The Spirit of Survival in Iraqi Women’s War Texts

Angham A. Abdullah 

From the ashes of tragedy an Iraq rises…
 Guarded by millions of lovers…
An Iraq with liquid black eyes
whose lips are dates…..
A river of ebony flows down the back 
to the waist (qtd. in Mehta).*


I have chosen these lines as they summarize some of my PhD research findings. My PhD is about contemporary Iraqi women’s fiction of war. I investigate work by Iraqi women novelists written during three periods of war: the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) which is regarded as the 20th century’s longest conventional war, the First Gulf War (1990-1991) and the subsequent 13-year sanctions on Iraq, and the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003.  These three wars brought about a series of human tragedies which traumatized those who survived the atrocities and became witnesses to the wars. For each period of war I examine two texts which center on that specific period in the lives of Iraqis. For the war of the 1980s, I analyze Ibtisam ʿAbdullah’s story “al- Akhar fil Miraʾa” (The Other in the Mirror 1999) and Irada al-Jabburi’s story “Asra” (Prisoners 2007).  For the war of the 1990s and the subsequent sanctions I analyze Maysalun Hadi’s novel al-‘Alam Naqisan Wahid (The World Minus One 1999) and Hadiyya Husayn’s novel Ma ba’d al-Hub (Beyond Love 2003).  Iqbal al-Qazwini’s novel Shubbak Zubayda  (Zubayda’s Window 2008)  and Lutfiyya al-Dulaymi’s novel Women of Saturn are chosen to represent the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. In my study, I have examined how contemporary Iraqi women’s war fiction engages with the wars, sanctions and occupation. I show how that fiction defied the ideology of the ruling government of Saddam Husayn which propagated war during the 1980s and the 1990s and how through their fiction the women writers resist the violence which took place during and after the occupation of Iraq in 2003 and suggest a possible rebirth of Baghdad.

The Iraqi women’s war texts of the three periods of wars I investigated document a long history of dictatorship, wars, sanctions and occupation referred to in the metaphor of “the ashes of tragedy.” In these texts, the trauma of war is not specific to the men who fight at the war front, but is depicted in terms of the women at the home front. The women who survive wars in the texts suffer in many different ways. They are widows of dead fighters, wives of traumatized soldiers, bereaved mothers, single women who lost their beloved in wars, exiled women watching the destruction of Iraq from exile and lonely women targeted by unknown militias. However, the tragedies of war do not shatter these women who “rise” and have as the Iraq in the lines above “liquid black eyes.” The liquid here may signify both the tears of women and reference the beauty of their eyes. 

These authors do not only write on behalf of Iraqi victims but also as part of the larger group where their private history becomes a collective memory. The narratives I analyzed in this research represent a range of different forms of traumatic grief in which the personal wounds of the women writers merge with the wounds of Iraqi women and of the characters generating one story of loss. Baghdad is the centre of narration in this story whose action starts in the 1980s, rises in the 1990s and falls with the fall of Baghdad in 2003. Throughout, the reader is invited to visit not only Baghdad of the war periods but also Baghdad under the Mongols in 1258 and the following epochs with all the political and social vagaries that beset it.

In The World, the Text and the Critic (1991) Edward  Saʿid suggests that: “Texts are worldly, to some degree they are events, and, even when they appear to deny it, are nevertheless a part of the social world, human life, and of course the historical moments in which they are located and interpreted” (35). Saʿid’s words apply to the women writers’ texts I examined. These texts impart female civilian points of view which do not always engage with battles but rather bring to light the human suffering on the home front. In her article “The Identity of Numbers” Irada al-Jabburi describes the manner by which the trauma of victims/survivors are reduced into figures in the news and that only through the medium of fiction these victims regain their dignity and humanity (250-255). Narrating the unspeakable particularities of individual trauma involves a testimony that encompasses the memory of all those who are silenced by violence.

