Iraqi novelist and writer
Compilations & collaborations
Contemporary Iraqi Fiction
Syracuse Universty Press, USA 2008
This was the first anthology of its kind in the west, and contains the work of sixteen Iraqi writers, edited and translated from Arabic by Shaker Mustafa, who provides biographical sketches for each writer.
He included writing by Iraqi women, Iraqi Jews now living in Israel, and Christians and Muslims living both in Iraq and abroad.
The book includes four short stories by Samira Al-Mana
Modern Arab Stories
Published in London by the Iraqi cultural Centre, 1980
This book contains stories from twelve Arabic writers and novelists including Samira, dealing with different themes and techniques. Their work has developed a panorama of their aspiration for a change that makes life more meaningful.
In 1985, Samira and her husband Salah Niazi launched a literary magazine Alightirab Al-Adabi ('Literature in exile'), which ran from then until 2002 with the aim of embracing exiled writers who would refrain from publishing their work in other publications for fear of being seen as taking sides.
Some examples of Samira's work in English translation
1. Mrs Collins
A short story
He did not give him time to say anything.
‘Come in! All hell has broken loose here. You’ve really disgraced me, damn you! You didn’t tell me, you old devil you…its smell clings to everything like kapok. Oh, the devil take you! You’ve really done it this time’.
Ahmed, his friend from Aden, went on reproaching Shakir after closing the door of his room behind them. His eyes wandered all over the room, as if he were asking the very air to be witness to what had happened. Finally, he turned towards the window and said:
‘Come here, come and have a look. I’ve got rid of it in the best possible way.’ Shakir rushed over to look, and his eyes fell on a thick sausage made of spiced meat and garlic, known in Iraq as bastirma, hanging out of the window. Ahmed went on:
‘I cooked some of it as you told me. But no sooner done than a terrible smell overpowered me before it reached my English neighbours. It was a smell fit for neither friend nor foe. And to crown it all, the landlord called me and threatened to throw me out of the house if I didn’t get rid of the dreadful thing. So, as you can see, I did my best to get rid of the smell. But it’s no use. May you be forgiven! Why on earth did you do such a thing to me? Don’t you realise such smells give us a bad name? You know very well my room is a refuge for both of us, and a place where we can cook. Do you want us to stop cooking and eating? Weren’t we content with just peppery foods and spices, and with chicken and lamb? Now the landlord has forbidden me to cook in this room. Don’t you think that’s going to affect us both?’ He burst out laughing and went on:
‘Did it ever occur to you that having such pungent food in this room is enough to drive one round the bend? I couldn’t possibly stay in the same room even if the wretched thing were wrapped and thrown away into a dustbin. It simply breathes out garlic. That is why I decided to hang it outside, just for a bit of relief. Go on, take it with you, there’s a good lad. After all it is yours, and I certainly don’t like such presents. So let this be a good lesson to you’.
Ahmed was a small and slight young man, with a large dark face with exuded gentility. He had a small round mouth which had a great liking for good food. And with this same mouth he went on describing what problems he had to put up with on account of this famous Iraqi delicacy. He cursed its garlicky smell, its fatty parts which exceeded the lean, and the thickness of the whole sausage. At the end of his speech he once again felt inclined to give it back to its original owner, saying:
‘Take it to Mrs Collins. Do as you like with it, who knows, she might even pull out the last hairs of your balding head. Quite a serious problem, my friend. Oh dear, oh dear, the humid English weather hasn’t left you more than five weak hairs. That should be an easy task for Mrs Collins, damn her! She might relieve you of them in one of her moments of fury, when the blood rushes to her head…her blood which is full of butter and milk and all the necessary vitamins’.
Ahmed could really make him laugh, damn him, and Shakir was not someone given to laughter. His friend’s ‘problem’, as he called it, meant very little to him personally. And besides, the incident of the sausage was trivial, compared to his own abiding problem. But all this confusion did not allow Shakir to explain to his friend the reason for his coming to see him early that morning. Although they were neighbours living in the same street in Battersea, they were not accustomed to visiting each other before breakfast. Shakir’s mouth was dry, and he had not shaved when he left the house where he was living. To make matters worse, he was obsessed by Mrs Collins all the more, because she was not around at that moment.
