Iraq: Corporeality & Memory. Iraqi literature, 20 years after 9/11

The first of two events in the series Remnants of the Iraq Wars: Iraqi Literature Twenty Years after 9/11.

Amer Al-Obaidi (2011) © The Artist

The aftermath of September 11th 2001, which brought about the “war on terror” and the invasion of Iraq, also led the destruction of the Iraqi state and its social structure.

Authors, translators and scholars Sinan Antoon, Dunya Mikhail, Adnan Al-Sayegh, Jenny Lewis, and Haytham Bahoora meet to read from their work and discuss how Iraq in contemporary literature ‘writes back’ in the face of destruction and assaults on culture.

The discussion addresses notions of corporeality and memory in terms of both the body of the text – a space for experimentation and venture into new genres and trends – and as the literary representations of the body – which can be read as a technique of epistemic disobedience establishing anticolonial redefinitions of gender, self, beauty, and pain.

Chaired by Hanan Jasim Khammas, Visiting Doctoral Scholar at the CCL.

Attendance is free but booking is essential to receive the link to attend. BOOKING IS NOW CLOSED

Watch a video of the seminar:


The participants:

Sinan Antoon is a poet, novelist, scholar, and translator. He was raised in Iraq and left after the 1991 Gulf War. He holds degrees from Baghdad, Georgetown, and Harvard. He has published two collections of poetry and four novels. His works have been translated to fifteen languages. His translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s last prose book In the Presence of Absence won the 2012 American Literary Translators’ Award. In 2003 he returned to his native Baghdad to co-direct About Baghdad, a documentary about post-occupation Iraq. His most recent work is The Book of Collateral Damage (Yale University Press). His scholarly works include The Poetics of the Obscene: Ibn al-Hajjaj and Sukhf, and essays on Sargon Boulus, Saadi Youssef, and Mahmoud Darwish. He is associate professor of Arabic Literature at New York University.

Dunya Mikhail was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and moved to the United States 31 years later in 1996. After graduating from the University of Baghdad, she worked as a journalist and translator for the Baghdad Observer. Facing censorship and interrogation, she left Iraq, first to Jordan and then to America, settling in Detroit. New Directions published her books In Her Feminine Sign, The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, The Iraqi Nights, Diary of A Wave Outside the Sea, and The War Works Hard as well as her edited volume, 15 Iraqi Poets. She has received a United States Artists Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Kresge Fellowship, and the United Nations Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing. She works as a special lecturer of Arabic at Oakland University in Michigan.

Dunya will read poems from “In Her Feminine Sign” published in 2019 by New Directions.

Adnan al-Sayegh was born in al-Kufa, Iraq in 1955. He has published eleven collections of poetry, including the 550-page Uruk’s Anthem. He left his homeland in 1993, lived in Amman, and Beirut then took refuge in Sweden in 1996. He has been living in exile in London since 2004. He has received several international awards, and has been invited to read his poems in many festivals across the world. His poetry had been translated into many languages. His last book Let Me Tell You What I Saw: Extracts from ‘Uruk’s Anthem’ – edited, translated and with an introduction by Jenny Lewis with others – was published by Seren Books, October 2020. Adnan has worked with Jenny Lewis on a programme of workshops and readings in the U.K., Sweden, Morocco and Egypt. This resulted in three pamphlets in English and Arabic –published by Mulfran Press.

Jenny Lewis is a poet, playwright and translator who teaches poetry at Oxford University and specialises in cross-disciplinary work blending poetry with visual art, music, dance, theatre and film. Her recent publications are Let Me Tell You What I Saw (Seren, 2020), a translation of extracts from Uruk’s Anthem by the Iraqi poet Adnan Al-Sayegh; Taking Mesopotamia (Oxford Poets/ Carcanet 2014), from which Jenny will be reading; and Gilgamesh Retold (Carcanet Classics, 2018) which was a New Statesman Book of the Year, a Carcanet Book of the Year and a London Review of Books Book of the Week. Since 2012 she has been collaborating with Adnan on an award-winning, Arts Council-funded project aimed at building bridges between English and Arabic-speaking communities – ‘Writing Mesopotamia’ – which has resulted in a huge number of creative outcomes including a song, ‘Anthem for Gilgamesh’, which has received over 60,000 ‘hits’ on YouTube and Arab websites and been shown at festivals worldwide.

Jenny and Adnan will present some of their work for the ‘Writing Mesopotamia’ project and discuss its importance to the wider community. They will also discuss working together as translators and read some extracts from Let Me Tell You What I Saw.

Haytham Bahoora is Assistant Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. His research has explored the relationship between aesthetics and politics, the emergence and transformations of new genres and styles in modern Arabic prose and poetry, and the intersections of textual, material, and visual forms in cultural production. He has published articles and book chapters on modernist Arabic poetry, gender and narrative, post-war Iraqi fiction, the early Arabic novel, and modernist architecture in the Middle East. His book, Aesthetics of Arab Modernity: Literature and Urbanism in Colonial Iraq, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

Haytham explains the focus of his paper: “The body is a means of representation in the staging of violence, war, and historical memory. A focus on the body is a focus on not what the body is, but how particular discourses have constructed it. For example, how is gendered violence constituted in Iraqi fiction? How is corporeal violence gendered? How does the gendered body become invisible during times of crisis/war/sectarian violence/the precarity of daily life? How does the female body experience this precarity in Iraq today? This paper explores the ways I which Iraqi writers embody this history and this present in their writings. It examines post-2003 Iraqi literature (Sinan Antoon, Hassan Blasim, Luay Hamza Abbas) as producing a postcolonial gothic fiction specific to the Iraqi experience, where the genre of horror, the grotesque, and the haunting of the past intersect with representations of bodily violence to engage with Iraqi history and memory. It also highlights other stylistic strategies, where attempts to rewrite Iraqi history and to retrieve the past becomes central to reckoning with the precarity and impossibility/unliveablity of the present.”

Hanan Jasim Khammas (Chair), Visiting Doctoral Scholar at the CCL, is PhD candidate in literary theory and comparative literature at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, working on the representation of the body in contemporary Iraqi fiction. She is Adjunct Lecturer of Arabic and contemporary Arabic literature at UAB, on the Master in Contemporary Arabic Studies. She is a member of the research project Gender(s), Language(s) in Contemporary Arabness and Junior editor at Revista Banipal, the Spanish edition of Banipal.

The second event in this series, Aftermath Bodies: Corporeality in Contemporary Iraqi fiction, took place on 22 September 2021 – click on the event title to see the video recording.