Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iraqi Literature: The Problems of Rejection and Dependency

Iraqi Literature
Iraqis read at Baghdad’s Reda Alwan Café, frequented by intellectuals and artists, on June 11, 2021 in the Iraqi capital. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE /AFP.

Ali Al-Ajeel

The debate between the intellectuals and the ruling class remains central to the dialogue in Iraq’s modern history. After the Ottomans cooperated with a number of intellectuals in the late 19th century, intellectuals in the opposition criticised their actions. They asserted that the intellectuals should represent the people, not the authority. At the time, poets Maruf al-Rusafi, Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi and others staged demonstrations against the regime.

This rift lasted until the Baath Party came to power in the 1960s. Several prominent Iraqi intellectuals gathered in the Iraqi Communist Party to oppose the regime. The list of writers includes Muzaffar al-Nawab, Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati, Kazem Ismail al-Kata and many others.

The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime marked a significant change in this relationship, as there was no longer a dictatorial authority for intellectuals to join or oppose. However, this temporary freedom soon collapsed after the emergence of many new dictatorships under religious, political and even secular parties, leading to renewed disagreement.

Dictatorial Environment

In the 1960s, the party took a totalitarian approach. When writers did not follow the Baath Party’s vision, it was hard to cast aside accusations, surveillance and questioning. As a result, many Iraqi intellectuals of all sects and affiliations were forced to align with the party’s ideology in their writings.

Snitching evolved into a culture that spanned decades under the former Iraqi regime. The persecution of authors and literature and the clipping of their wings was not limited to the regime and its informants. The so-called ‘parrot intellectual’, who displayed sycophantic behaviour to obtain money and power, was the most instrumental in this regard. Fadl Khalaf Jabr says:

In the 1990s, a blacklist appeared called the ‘List of Apostates’ issued by the former regime that included a large number of Iraqi writers who were forced to leave. We are sure that neither Abid Hamid, Saddam Hussein’s secretary, nor Uday Hussein knew or had even heard of these names. They were listed by colleagues and friends who used to share cafes and bittersweet times with us. When the regime changed, the mentality of the Iraqi intellectual, who emerged from enforced subordination into voluntary subordination, did not change. After 2003, several blacklists were issued that rarely didn’t include the names of Iraqi writers and intellectuals, following the example of the former regime: “Whoever is not with me is against me.”

Financial Dependency

Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed key elements that intellectuals sought after. The regime could provide financial support, which was essential at the time. It controlled publishing, highlighting affiliated intellectuals and providing them with quality of life. However, strangely enough, those elements did not change when the regime did. Although the intellectuals gained some ‘freedom,’ this did not translate into a change in the status quo in the post-Baath period.

For poet Fadl Khalaf Jabr, a large part of this problem lies in the intellectuals’ financial dependence on the regime, which forces them to lose a large part of their independence. There is no such dependency in the West, specifically in the United States. For example, intellectuals in America support themselves with reasonably paid jobs or depend on the revenues of their books or artworks.

This financial independence makes sycophancy improbable since the dependency stems primarily from financial need. The intelligentsia must first become financially self-reliant to end the dynamic of dependency.

Double Standards

The regime’s intellectuals have continued to falsify facts and provide convincing justifications for inhumane acts, both during and after the Baath Party regime’s era. This is most evident in the post-Baath era, where today we see intellectuals practice cultural falsification that often goes against culture, human norms and their own words.

Novelist Ali Badr, who opposed the Baath Party and Islamism, for example, had no problem visiting an institution affiliated with the Islamic Dawa Party because women could smoke in the garden, it had a music hall, an atelier, a café, pictures of Adonis and Sayyab and coffee cups with pictures of Umm Kulthum, among many other things that were not available at institutions of the Communist Party.

In contrast, Badr’s silence on the Dawa Party did not align with his heated criticism of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the Baath Party. Ironically, the former regime allowed dozens of music halls, music bands, ateliers and cafes to exist in Iraq, so was this enough to remain silent about its practices against Iraqis? Of course not.

In the same vein, Selim Dawla, in his book al-Jirahat wa al-Madarat, talks about what he called the “impossible intellectual,” about whom he states: “Their slogans are leftist, their behaviour is Salafist, they have right-wing ambitions, and their worldview is mythical.”

This description is quite applicable to poets after 2003. When we, for example, have a closer look at the bibliography of the Iraqi poet Kazar Hantoush, we find that he used most of his writings to praise the dictator and glorify war. After the regime’s fall, he wrote poems for the Communist Party in 2004. He then wrote poetry praising religious figures, including Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist movement.

Other poets were not too concerned with change. They, therefore, omitted Saddam’s words from their poems and instead used the names of more topical figures, whether an influential cleric or a politician smitten by sycophancy.

Regression and Deterioration

Iraqi Literature
Mourners carry the coffin of renowned Iraqi poet Muzaffar al-Nawab during his funeral procession near the Imam Ali shrine, in Iraq’s central holy city of Najaf, on May 21, 2022. Qassem al-KAABI / AFP

Iraqi intellectuals did not learn from past experiences. They, instead, became increasingly immersed and indulgent in similar practices, flattering tribal leaders, landlords, merchants and failed politicians. On the other hand, in Iraq, an intellectual like Muzaffar al-Nawab once stood up to Saddam Hussein to tell him: “I do not trust you.” The fundamental problem lies in the hearts of the intellectuals themselves, considering that the regime – whether just or unjust – tries to recruit intellectuals and influencers to polish its image, exploiting their potential and fame to defend and justify its mistakes.

The Authority of Literature

German writer Bertolt Brecht argues: “Literary works cannot be taken over like factories; literary forms of expression cannot be taken over like patents.” By saying this, Brecht suggests that literature derives its authority from the difficulty of controlling it.

Today, despite the many restrictions imposed by successive dictatorial regimes on freedom of speech in Iraq, the genuine Iraqi intellectuals have, perhaps more than others, the ability to break these restrictions and revolt through writing. In doing so, they assert the power of literature. An excellent example of the authority of literature is the spread of Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Muthaffar al-Nawab and Ahmed Matar’s works in the Iraqi revolutions and the uprisings that continue until today.

In a sense, the authorities create dictatorship by neglecting and falsifying culture to the point of erosion. These dictatorships also focus on religion and conspiracies to justify actions and failures. Herein lies the job of the Iraqi intellectuals, according to French philosopher Michel Foucault; “To disturb the authorities. They will not give up their principles if they don’t want to be traitors to their people.”


The opinions expressed in this publication are those of our writers. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.

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