‘What are you waiting for? Go on take it with you’.
‘Where to? replied Shakir when he saw his friend pulling the sausage into the room.
‘Wherever you like. To your room, to Mrs Collins. Give it to her as a present instead of all those bouquets of flowers you give her’, he went on mockingly.
Shakir knew how much Ahmed disliked Mrs Collins. He also knew that he bore her a grudge ever since the day they both forbidden to cook in her house, that is to say in his room. After they had turned it into a den of smoke with pungent smells of onions and fatty foods. One day they had allowed one of the walls of that elegant room to turn black with smoke. At best they had tuned the room into a pastry-cook’s oven – Mrs Collin’s room with the ironed linen, a vase perched in a corner and a blue painting, depicting a Venetian scene with gondolas, on one of the walls. He felt that Mrs Collins was annoyed with them because of the enormity of what they had done. In fact she thought they had offended her personally, no more, no less. She was indeed right. This was no way to behave. But events did not alter their food habits or tastes. It was true they stopped cooking in his room, but he and his friend still had a liking for the same kind of food. They took the opportunity of cooking in Ahmed’s room, and his friend’s landlord allowed them that privilege. That is to say until the previous evening, and all because of that sausage, damn it! His friend did not stop harping on the same theme. He thrust the sausage into Shakir’s hand after wrapping it up in the newspaper which he had used as tablecloth, just as he used the table for cutting up meat and onions, for ironing, and as a desk. There was a great deal of difference between this table and the one he used in his room at Mrs Collins’s. For his table was painted and varnished, and covered with a white lace tablecloth, looking like a bride as he left each morning to his college. Mrs Collins would then go down to his room in order to give the table a fresh coat of polish. His room was the only one which Mrs Collins let. He was only allowed to take it after a lot of scrutiny and close examination on her part, and after she had laid down certain conditions, the most important being that he should, on no account, cook anything that might leave a bad smell. Furthermore, she told him that that neat room was furnished with every consideration for the needs of a University student, and so could not be turned into a kitchen. The fact that there was a small shiny gas cooker on the right hand side of the room meant that it was there for emergencies only, and for making tea. From then on Mrs Collins used to go down every morning with a cloth and some polish, and she would wipe the cooker and make it sparkle. She always made his room look welcoming and fit, as she thought, for a student who had come in search of learning, leaving his family behind. That very learning for which she had such deep respect, in spite of the fact that she was ignorant of most of what was happening in the world. ‘Where is Khartoum?’, she would ask him sometimes, while they would be watching a television programme about the Sudan. ‘It’s in Africa’, he would say. Similarly she would ask about Libya. There were so many ideologies and seas she was ignorant of. There were continents she could not exactly place. She had no idea about politics, nor about other countries and their climates. She was however, an expert at different ways of cleaning and disinfecting her kitchen and bathroom. She was aware of the benefits of fresh air on the body. She also knew how to protect herself against illness, and what time of year forget-me-nots flowered. She had no difficulty whatsoever in communicating with that Arab student who had a complexion so different from hers, and whose language, history, culture and ways she had no idea about. He used to fascinate her with talk about marriage customs in his country, about his mother who still wore a veil, and about the sheep she would slaughter on his safe return to Iraq.
The English family with whom he was staying used to listen to him with extreme politeness. The family consisted of Mrs Collins, her retired husband and her daughter who worked in an office. Very rarely did Mrs Collins’s husband join in the conversation, sitting in his favourite armchair. Perhaps the fact that he was retired gave him an aura of poise and self- possession , and Mrs Collins herself was a constant reminder to him of past youth. She never ceased to be curious and to ask questions. She was always giving the house a fresh look, redecorating and re-upholstering the furniture, washing the curtains one day and shampooing the carpet another day. Her bulging apron pockets, reminiscent of the constant activity of children, made Shakir think of his grandmother, who had practically buried herself alive at the age of fifty. She retired from everyday life at that relatively early age, before even making an attempt to live her life to the full. She imposed total seclusion on herself and pretended to be an invalid, something she managed to do effectively. She used to sit on her bed all day long doing neither good or ill, calling to whoever passed by to drop in and see her, and to show some compassion for her condition. When Shakir was a little boy running and playing in the street, he could never pass by her bedroom window without her calling out pathetically, seeking to arouse his pity. ‘Shakir? Who’s that? Is that you, Shakir?’ He would go to her and she would always ask for the same thing; ‘A little water I beg you’, or ‘Give me some water, you who are dearer to me than my father and mother.’ No doubt her father and mother had long since been dead and buried. He used to fetch her the water pitcher, and after drinking her fill, she would return to him saying, ‘May God strike me dead how much I love you!’