The act of reconstructing the personal narrative and the historical fact enables these writers to comment on the political and social system motivated by a desire to contest the dominant discourses. The writers of the 1980s and the 1990s have breached the barriers of censorship to rise above the fear of punishment (Grace 189). Their evaluation of the conflict places the work of writers within the context of a critique of history that is the source of the conflict. Thus, produces changes to the ways in which history is conceptualized and narrated. Ibtisam ʿAbdullah’s story “The Other in the Mirror,” which is state-sponsored, shows that a writer could obliquely condemn war. ʿAbdullah’s treatment of the shell-shocked soldier’s psychological disturbance offers an opposite image of the soldier, as a hero, propagated by the Iraqi government in the 1980s. On the other hand, Irada al-Jabburi’s “Prisoners” expresses direct opposition to war when the central female character constantly questions the validity of going to war.

In The World Minus One Maysalun Hadi destabilizes the concept of the “martyr” as a symbol of sacrifice and glory through the references to the soldiers’ corpses as carcasses. Hadiyya Husayn’s Beyond Love exposes the false democracy of the elections in the 1990s and describes the way the oppressive regime punishes its opponents.

In Zubayda’s Window Iqbal al-Qazwini ridicules the way Iraqi officials deal with the occupation and she uses the word “dictator” instead of Saddam Husayn throughout the novel. The writer also attributes the current instability of the political chaos to the previous regimes. In her Women of Saturn Lutfiyya al-Dulaymicriticizes the way the Baʿth regime punished men and women dissidents and sees the prevailing social and political chaos as an extension of previous disarrays.  

The collectivity of the experiences of victimhood in the texts is summarized in Women of Saturn where Hayat, the central character and narrator writes: 

                I am Hayat, and these are the papers I have been writing for years where 
                I recorded our tales […] All our names have been vanishing from my
                tales over the years […] This ongoing fading of names and the 
                interchanging of events appalled me […] I need to work like a magician
                and to follow my instincts so as to disconnect events, times and stories
                in which destinies intermix (al-Dulaymi 12-13). 


The reference to “our tales” suggests the narration of a collectivity and possibly of a collective experience. The sense of collective experience is heightened by the notion of the “vanishing of names” and the recurrence of stories. When all that Hayat hears are voices of anonymous characters whose stories are similar, naming becomes meaningless. When Hayat records the stories, she finds the fading of these names “appalling.” What appalls her is the degree of suffering these characters undergo in a way that obliterates their identities and disembodies them.

However, the women victims survive the atrocities in a similar manner to the way Baghdad survives destruction through its history. This is apparent in the way the women, who gather at Hayat’s basement for protection from the outside chaos, celebrate survival:

                 Rawiya prepares tea in my kitchen. She polishes the thin crystal
                 gilded-lined cups under the morning sun rejoicing survival. Our
                 persistence and the death of others […] We are overwhelmed with an
                 awful selfish joy […] Rawiya serves the cake her mother prepares for
                 the Eid of Nowruz […] An American armored vehicle passes across the
                 road while we drink tea in the garden […] Our fates are imperiled by
                 probabilities while we hold on to life (38-39). 


The peaceful intervals during war represent a rebirth for Hayat’s female friends who go out of the basement into the garden to celebrate their survival. However, this temporary joy is disturbed by a sense of guilt for staying alive when other victims die. The image of a US tank crossing the nearby road during the women’s celebration suggests the persistent threat to their lives. Yet, the menace does not stop the women from clinging to a life that is rendered bearable despite its difficulties.  

