To celebrate the official publication of our newest anthology Iraq + 100 – where 10 Iraqi writers were asked: What do you think your country will look like in 2103, 100 years after the British- and American-led invasion – we interviewed author Diaa Jubaili about his life in Basra and his story, ‘The Worker’. Part 1 of this interview can be found here.
How is life in Basra at the moment? We hear very little in the international media about the situation there now – what to you is the most important thing to tell the world about Basra now?
Every time I leave Basra, even for a short time, on my return I think of James Joyce’s line from The Dubliners: “Does a fellow good, a bit of a holiday. I feel a ton better since I landed again in dear dirty Dublin.” Other times I think of it the way Hamlet thinks of Denmark: “To me it is a prison.”
As much as we love it, Basra at the moment is a dirty city, maybe the dirtiest in the world. It has no architecture to speak of, and no development for ordinary people to look take hope from. The level of education provision is pitiful. Health provisions, public services and the general environmental situation are all shambolic. To sum up, we can say that Basra at the moment is living through its worst times. It’s one of the worst places to live; the local authority doesn’t pay attention to anything except private investment projects, which only return financial benefits to shareholders. Apart from that, there are no indications that the city is developing or growing like other oil-rich countries with vast natural resources.
Thousands have emigrated due to increased unemployment. Thousands of land mines, and water mines, still remain all around the city, and inside it, having never been removed by local or central government. There are shortages in both electricity and water in Basra. Kidnappings, armed robberies and tribal disputes are common – all backed up by the religious militias, of course. Basra also suffers from widespread radioactive pollution, left by uranium-tipped weapons used by the UK and US, despite international prohibitions on these types of weapons, during the latter two gulf wars. This radioactivity has been identified as the cause of the high numbers of deformations in newborn children, and many different types of cancer, again mostly affecting children.
In addition, Basra sits under an ever-darkening cloud of fumes and smoke caused by the work of unregulated, foreign-operated oil rigs, on all sides. The people of Basra toil under the demagogy of religious parties, many of which are, in turn, influenced by clerics from neighbouring Iran, and all of whom fight against the consumption or production of culture; you name it, music, literature, visual art, they fight against it all.
Basra, like all Iraqi cities, is heavily dependent on Iranian and other adjacent cities’ imports. Although the land is suitable for agriculture, and all the ingredients for real, positive development exist, other, political agendas take priority.
Cultural activity in Basra is almost non-existent; there are no theatres and no cinemas. Writers personally fund their own work; there isn’t the least bit of interest, or investment, in culture from the government. As authors, we write to resist the misery that has befallen this city, quietly repeating a prayer to ourselves: the world will somehow notice.
What is the reputation of Basra in the comparison to other cities in Iraq?
Basra is a city of narration as it is a city of poetry. There are more story writers in Basra than even in Baghdad, and the name of Basra as a place of narration goes back centuries, but this doesn’t mean that whatever is written in Basra is good, because levels differ from one writer to another. I think that other Iraqi cities’ story writers look at Basra and think of this, with Basra as a city of writers who are born and who die with no one knowing anything about them.
How has your writing changed over the years due to the climate that you’ve been forced to work in?
If there was a real change then it was for the better, William Faulkner found himself obliged to work in a train station and he wrote As I Lay Thing in a coal room. For me, the private and the general atmosphere was very difficult because of the circumstances . But through writing I was firstly challenging myself, and challenging the ruthlessness of the space in which I write, and the ruthlessness of the world which does not want to look at us, and may even be challenging death in the middle of that great and huge destruction that we live in in Iraq. I write most of my novels and short stories in a climate not suitable for writing, and I didn’t have a proper place as a writer, but now I have it. Writing is like other things that no one can achieve, except by difficult works. Yes, writing is a difficult job.
How have issues surrounding freedom of expression affected your writing, and how has that changed over your lifetime?
During the last regime’s time, freedom of expression was considered a crime, but I was in my beginnings and I didn’t publish any important work. I waited till the overthrow of the regime in 2003, and by then there was the space that I looked for, and that any writer needs to write freely. I didn’t like to write in an implicit and enigmatic way, which was one of the distinguishing features of Iraqi narrators at the dictator’s time, and I didn’t write in that way even if I was told to, or not to write again. But now, I feel I have to seize the opportunity and the availability of that space of freedom, in order to produce work that I will not be able to write later in time. The leadership in Iraq is religious, and I am worried that it may one day try to prevent writings that are critical and brave. This is why I read and write as if I am doing it for the last time.
Iraq + 100 can now be bought in all good book shops, from Amazon, and from the Comma Press website, where you can also find reviews and more interviews with the contributors.