Why I Write About Iraqis: Novelist Helen Benedict on the obligations of fiction

    

I am neither Muslim nor a war veteran, Middle-Eastern nor a foreign correspondent, so when people find out that I have written two novels (Wolf Season, Sand Queen) featuring an Iraqi woman and her family, their first question is often, “Why?”

This question arises because it is still so unusual for American novelists to write about Iraqis that people genuinely don’t understand my interest.

Of the increasing number of novels and story collections, and even movies, coming out of the latest Iraq War, only a smattering feature Iraqis as full human beings. Most do the same thing Vietnam war fiction did for so long – tell the war story entirely from the point of view of American soldiers, while the population of the country they occupy fades into background. When Iraqis do appear, it is usually as either a clownish interpreter or a villain.

This trope is even worse when it comes to women. For years, no Iraqi women have appeared in American fiction, except as wailing widows or black-clad figures in the distance. The only American fiction I know of, other than mine, that features an Iraqi woman as a full character is Matt Gallagher’s novel, Youngblood.

Why do we keep writing about the war and leaving out Iraqi women? After all, the UN tells us that more women and children die in today’s wars than men. Yet war remains, as it has for millennia, an almost entirely male story.

When it comes to the U.S. war with Afghanistan, we writers have done somewhat better. Flashes of War by Katey Shultz, The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Battacharya, and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini are all powerful works of fiction featuring Afghan women as fully realized characters. I might point out that all these authors are civilians, one is a woman, and two were not born in the U.S.

I was first drawn to writing about Iraq when we invaded in March of 2003 and began raining bombs down on the citizens of Baghdad. Very soon after “Shock and Awe,” as our initial attack was so gloatingly called, a blog called Baghdad Burning began appearing on the internet, written by an anonymous young woman who called herself Riverbend, a computer technician with English so perfect she sounded like an American college student.

I read that blog religiously. Riverbend’s thoughts and feelings were just as “like us” as my own daughter’s, yet she was describing day-by-day what it was like to live under the U.S. invasion – what it was like to live through the overwhelming, heart-freezing injustice of war.

I then began reading other Iraqi blogs, along with every translation I could find of Iraqi poetry and fiction, most of which was written by and about men before our invasion. I also turned to YouTube and found videos and documentaries made by Iraqis. The most remarkable was one made by an anonymous woman who put on a burqa, hid her handheld camera under it, and drove around the Iraqi countryside interviewing women about what they were suffering. What she was doing was so dangerous, she explained into the camera, that the video would only remain up on YouTube for a day or so. Sure enough, it disappeared. I only hope she didn’t disappear, too.

After that, I sought out Iraqis around New York, former interpreters for the U.S. military, journalists, or government, and their families, all of whom had been granted the special visas reserved for those who have served us for two years and passed over a year’s worth of security checks.

I met Nour, who had been imprisoned and tortured in Abu Ghraib at the age of 16 for writing a poem Saddam Hussein didn’t like. Having learned English out of love for language and literature, she later become a translator for an American journalist. She and the journalist were kidnapped in Baghdad and shot in the back. The journalist was killed, but Nour survived and came to the U.S. with the help of his widow.

I met Hala, who had fled Baghdad with her husband and children after her brother and 15-year-old son were killed in the war. She and her children spent hours with me, helping me with the kinds of details I needed to create my Iraqi characters. When her son, who was nine at the time, heard my English accent, he insisted I had written the Harry Potter books.

I met Mohanad, who had grown to love the American soldiers he had worked with as an interpreter in his country. He had taken the job because he hated the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and wanted his people to have a true democracy. He was now living in Albany, learning a trade and hoping to make a life free of war and death.

I met Yasir, who, as an interpreter for the U.S. Army, had saved many lives, risked his own many times, and had become close friends with his American sergeant. Now he was in Boston, studying. He and his wife gave me a bountiful and delicious Iraqi lunch.

With the help of all these generous people, and out of Riverbend and my reading, my characters Naema Jassim, her husband Khalil, and their son, Tariq, were born.

Now, as Wolf Season comes out, the Trump administration’s latest attempt to ban Muslims from our shores is about to go into effect on October 18, and we are once again in a political climate invested in dehumanizing and villainizing refugees. So, I fully expect to once more hear the question, “Why do you write about Iraqis?”

Here is my answer.

I write about Iraqis because we have hurt them so badly and taken no responsibility for it. Because we owe them. Because it is the mission of artists and novelists to fight stereotyping that reduces people to nothing but targets. Because Iraqis are human beings who deserve all the rights and dignity and sympathy and understanding that we ourselves think we deserve.

I write about Iraqis because all of us need to stop being afraid of the victims of our wars and brutality, and embrace them instead.


Helen Benedict is a professor at Columbia University and the author of seven novels, including the just-published Wolf Season, and her previous novel, Sand Queen, a Publishers Weekly “Best Contemporary War Novel.” She writes frequently about justice, women, soldiers, and war. Her coverage of sexual assault in the U.S. military inspired the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Invisible War, and her work instigated a landmark lawsuit against the Pentagon on behalf of victims of military sexual assault. Benedict has spoken at West Point, the U.S. Air Force Academy, Harvard University, TED Talks, and the United Nations, among others.

A recipient of both the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, Benedict is also the author of five works of nonfiction, including the book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women in Iraq, and a play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues. She lives in New York.

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