When Hayat remembers that Baghdad was able to survive and to regain some of its former distinction as a center of Arabic culture, she becomes confident of a survival that echoes the former rebirth of Baghdad.            This idea is marked in the scene of the burning of Baghdad’s Central Library. Looking at the ruins of the library after the act of burning, Hayat states:

               Amid the heaps of ash, the burnt trees, the remainders of books […]
               and the burnt encyclopedias a flock of sheep herds at the library’s 
               field. I hear the bleating of ewes and see their dung between the 
               remnants of books. A shepherd trades with a lamb […] He slays a
               a sheep and hangs it on the Eucalyptus and sells the meat to women
               […] Butchers’ shops are closed and so are grocers […] The women
               make their stew out of the lamb meat (35).

Two images of damage and life are juxtaposed in this scene. The ugliness of the scene is apparent in the way knowledge is eaten up by fire and animals, and in the manner the quiet and beautiful space of the library is filled with the noise and the manure of sheep. However, this chaotic situation offers possibilities of a life that continues out of the ruins. 

In the texts survival offers the central characters the chance to narrate the stories they witness as “narration saves the stories” (al-Dulaymi 125).Through their representation of the historical reality of the Iraqi experience of the trauma of war, women novelists add an essential voice to the Iraqi contemporary narrative of war. The survival of the women in isolation from men and their perseverance has shown the feminist discourse of the texts. 

By researching contemporary Iraqi women’s fiction of war, I do not wish to say that preference should be given to these female writers over male authors. Nor do I wish to claim that civilians suffer more than soldiers in warfare. My research is intended to argue for the necessity of including contemporary Iraqi women’s fiction of war within the wider domain of war literature. Contemporary Iraqi women’s fiction of war embodies women’s artistic responses to that context and offers the testimonial accounts of history from the home front by women. It suggests that gender roles are challenged and resisted, and does so from a female perspective. This perspective requires much greater presence in public discourse.

  •  These lines are from the anthology Standing on al Daghara Bridge (2001) by Iraqi poet Yaʿqub Jawad (1950-2002). The poet was a member of the Iraqi Writers and Publishers Association. He published two anthologies of poetry in which he expressed his deep love for his country. He also wrote many critical articles on poetry before his death in 2002.


ʿAbdullah, Ibtisam. “al-Aʾkhar fil Miraʾ” [“The Other in the Mirror.”] Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology. Ed. and Trans. Shakir Mustafa. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2008, 185-190.

al-Dulaymi, Lutfiyya. Sayyidat Zuhal: Sirat Nas wa Madina [Women of Saturn: Biography of a People and a City] Amman: Fadaaʾt Publishers, 2010. 

Grace, Daphne M. 2006. “Arab Women Write the Trauma of Imprisonment and Exile.” Arab Women’s Lives Retold: Exploring Identity through Writing. Ed. Nawar al-Hassan Golley. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007, 181-200.

Hadi, Maysalun. al-ʿAlam Naqisan Wahid [The World Minus One] Amman: Dar Osama, 1999.

Husayn, Hadiyya. Ma baʿad al-Hub [Beyond Love.] Trans. Ikram Masmudi. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2012.

al-Jabburi, Irada. “Asra” [“Prisoners”] Juruh fi Shajar al-Nakhil: Qesas min Waqeʾa al-Iraq Iraq [Wounds in Palm Groves: Accounts from Iraq] Ed. International Committee of the Red Cross. Beirut: Riyad al-Rayyes Books, 2007, 55- 65. 

—. “Identity of Numbers.” We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War. Eds. Nadje  al-ʿAli and Deborah al-Najjar. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2013, 250-255.

Mehta, Brinda J. “Writing against War and Occupation in Iraq: Gender, Social Critique and Creative Resistance in Dunya Mikhaʾil’s The War Works Hard.”  International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies.Vol. 4. Numbers 1& 2, 2010: 79-100.

al-Qazwini, Iqbal. Shubak Zubayda: Riwayat al-Manfa al-Iraqi [Zubayda’s Window: A Novel of Iraqi Exile] Trans.ʿAzza al-Khuli and Amirah Nowayrah. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University, 2008.

Saʿid, Edward W. The World, The Text, And The Critic. London: Vintage, 1991.

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