Death was always on his grandmother’s mind. She started dressing in black in expectation of death, and she stopped going out of the house as if in anticipation of it. She did not want to learn anything new, whether it was dressmaking, gardening, cooking, a new song or anything that might cheer her up. She no longer enjoyed a beautiful view nor did she find comfort in the dawn of the new day. Whenever Shakir would hear Mrs Collins singing in her clean kitchen, humming cheerfully while she washed up the breakfast dishes after everyone had gone out, a sense of well-being would come upon him, making him feel that man’s life on earth, from the first year to the fifty-fifth, Mrs Collins age, was like a pink silk ribbon in a world of darkness. Mrs Collins taught him the simple things of everyday life, as if they were of the greatest importance, where to put his towel after coming out of the bathroom, for instance, and how to dance. She used to show him how to do the various steps. She was always pleased whenever she knew that he had been exploring London and getting acquainted with its less known parts, in a way that he would talk about them at a length. And she would then keep quiet and let him do the talking.
In most of the letters home he used to ask for presents for Mrs Collins. And the presents would turn out to be silver palm tree brooch or gold arch of a Ctesiphon ornament, or even a typical Arab coffee pot. Whatever the present it was always the finest craftsmanship made by Mandae’an silversmiths. So at Mrs Collin’s there began to be seen many evocative ornaments from the land of Tigris, which were in fact, valuable folk crafts, characteristic of Iraq, and hand-made by his own countrymen. His kind, generous parents used to send all these gifts in order to please Mrs Collins, while at the same time sending her their regards in the letters written in Arabic. And as Shakir repaid her kindness with presents, she, for her part, showed further kindness in other ways. She would, for instance, ask him if he had heard a certain song or seen the last flower of the season growing bravely in the garden. She would ask him if he felt the approach of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. Mrs Collins welcomed all the seasons of the year, and she thought that each one had its own special fragrance and colour.
The British government failed yet again to reach a settlement with the unions. Industrial action spread through the country, and strikes which had been limited by rail and dock workers, eventually involved electrical engineers. It also happened there was one of the coldest winters the British public had ever experienced, making the matters even more difficult for the government and the major companies. People would go home in the evening feeling dejected at the thought of facing yet another dark night with more power cuts. Candlewicks replaced bright lights and shiny chandeliers and darkness spread over the streets of the worried city. More and more people began to take advantage of the situation and doubts and uncertainties multiplied. Mantelpieces and shelves in cold houses and deserted restaurants on which stood tearful, dripping candles, reminded people of greed and materialism that was about. Previously candles have been a way of reliving the romantic past, or a means for cosy togetherness. The Collins house which did not belong to any age in particular, now assumed an air of sixteenth century house. Mrs Collins had brought from Woolworth's department store what she thought were enough candles to see her through until the strike was over. There was a glimmer of hope everywhere that the strike would soon be over. At least that was what Mrs Collins’s husband thought, from time to time. Mrs Collins brought a dozen candles, just in case that poor Iraqi boy, Shakir should forget to buy a candle for his room, and because her daughter, who went out to work, disliked the dark and did not stop grumbling about it. So Mrs Collins went about her house getting it ready for the sudden power cut. As she lit the candles in the kitchen she recalled with delight their usefulness and attraction, and her features became more youthful, almost childlike, in fact. She could not make up her mind whether she was on the government side or against it. Whether she supported the workers or condemned them. Shakir on the other hand, who had nurtured on a form of dogmatic and chivalrous idealism, could only condemn something out right or whole-heartedly support it. In the depth of pitch-dark room he started brooding on a certain idea that his friend had put in his mind. Perhaps his friend was right. Elderly woman like Mrs Collins could only be offering such services at a price. ‘I `m certain she loves you’, his friend had said. He was indeed right. Shakir remembered her smiles, movements, generosity, clothes, perfume and the various occasions she chose to visit him in his room. He was suddenly made aware of his secret longing for her, and felt that he had been neglecting her. He wanted to give her something better than the gold and silver ornaments he had already given her. He thought he should give her something of himself to assure her of his gratitude at least.
