Features » Literature


The dictator's orphans

Najem Wali on the moral bankruptcy of the Arab Writers Union

About a month ago, the Arab Writers Union held a general meeting in Cairo. Representatives of subdivisions from all Arab countries attended, with the exception of Iraq. This is nothing new for Iraqi writers; they also missed the conferences in Damascus in 2004 and Algiers in 2005. What is new is that the president of the Egyptian writer's union, previously known in his capacity as secretary to Naguib Mahfouz, explained to journalists before the conference that all subdivisions of the union had been invited with the exception of "the union that was created by the Iraqi government following the occupation." This union was suspected of maintaining relations "with the Zionist enemy."

Maybe the president of the Egyptian union, already known to be destined to become the president of the umbrella organisation, simply wanted to spare the Iraqis the arduous trip to Cairo so that they wouldn't be subjected to the indignity of being thrown out of their hotel (Arabian hospitality!), as happened in 2005 in Algiers – although the three conferences were financed by the Arab League, to which the currently "occupied" Iraq is proud to belong.

Anyone who seriously believes that the Iraqi delegation was excluded for the reasons named by the president will be chastened to learn that all Arab writers unions, including the Egyptian, are financed and overseen by the politicians of their respective countries. The accusation of collaboration with the "Zionist enemy" is an invention of the Arabic racist lexicon, a chewing gum term for local, supposedly "revolutionary" consumption and for official professional promotion.

Nonetheless, the charge that Iraq is working together with "the enemy America and the occupation" spreads through the feuilletons of the Arabic papers like a virus to which Iraqi writers fall victim. Not because they are responsible for the occupation but because Egypt and the states that American President Bush described in his last speech as "moderate Arab states" - Jordan, Saudi-Arabia and the Golf States, all of whose unions took part in the conference – wouldn't survive a day without their American "friend".

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."

When Saddam's son Uday entered the political arena, he took responsibility for culture and sport, was for years the president of the Olympic committee as well as the writers and journalists unions. The dictator's eldest son did away with existing administrative principles and created new ones, according to his whim. These are only a few "democratic" facts about the state of culture during the dictatorship which are lamented by the men of letters registered in the writers union. And they are facts that are certain to have been well known to the representatives of the Arab writers unions who were active in various legislative periods.

But do the ululations of the Arab union have anything to do with democracy? One could make a long list of intellectuals who have been incarcerated in various Arab countries. Until recently, the poet Ali al-Damini sat with several colleagues in a Saudi Arabian jail. In Syria, where the union has had a seat for 27 years, numerous 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. In Iraq in the mid 70s, the president of the Writers Union, the poet and former Baath author Shafiq al-Kamali was executed. Saddam had him poisoned with Thalium. The umbrella organisation didn't express disapproval in any form. Instead, no other Arab land received such high praise – in poems, novels, songs, films, theatre works – as the racist Baath regime in Baghdad. 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, 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.

Lebanese publishers live off the sales of such books to the Iraqi Ministry of Information. Those who were courageous enough to publish novels or collections of poems by members of the Iraqi opposition in exile had to defy the boycott. Magazines founded in Paris or London and edited by Arabs were financed by Saddam. They've all disappeared since the end of the dictatorship. What is left for the "orphans" of the dictator to do other than sing praises of empty battles, as they did in the closing statements of the conference? Not a word on freedom, or censorship or the infiltration of entire institutions by fundamentalists! Nothing more than a speech out of the Middle Ages demanding that Iraqi writers, "agents", be isolated in every sense.

27 years ago, following the signing of the Camp David peace accord between Egypt and Israel, the Arab Writers Union shut out the Egyptian one. For 27 years, from its former seat in Damascus, the Union waged war against the windmills of "imperialism and Zionism." And now the lost brother is back, and much more radical than its "Baathist" Syrian brother. What the union of writers does not know: literature comes into being not in pamphlets and conferences but in life itself. And it can only blossom in freedom.


Najem Wali, born in 1956 in Basra, is an Iraqi writer who lives in Berlin.

This article appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on January 19, 2007.

German translation: Imke Ahlf-Wien.
English translation: nb - let's talk european