complex atrocities, pains, and human sufferings. That there are always silences that will remain uncapturable and unspeakable. Rumi knew the limits of language centuries before when he wrote:

This is how it always is when I finish a poem.
A great silence comes over me,
and I wonder why I ever thought
to use language!

Perhaps asking for a perfect language to capture what happened is akin to asking for all human atrocities to vanish at a blink of an eye. Orwell writes in 1984, “the Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.” And so, one might ask, how can a species so imperfect and so imprecise as us come up with a perfect language?


Louis Yako, PhD, is an independent Iraqi-American anthropologist, writer, poet, and journalist.