Not a long time ago, I received a letter from Moussa Kreidieh, just before his death, thanking me for sending him the equivalent of $100 as payment for two articles I had arranged for him to have published in an Arab newspaper outside of Iraq. “I had only two options: either selling my car or leaving it to rust from rain and sun, not to mention that it badly needed two sets of tires after they have been going flat. Now with the $100 I am able to purchase two new tires and spare the death of my car,” said part of Kreidieh’s letter. He was able to rescue his car from death, but not himself, dying a few months later, barely 50 years old.
Undoubtedly, Kreidieh’s failure to resist the economic pressures produced by both the U.N. imposed sanctions and those that developed after the second Gulf War hastened his death. Kreidieh grew up under the Arab Socialist Baath Party, subscribed to its ideology, and enjoyed certain privileges such as a generous salary from the Iraqi Ministry of Information. But when the economic base of the regime was shaken by war after war, if not finally destroyed by the U.N. imposed sanctions, people like Kriedieh were the first to suffer. Whatever resources were available to the regime were used to employ Baathist loyalists, readily willing to lavish praise to Saddam Hussein and his policies.
The wages of most Iraqi intellectuals range from 5,000 to 8,000 Iraqi dinars, the equivalent of three to four dollars a month, an income that hardly distinguishes their economic predicament from that of the rest of the population. And, like the rest of the population, writers and artists have resorted to selling their families’ jewelry and their housewares, be it a refrigerator or air-conditioner, a piece of furniture or a TV set, in order to maintain even a subsistence living standard.
Hospitals have become a familiar scene for Iraqis beset by economic hardships, intellectuals included. Reports from Baghdad speak of trading in human organs among non-intellectuals and intellectuals alike, with no single group able to avoid the indignity and humiliation involved in dispensing with one’s own body parts. Regardless of which is more precious for intellectuals–their organs or their libraries–they have been selling and trading in both. Personal libraries, special collections, and other valuable items are being sold at auctions held every Friday, with the most shocking scene of intellectuals themselves becoming book vendors, selling the works of their colleagues. It is even more ironic to imagine intellectuals selling cigarettes and used watches, as some recent arrivals from Iraq report. Iraqi intellectuals have been walking in circles of confusion, lacking direction due to a desperate search for income. As a result, they flee the misery of receiving only three to four dollars a month while working for a newspaper by working for publications outside the country, which presumably pay better. But, the outside media market offers no solution for Iraqi intellectuals, whose precarious economic and political positions make them targets for exploitation and abuse at the hands of some media managers and editors, thus forcing some to return to working for the Iraqi government, delivering their propoganda for a nominal pay. Yet, the fortunes of those journalists, Iraqi and non-Iraqi, who worked as the mouthpiece of the regime have been generously rewarded.
Iraqi intellectuals’ misfortunes spill over into the state of Iraqi literature. Ideology and apologia mark a sizable proportion of the literature throughout the 1990s, and part of the 1980s. One can hardly read a poem, a short story, a novel, or for that matter a newspaper column, that does not bestow great attributes into the hands of Saddam Hussein. Gone is the golden era of the 1950s and 1960s when Iraqi poets and novelists were in the forefront of creativity and progress.
Iraqi culture and literature are the victims of a set of priorities set by the regime, according to which certain jobs are kept or abolished, and the decisions are influenced primarily by political considerations. Thus, we see a whole group of professionals, photographers, translators, and broadcasters left jobless, not necessarily because they do not support the regime, but because their services are not deemed essential to the regime’s immediate survival. Still, Iraqi authors continue a long tradition of differentiating the writings that are literature from that which are worthless. If Iraqi literature is not reckoned these days, it is the fault of the editors and publishers who adopt a pure political and ideological criteria on what is published and what is not.
Especially dismaying is the experience of some intellectuals with Arab publishing houses. Governed by the logic of the market, some have chosen to work within its rules, while others have gone to extremes in abusing and exploiting the authors in the name of supply and demand. Arab publishers already underpay authors, and the pay gets even lower under dire economic conditions. In one case, a publisher agreed to pay an Iraqi author for a manuscript on the condition that by the time the payment was made, another manuscript would be submitted for similar, if not lower, pay.
The exploitation to which Iraqi intellectuals were subjected does not stop with greedy publishers. A group that may be called “literary agents,” but which are actually masters of violating intellectual copyrights, are flourishing, thanks again to the predicament in which the Iraqi regime has thrown the country’s intellectuals. These agents are in fact arranging the sales of poems, novels, short stories and manuscripts to be sold for little money to want-to-be poets, novelists, and the like.
Abed al-Malek Nouri, an Iraqi short story master, died recently; he was alone, almost blind, with little money to purchase eye drops. Prior to his death, his economic difficulties led him to sell his air-conditioner, forcing him to suffer from the high heat. He might have been destined to this fate since he was a man of dignity and integrity who never sold his pen to the state. The other tragedy is Hadi al-Alawi, who died last September in Damascus, having left Iraq for the same reasons that prompted thousands of other intellectuals to leave. Al Alawi, too, died poor, as if it makes no difference where Iraqi intellectuals die–they always die poor.
This essay was translated and edited from the Arabic by Al Jadid editors
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 5, no.26, (Winter 1999)
Copyright (c) 1999 by Al Jadid