Silence in Iraqi Women’s Storytelling

Gathering in the garden of the family house in Harithiya neighbourhood in Baghdad, 1976.

Gathering in the garden of the family house in Harithiya neighbourhood in Baghdad, 1976.

By Shawk Alani 

Life stories

Bibi turned on the local news channel. It was Hajj season. The white-clad worshippers floated around the Kaaba in the thousands and my grandmother swirled Turkish coffee in the same motion, sitting on her turquoise couch. Wet air blew in from the open window and the scent of Dettol evaporated off the freshly mopped ceramic tiles. My aunt’s cigarettes lay on the glass table amongst tiny trinkets that had survived a lifetime of collecting and displacements many times over and yet had become mundane objects filling the landscape of our everyday. I took your dad to the Black Stone when he was a baby, she began. Bibi’s stories were infinite; she always had a story, repeated with new and retracted information, like a bottomless well. He was in my arms the whole tawaf, I gave him to your grandfather, he raised him to the Black Stone. Bibi kissed her ornamented coffee cup and took a loud sip. He was blessed, she said. In a single, short anecdote Bibi foretold my father’s life story, how this moment had insinuated an endowed future for him, and her own life story of faith and courage, of pushing through circles of thousands of worshippers seven times and handing her youngest over to be raised above the stampeding crowd.

I learned from my grandmother and other Iraqi women in the small but growing diaspora community in the mid-1990’s in the Emirates that the telling and retelling of a collected repertoire of life events is a significant process. I learned that a life story can be found in singular moments and daily rituals. I also learned that it is a process both personal and communal, and always profound. The significance of the act of remembering people and their journeys was in the wisdoms and instructions and information inserted into retold life events. Telling life stories in Iraqi women’s gatherings enlisted a sacred attention in me that was simultaneously unimposing and unwavering. Enshrined between the syntax of words and storylines I found the power of memory, recitation, performance, and curation in the reproduction of life through stories.

Silence and the occupation

Gathering in the family orchard in Samarra, 1986.

Gathering in the family orchard in Samarra, 1986.

On March 20th, 2003 I woke up before daybreak to a dry, tense feeling all over my body. I walked barefoot towards a hazy source of light in my parents' bedroom; their small grey suspended television was screening black and orange images of a city with a river whose banks were lined with small glowing lights. I knew it was Baghdad from my mother’s horrified face. They did not notice me watching them that morning, or for the rest of the day. The television’s volume was low but the sounds ear-piercing eerie: a repetitive rhythmic siren leading up to thuds. My generation, like those before it, would live to see Iraq devastated by war, this time by the 2003 U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation. Slowly the phone started to ring more often in our house: a cousin kidnapped, two lost in an airstrike, a whole family fleeing across the border to Syria. Sometimes strangers, whose life stories I might have heard years before embellished with adventure and laughter, would show up yellow-faced and exhausted to sleep a few nights in our house in Dubai on their journeys to here and there: Sweden and Jordan and Detroit.

The sharing of life stories became much more grim after the invasion, hushed among adults shielding us from the horrors and perhaps shielding themselves from having to explain what they could barely grapple with themselves. Even Bibi’s infinite limit stories reached zero. We no longer drove the hour to Jebel Ali’s humid and smoggy port, waiting with the smell of fish and excited families to receive Bibi from her two-day ferry journey from Basra. There was an extended moment of silence after 2003. I found myself searching for what could restore the life stories I missed from the days before the war.

I tried to follow the news and public trial of Saddam Hussein, which was always on our television screen. As a child I felt lost amongst the legal jargon. One day I found a stack of printed sheets of paper held together by a fold-over clip on the computer desk in our living room. The text was printed off from my father’s email inbox and titled “The Journals of Shalash Al-Iraqi.” I read a few pages without permission. Shalash Al-Iraqi (a pseudonym) was an online blogger and storyteller who wrote in colloquial Iraqi-Arabic dialect about the daily lives of his fictional characters living under the occupation. Shalash wrote in a sarcastic humour that struck with me. The winding dialogues and symbolic, sarcastic, wise and strange life stories resembled my grandmother’s storytelling. The power of stories that retell and negotiate the life matter were not only remembrances but bodies of knowledge that witness communities, their traumas, struggles and silence.

Gathering in the garden of the family house in Hay Aljam’a neighbourhood in Baghdad, 1996.

Gathering in the garden of the family house in Hay Aljam’a neighbourhood in Baghdad, 1996.

Silence before the occupation

In 1956, my grandmother was 12 and in her last year of elementary school. On a cold winter day, she snuck out of her classroom and stood in the school demonstration quad, under the flag, cupped her bottom lip with thumb and index finger and blew out a whistle that brought out a huge mass of riled-up schoolmates. She wasn’t scared of getting in trouble. She was idealistic, and made untouchable by the sheer size of the student congregation. They marched out of the gates and in the streets, holding banners made by the better-organized high school students. Some kids wore cuttings of Black Cat Cigarette logos pinned on their chests to show allegiance to the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. Although fighting together against British colonialism and the Iraqi monarchy, the Communist kids who would later become their sworn enemies, wore handmade doves of peace pins on their chests instead.