‘Shakir, would you like a candle? Are you there in the dark?’, She went downstairs to his room with a flickering candle in her hand. He was alone in the dark room feeling his way about.
‘Do you want a candle? Here you are, Shakir’, he heard her saying as she approached the door, leaving a trail of light in her wake, which made her face and neck look pale and sensuous. It was as if she were at that moment an embodiment of all womanhood. She seemed at one and the same time the mother, the beloved and the sister.
‘You really are good and beautiful, Mrs Collins,’ he said excitedly, while he tried to touch her shoulder. He drew her close to him with that exaggerated fervour and diffidence of an Oriental overwhelmed by a good turn done to him. He held her in his arms affectionately and with a great deal of warmth and sincerity.
‘I was told not to trust foreigners’, she said.
He was immediately taken aback to see her scared and indignant.
She moved away from him muttering in a state of shock that nearly extinguished the candle which was now in his hand.
‘I was told not to trust foreigners’.
She rushed upstairs leaving him bewildered, turning the evening’s fiasco over and over in his mind.
‘I was told…’ he heard her repeating :
‘I was told…’
(Translated by Farida Abu Haidar)
2. Witness of her time
A talk given by Samira Al-Mana at SOAS, University of London, 1999
My presence with you, now, is a proof that nobody had taken seriously, the advice of a supposedly learned man in Baghdad, called Abu Al Thana Al Alusee. Writing on women in one of his manuscripts entitled "The Wisdom of keeping women illiterate" in 1898. Quote: "... what about teaching women how to read and write?! God forbid! I cannot see any thing worse than that in damaging them. Since women's nature inclines them to betrayal, acquiring such skills, would cause the greatest evil and corruption. The Moment woman knows how to read and write she will write a letter to Zied and a note to Omer (in English: to every Tom, Dick and Harry), a verse to this one and something else to another. To give women access to literacy is like presenting a sword to a murderer, or a bottle of wine to a drunker. The wise man is the one who keeps his wife in a state of ignorance and blindness. It is more appropriate to her, and more beneficial".
It is clear that a great deal of suspicion is involved here. This should not surprise us, since Al Alusee lived in the land of the criminal Shahrayar hearing the imaginary stories of the "THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS".
It is striking too that both some Eastern and Western men, who seldom agree on other things, are of one mind on the question of women's education . A hundred years before Al Alusee MONK LEWIS, a contemporary of JANE AUSTIN, wrote: " I have an aversion, a pity and contempt for all female scribblers. The needle, not the pen, is the instrument they should handle, and the only one they ever use dexterously. " Of the two, it is JANE AUSTIN who has achieved immortality while monk LEWIS has sunk into oblivion.
Fortunately, women have not always encountered such hostility. One could argue that such men were the product of the unjust and discriminatory societies in which men too were occasionally victims. Al Alusee`s warning against the dangers of educating women came at a time of darkness across the Middle East under the harsh rule of the Ottoman Empire. Monk Lewis lived before and during the Victorian era when Britain, through her Empire on which the sun never set, dominated and plundered much of the world and while, at home, millions lived in poverty and misery about which Charles Dickens wrote so starkly.
Saying all that, it is of great significance that in 1899, a remarkable Egyptian author, KASIM AMIN, courageously, spoke out against that accepted wisdom. In his book EMANCIPATION OF WOMEN, he championed womens' right to education and to a fuller integration into their husbands' live s. At that time it was a shocking idea and an attack on traditional attitudes, and Amin accordingly suffered persecution which befalls anyone who speaks for the powerless. His was actually a call for the liberation of both sexes and it marked the dawning of a new day in the Arab world - the so-called Arab Awakening - with Egypt, as so often, in the vanguard of change.
