Dispatch from Iraq

At the Erbil Literature Festival.

In a garden blossoming with roses stands the Erbil Public Library, also known as the Zaytun Library ("zaytun" meaning "olive" in Arabic), in a city that is part of Iraqi-Kurdistan, and the fourth largest city in Iraq. Here, I took part in a panel discussion about libraries, one of a series of events at the splendid inaugural Erbil Literature Festival in Iraq, organised by the British Council inpartnership with local Iraqi organisations including the Iraqi Writers Union. The panel featured Dr Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archive in Baghdad, and Inaam Kachachi, author of The American Granddaughter, and was chaired by Dr Rachel Holmes. All shared stories about how vital libraries have been in both their life and their literature. That free public libraries are a democratising force is strongly apparent in Iraq, which suffered the near-obliteration of its libraries under the Ba'athist dictatorship.

"If you tell the life of the library you are also telling the life of the city and the country," said Eskander, who, from 2006-2007, documented daily life in the library. "It was by far the worst day of the year," begins one chilling diary entry. As soon as he arrived at the library, there were explosions; the Ministry of Health had been bombed, mere metres away. At 11am, he received the devastating news that one of his young Kurdish employees had been assassinated in front of his younger sister. Eskander had previously sent him to Florence, Italy to be trained as a web designer and he had constructed their official website. "He was the symbol of modernisation and reform process," says Eskander. After his death, "morale was at its lowest".

Under the Saddam Hussein regime, libraries in Iraq, which had tried to meet the needs of the locals, suffered from budget cuts. The public library network collapsed. No new books were edited. Illegal photocopying of books took place. Library archivists lived in isolation from the rest of the world, not benefitting from training. During the invasion of 2003, most Iraqi cultural institutions were burned or looted apart from the region of Kurdistan. The National Library and Archive suffered considerable material and cultural damage, losing about 60 per cent of its archival collections, and the building itself was burnt and looted.

"We started from below zero to modernise," said Eskander. "It also gave us an opportunity to reform; we started with the concept of what it means to be a National Library: was it a library for all Iraqis regardless of their religious and ethnic background? It had instead become a tool of repression; to impose ideological conformity." Kurdish and left-wing publications had previously been blacklisted, so Eskander attempted to change the policy of the library by removing censorship, restoring damaged documents and rare books, and expanding the infrastructure of the institution by adding new buildings. Archivists and librarians received training. A group of restorers were sent to Italy and the French Republic and tried to collect publications that were relevant to a democratic Iraq. "The aim is to enable researchers and university students to put an end to one-sided interpretations of the past," explained Eskander.

His staff were worried for Eskander's own safety and asked him to leave the country. But with two young children, this was a difficult choice. Now, Eskander lives in Baghdad, where he has employed a new generation of archivists; Kurds and Arabs work side by side, and there is a greater sense of optimism. Youngsters in the audience spoke about their desire for new technologies. Another audience member pointed out that theirs was a country in which a great majority of the budget is spent on war and spoke of hopes that experts from the UK would share their skills via UK-Iraqi exchanges.

As more of our libraries are closed down in the UK, it is instructive to remember just what an important role they play in a democratic society. In 1852, for instance, Charles Dickens opened the first free public lending library in Manchester, built upon the philosophy of providing "wisdom for all, regardless of background".

Elsewhere at the Erbil festival, readers in Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac shared platforms in several wonderful readings. It was clear what a unifying effect a festival such as this can have, dismantling gender and racial barriers, and celebrating free cultural expression and the exchange of ideas.

There were also some stunning and uplifting musical performances. A Kurdish folk group gave a triumphant performance and Iraq's National Youth Orchestra played as the sun set over the ruins of the grand 6,000 year-old citadel . This was a memorable and moving festival.

Anita Sethi is a writer, journalist and broadcaster. She will be speaking at the Hay Festival on 31 May. www.anitasethi.co.uk

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem