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Arabic literature -- Iraq -- Translations, Arabic literature -- 21st century


The following is a translation of an excerpt from the novel Al-Sayyid Asghar Ak bar (Dar al-Tanwir, 2012) by Iraqi author Murtedha Gzar. This recent work by a young engineer from the southern city of Basra has received considerable attention in literary circles at home and abroad, significantly for the ways in which it departs from the mimetic norms of social realism that were found in the established narratological models of the pre-2003 U.S. occupation era, such as the varieties cultivated in the 1960s and 1970s in Iraq by seminal authors lik e Gha’ib Ṭu`mah Farman, Mahdi Isa al-Saqr, and Fu’ad al-Takarli. Al-Sayyid Asghar Akbar has been hailed as “unique in its magical realist narration,” and a “harbinger of a new style of narration that departs completely from the literary output of multiple generations of Iraqi narrators.” Part of this uniqueness comes from the ways in which the novel restructures iconic Iraqi places, mainly the Shrine city of Najaf, transgresses intradiegetic time, and reconstructs historical discourses. By so doing it defies our expectations and media- and government-cast collective images of twentieth-century Iraq. Instead, it negotiates a discursive space that lies on the peripheries of two hegemonic, official narratives of Iraqi culture: the national narrative of the Ba`th regime and the religious counter-narrative of the traditional Shi`i opposition. It exposes a discrepancy between two authoritative, normative processes of historicizing; the ‘Rewriting of Iraqi History Project’ and the Najafi ijtihad and taqlid traditions.

Ultimately, in this complex work Gzar accomplishes a skeptical deconstruction of Iraq’s cultural formations and a new, post-Ba`thist reading of Shi`ism, Najaf, and Iraqi identity by telling the story of three generations of family genealogists from the Shi’i shrine city of Najaf. The narrative time spans the period between 1871, the year the grandfather Asghar Akbar arrived to Najaf aboard a ship that was transporting corpses from India to be buried in the holy grounds of Najaf’s cemetery; and 2005, the year his three childless granddaughters, Nadhmah, Mu`inah, and Wahidiyyah, conclude his lineage and are found buried in the vault of their grandfather’s house.

These sisters jointly narrate the bulk of the novel’s events. Sometimes alternating and sometimes in unison, the unique narrative voice of these sisters tells the story of their grandfather by rearranging the letters on the lead sorts (pieces of type) that make up the remains of a decayed printing press that used to belong to the grandfather Asghar Akbar. Worried that they would run out of letter sorts before finishing their account, they feverishly type-narrate the story of their grandfather, an eccentric horse genealogist who arrived to Najaf on a dubious sea journey. They narrate, with countless digressions into their personal stories and the present, how the controversial Asghar Ak bar was to become the city’s most acclaimed family genealogist despite the suspicion of the city’s legal and political establishment. As they synchronously type-narrate the novel’s events, the sisters commit typos that affect the development of the plot and wreak havoc on the city. As they distort and deconstruct the established accounts of k ey political events such as the Najaf Revolt of 1916, the 1918 British siege of the city, the popular uprising against Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1991, and the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003, the sisters rewrite the modern social history of Najaf and reveal striking parallels between the political events of the turn of the previous century and the turn of the current century.


Originally appeared in Jadilayya, and reprinted with permission. May be found at Copyright 2013 by the Arab Studies Institute.

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