From Egypt the Awakening spread rapidly throughout the Arab world and reached Iraq, the country which I came from. Its progress was accelerated by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. It was as if a door which had been closed for centuries began to open little by little and let in a wind of change which blew away everything in its path and penetrated to the places where women had so long remained hidden and silent.
There are still a few very old women left who could remember those days. They handed down to us their stories of deprivation and rejection. Like that women whose brother blocked her divorce to preserve the family's good name. Another whose husband took as many wives as he liked. The following lyrics of a traditional popular song express it well:
My husband took a young girl as a wife
Though my hand still coloured with henna
Henna on a bride`s hand, as some of you may know, symbolises happiness, and at that time it was part and parcel of a marriage ceremony in most of the Eastern countries.
In such society who wants a woman with the ability to read and write!? Surely she will upset some of the men`s schemes and plans, in defending her rights and demanding their duties. It is no good. Better by far, from the men point`s of view, if she could only " sign " with her thumb print.
However, it is amazing how those women, illiterate themselves but aware of the dawn that was breaking, encouraged their daughters to enrol in the new schools so that they should not suffer the same fate. One woman recalled sadly how she was forced to miss her opportunity. She was nine when the first girls' school opened in her hometown Basra during the First World War. Her father would not allow her to join her younger sister there because, in his view, she was old enough to start preparing herself for marriage - the ultimate destiny for women. For many years, she kept complaining and questioning his motives, still surprised, asking why her father defended the Ottoman empire while they never built any girls' schools in one of the regions major cities at that time, being the only port in Iraq? Those unknown women were eager for their daughters to learn, and soon girls' schools sprang up in all the major towns. It became normal for girls to attend them and they soon forgot the injustices of the past.
It is to the credit of some men of that period that education for girls was accepted with a good grace. The atmosphere of bullying evaporated. After the First World War one could sense a new expectancy in the air. The hope of a liberated independent Iraq in which men would be freed from oppression was at hand, more or less. Openness and respect grew up amongst them, which in turn overflowed towards women.
Girls used to rush home from school in great excitement and tell their mothers what they had learned. They seemed to want to teach their mothers, show them their books and read aloud to them, as if they understood the boredom and emptiness of a life spent in just peering out at the world through " shanasheil " windows . Mothers, for their part, took not only pride but also pleasure in their girls' achievements and humbly and willingly exchanged roles with them, sharing their experiences. When in the thirties, the word PARLIAMENT entered the Iraqi Political dictionary for the first time, and an election was called, women began to think of casting aside their black cloaks called "aba`a" and the word " Sufoor " began to be heard: it means "taking off the veil". In Iraq it took place peacefully and in an orderly fashion, mostly with the support of men.
Some fifty years later, women had cherished their freedom from the harem and their path to what is called, now, in politics "a third way". But suddenly, without warning, we are beginning to hear of a move back towards the past. Why should this ever take place? The pioneer generation of women had died off, leaving their successors bewildered and uncertain. Some of these are becoming frivolous while others are going back into their shells, alas .
On 16 August last year the first Iraqi woman to qualify as a doctor died in an old peoples' home in London, her memory completely gone, suffering from Alzeimer`s disease. Why, in London? We may ask. Why she had been living here for the last 25 years? Big questions indeed. Was her disease a blessing in disguise? Had it freed her from the longing to go back to her homeland where, in the last few years, new decrees have restricted young womens' right to travel alone and allowed men to kill any female relative who might be thought of as staining the family's reputation. In a country, for example, well known for its tyranny, Muslim girls are, now, prevented from attending schools after the age of eight.
What a future beckons, for men and women alike! We are hurrying back to square one, to the dark ages, where women were blamed for every conceivable evil. What's needed, for the picture to be completed, is to burn witches.
Let us hope we do not have to wait for another five centuries before women could, without fear or intimidation, once again make their voices heard. We have to learn the lesson of the past, to say the least.