Iraqi Violence Demystified

Shakir Luabi

Certainly a majority of Arab intellectuals and journalists used to identify with a popular discourse devoid of any rationality; only a small number refused to believe the Iraqi regime's deception. That small group of Arab intellectuals developed a unique understanding, free from the strong emotional agitation which Saddam's regime used so effectively. One cannot deny that there are lessons to be learned from it concerning the condition of the Arab culture, especially those on the production end of the culture.

Abbas Beydoun, Elias Khoury and at times Nouri Jarah, among others, departed from the majority position toward Iraq. They wrote with courage, despair, and passion and analyzed the ideas and the stories of the killers and demanded their departure. They spoke out much earlier than others--not just after the repressive regime collapsed.

Among this group of intellectuals was the poet Adonis who refused the Iraqi regime's enticements, rejected its ideas, and declined its invitations (except one in 1969 on which he wrote a column in Al Hayat) for more than thirty years. He was an eye-opener for the Arabs for he believed that the person responsible for Iraq's present quandary is its president.

I must even admit that Beydoun's articles have always been more calm and sober-minded than ours, we Iraqi writers, whose letters tended to be emotionally charged. We used to shout in a hoarse and despairing voice. Our voices were not clearly heard because of their discordant rhythms and depressed and apocalyptic tones, while Beydoun and Khoury expressed intimately the wounds of Iraq.

From time to time one encounters strong convictions that claim there are historical and almost genetic sources of the bloody and violent nature of Iraqis. The roughness of Al-Hajaj was attributed to Iraq, although he originally came from Al Yamama in today's Saudi Arabia through Syria and then to Iraq. Iraqi opposition to the Umayyad, Abbasid, monarchist, and Saddamian oppressions have been interpreted to be the inevitable fruit of Iraqi extremism, violence, and secession, notwithstanding that the opposition fought for justice and equality. This is a simplistic and naive interpretation that benefits only those in power. Many have forgotten Iraq's golden times: the humorous spirit which perhaps taught all Arabs the arts of exquisite and sarcastic writing at the hands of Al Jahez; and the many genres of literature, including humor, adolescent, and erotic, all part of Arab traditional writings in Iraq since Babylon and until the collapse of Abbasid Baghdad.

Another rebuttal would be the rare spirit of tolerance in Iraq which allowed successful coexistence, though not without difficulties, among Assyrians, Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Turkomans, and Mandaeans.

In a recent article by Adonis, published in Al Hayat, he appears to suggest that extremism, harshness, and violence are peculiar to the Iraqis:

The state in Iraq has taught us since 1958 not to forget the tyranny of al-Hajaj and Abbasid despotism. The tyranny of the current state is an extension of the earlier period, if not more cruel. This had led some of us, including myself, to think that the Iraqis are not prepared to rule themselves except by violence and killing, to think that in every Iraqi there are two individuals: a free one and an oppressor, Al Hussein and Al-Hajaj, together at the same time, to think that the past repeats itself-indeed, the streets of Iraqi cities are full of the dead, all accused of being "the enemies of freedom," the same as in the past but under the accusation of being "the enemies of God." We were led to think that this circle of continuing violence would end, both the violence of the ruler and the ruled, especially with the image of the inhuman bloody violence in Iraq's 1958 and afterwards, leading all the way until the collapse of the Saddamian regime remains alive....

A great moral and cultural tragedy lies in the "representatives" of the Iraqi people, "nationalists" and "Communists," who participated in producing this image without any protest, apology or admission of mistake. On the contrary, some of them continued to flaunt and be proud of this image...

I read and re-read Adonis' text fully and still was not sure of my reading. Perhaps Adonis' skillful usage of language, especially the verb "think," explains my uncertainty. I had two poet friends read the text; while one of them did not share my interpretation that Adonis believes that the Iraqis are inherently violent, the other assured me that my understanding was accurate. If my reading is correct, I am disturbed by his premise and moreover embarrassed. What we witnessed on television screens after the collapse of the tyrant prove just the opposite of Adonis' premise: the demonstrations of the Shiites in Karbala, the speeches of the Sunnis in the mosque of Imam Abi Hanifa in Baghdad, the statements and the positions of the Kurds, the prayers of the Christians, not to mention the position of the Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Turkomans, were all quite peaceful.

Some, myself included, believe Adonis erred twice in this article. First, he recalled the popular belief on the violence of the Iraqi people as if it were an indisputable fact. Next, he prejudged Iraqi events which do not support this widespread stereotype.That said, of course there are local peculiarities, but they cannot be attributed to an entire nation made up of several peoples. The overly-sensitive Iraqis, with their light-heartedness, their troubled conscience, the truthfulness and warmth of their discourse, do have clashes and contradictions of all types, some of which have been interpreted to be violence. It's strange that these confrontations in Iraq are not interpreted as a challenge aimed at the hypocrite discourse which benefits from the status quo, or at the merchants seeking profits, or the antithesis of an immature consciousness where personal interests are favored at the expense of a national culture.

Perhaps the difference between Iraq and its Arab neighbors is that the Iraqis have violently opposed, without compromise for any reason, those who have used violence against them. This tendency has strengthened the popular picture of violence in Iraq, from which I think Adonis derived his theories.

While it is true that the burning of the libraries and the looting of the national museum after the collapse of the Saddam fascist regime would seem to bear out Adonis' premise, Saddam's own gangs and no one else are responsible for those crimes. The majority of the Iraqis are innocent; they were against it, and their hearts belong to the thinking of Al Muatazala and the spirit of Al Hallaj and Al Jahez.

Translated and adapted from a longer Arabic text by Elie Chalala

This essay appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 9, Nos. 42/43 (Winter/Spring 2003)

Translation Copyright 2003 © by Al Jadid