Freedom and Exile
Hussain Al-Mozany interviewed by Jennie Renton
Iraq is a country rich in history and culture, a country that continuously sought and found new forms of expression, a country that laid the basic principles of the Western and Eastern worlds. It was the country of trade that invented the written language; it was the country where poetry, storytelling, numbers, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, art, music, laws, and myth began; it was the origin of religious scripture, the cradle of the prophet. But despite these material and intellectual riches, Iraq has become a country of chronic suffering. Its people lack basic resources; massive human rights violations and matchless repressions abound; armed conflict, sanctions, looting, and environmental destruction are the order of the day; its people have been traumatised through terror, forced into flight, and killed in senseless static warfare. Though Iraq can boast of a great diversity of identities and languages, it has remained a place of bloody ethnic and nationalist confrontation.
(Hussain Al-Mozany, ‘Democracy Dictated’, www eurozine.com)
What age were you when you left Iraq in 1978?
I was twenty-four, and an open critic of the regime. I left thinking it would be only for a short while but I have been in exile for over thirty years. First I went to Lebanon, where I managed to find work as a journalist with Arabic language newspapers in Beirut; then in 1980 I moved to Germany, which has become my home. I am a journalist and writer. After years of writing in Arabic, my most recent two novels, The Marsh-Dweller and Mansur, or the Allure of the Occident, were written in German.
And you’re also a translator, from German into Arabic?
Yes. Among the work I’ve translated are books by Robert Musil, Günter Grass. I have also translated stories by Rainer Maria Rilke, whose prose work was previously little known to people in the Arab.
Where was your home in Iraq?
Amarah. It’s a small place – you won’t find it on the map – it’s close to the marshes in the south of Iraq. My whole family comes from there. We moved to Baghdad in the 1950s.
Was storytelling an important part of your childhood?
I learned from my parents many, many stories about the people of the marshes. But my parents and my grandparents were ‘un-alphabeted’ – they could not read or write. In fact my father went to school at the age of forty, just to learn letters, and he motivated me to appreciate learning. It was at school in Baghdad that I discovered the beauty of Arabic letter-forms. I found myself fascinated by the language. Arabic is not my family’s language – in southern Iraq we had our own dialect.
Your family obviously felt a great sense of loss at leaving the south. Was that in a sense, the first exile?
Yes, and not just my family, but for the thousands of similar families who moved to Baghdad at roughly the same time. We all lost everything – the marshes, our identity, our language, our land. Most of us ended up in Sadr City, an area of Baghdad built to house this influx of people from the south, I think with the intention of keeping them separate from the Baghdadis. My parents still stay in Sadr City and the situation there today is terrible.
In the marsh region, what sort of way of life did your family have?
Our people were shepherds and they worked the land, not farms but smallholdings. The extended family lived together and shared the work. But it was a very hard life, that’s why they left. And as a small boy I was of course excited about coming to live in Baghdad, which was a very beautiful city. My parents found jobs as hospital workers, I started to attend school, learned to read and acquired books of my own for the first time. I loved reading and by the time I left the country I had a lot of books. As a young man in Iraq I used to talk openly about literature and art and ideas with my friends. But as the regime became more and more oppressive, we knew we might have pay the price – and I was one of those that did. Later in the Lebanon a whole new world of writing opened to me, of books which had been banned in Iraq. It was in Beirut that I first read Joyce, Hemingway and Eliot.
In the West the only images many people have of Iraq are of a war in which the arts and the artistic heritage have suffered collateral damage.
It shoud never be forgotten that Iraq has a literary heritage that stretches back 7,000 years – ancient Mesopotamia was a wellspring of civilisation. And after Iraq became part of the Islamic world it was the centre of Islamic culture for 1,400 years, with universities in cities like Baghdad and Basra becoming great centres of learning.
Iraq contains many different cultural and ethnic groups…
This diversity makes up the real Iraqi culture. The country has experienced long periods under colonial rule but in 1921 the borders were set as they are today and in the decades that followed there was a cultural renaissance, led by internationally renowned poets such as Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, Ma‘ruf al-Rusafi and Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi. Then in the late ’40s there came a new wave of progressive, experimental poets who revolutionised traditional forms: Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Nazik al-Mala’ika and Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati inaugurated a new age in Arabic poetry – and their influence was by no means confined to Iraq. Nor were the interests of Iraqis readers inward-looking – in as far as they could, they engaged with literature from around the world.
What happened to the books you left behind in Iraq?
My mother feared that the police would come and find my ‘forbidden’ books – and so she burned every book I possessed. I remember the day before I left my grandmother telling me that she couldn’t bear the thought of losing me. I said to her, it’s just one person you’re losing but I’m losing everyone, my family and all my friends. I didn’t go back to Iraq again until after Saddam Hussein had fallen. That was twenty-seven years later, by which time my grandmother was ninety-six. She asked, ‘Do you remember what I said to you when you left? How I couldn’t bear to lose you?’ The sense of loss had endured for both of us through all these years.