My grandmother told me this story on the first days of spring in 2016 in Vancouver, over tea and pastries. I had just started to collect oral histories for the Iraqi Narratives Project, and I asked her if I could record the rest of our conversation. She agreed. When I pulled out the H4N Zoom recorder, a giant, bulky thing with protruding stereo mics, my grandmother looked suspiciously at it for a while. She asked me why and “for who” we were documenting  conversations. Her stories dwindled into short comments as she looked at the recorder. In ten minutes I understood that if I wanted to hear more about her childhood, I had better put the recorder away. My friends and colleagues of the Iraqi Narratives Project and I would get this reaction from many other Iraqis. We are often suspiciously asked “who” the INP is associated with and why we are documenting life stories. To my grandmother and many others, the act of recording conjures up the disturbing past living in the shadows of a dictatorship’s surveillance, interrogation, and censorship.  

Iraqi academics have written about the era of the Ba’ath Party’s rule over Iraq as that of widespread silencing. This silencing campaign had infiltrated the intimacy of Iraqi lives since the 1970s. Iraq existed under the reigns of the al-amn al-khas, the Special Security Organization. Surveillance was a ubiquitous smog that entrenched everyone in a deep sense of distrust and suspiciousness. Saddam’s obsession with the intelligence and the general state of paranoia his institutions transferred onto the public was a burden that many Iraqis carried into their various exiles and passed down to younger generations. 

As a child who grew up in the sanctions of the 1990s, I was taught to recite cartoon songs and TV commercials only “in my heart”. I was warned that if the neighbors heard my singing, they might report on us for having a satellite dish. The satellite dishes that broadcasted the foreign cartoons I watched were illegal in Iraq. I carried a heavy burden as a four and five and six year-old knowing that my dad would be taken away and imprisoned if I sang a song by mistake, if it was released from inside of me. Even as a child, the fear of surveillance infiltrated into the most quotidian detail of my life. Repression and silencing manifested in ways that altered the stories and narratives people could share or speak about. Violence awaited those who told the wrong story.

Imagined gathering in my grandmother’s living room in Vancouver, 2016.

Imagined gathering in my grandmother’s living room in Vancouver, 2016.

Listening to silence

Lipstick-stained cigarettes burning out in crystal ashtrays, the sound of spindly teaspoons crackling against the rims of delicate glass tea cups, sunflower seeds splitting between teeth and the low hum and light of the television screening of an old Egyptian black-and-white film. These were staples of women’s daily gatherings in my grandmother’s living room. My grandmother always invited the girls to join and we were encouraged to speak and participate and hold and disseminate tales. Storytelling was communal and included all the generations of women in the house.

Storytelling was a way for the community to pass important information necessary for the care they provided to one another. Often times there was a woman whose husband or son or brother disappeared into one of Saddam’s prisons or returned in a coffin with no explanation. These stories were disseminated without words and not by the woman herself, who risked more danger of “reports” if she protested, but her sisters and her neighbors and family. Many of these gatherings would begin with the question “Did you hear what happened to so and so?”. Men would describe these gatherings and conversations as mere “qishba”, gossip, essentially bad and malicious. It always seemed to me contradictory to the empathy and problem-solving found in these conversations. Women would retell the events and then proceed to make plans to visit her, to cook for her, brainstorm a list of people they knew who had some capacity to help, etc. The power to disseminate and create stories in a shared space meant that silences were accounted for, and that the women were able to care for one another.

When I came to oral history, I was already well primed in paying attention to life narrative, and to silence and rituals as meaningful parts of the narrative. Alia Mossallam, a oral history scholar archiving the stories of the builders of the Aswan Dam in Egypt, has thought deeply about this idea of listening intently when silence becomes an expression and a language. Mossallam writes that “exploring those histories means practising the art of speaking and writing with ‘words soaked in silence’, of assessing the past with an eye for complexity and ambiguity, looking for the hidden paths and forgotten byways rather than the straight lines.”

Early on in the creation of the Iraqi Narratives Project, when our questions so often failed to produce words, we realized that to do this work in the Iraqi community, we had to listen as intently to silence as we do to words. We had to return to the methodology of listening and storytelling which we learned from our grandmothers: the kind of storytelling that holds instructions for community survival rather than exposes vulnerabilities.

Shawk is a graduate student at Simon Fraser University and co-founder of The Iraqi Narratives Project.
The project is both an attempt to archive and build community around stories. It is a response to Hayder Al-Mohammed’s call to “turn to the everyday [and to] the entanglements of lives with other lives”, to recognize the centrality of the human life story in our search for a way to move past a flat documentation of carnage to a narrative landscape propelled by life. The project has been ongoing since 2015 and is housed at California State University’s Oral History Program in Long Beach.