PHILLIP ROBERTSON. Selected Stories.

June 2005, Bagdhad, Iraq. Iraqi dissident writer and poet Hamid Al Mokhtar in his office at the Writer's union. Al Mokhtar wrote for al Sabah, one of the many newspapers to spring into existence after the fall of the Hussein regime. Hamid Al Mokhtar took us to the Shabandar on Muntanabbi street for the first time, a place that felt like home.
Photo: Asma Waugih

May 1, 2003 | BAGHDAD, Iraq -- We wanted his impressions of the place.

The man, Hamid al Mokhtar, is not a criminal. He is an Iraqi novelist and poet condemned for his writing, and he is a survivor of the vast killing machine set up by the regime. The system he defied by continuing to write was designed to destroy the minds and bodies of those who threatened it, and everyone in Iraq knew this. Other Iraqis spent their lives trying to stay out of its path, or cooperating by selling others out, but Mokhtar devoted himself to writing his novels and poems with very little hope that the regime would ever come to an end. He knew his work would get him in trouble, and it did.

The writer looked out the window of the car as we passed the burned-out shells of vehicles destroyed by the U.S., and when a bird brushed the windshield he caught the moment of the bird's escape with a quick nod. The man watched the bird and remembered its motion. Mokhtar is loved by the writers and artists who remain in Baghdad, and mentioning his name opens doors in this small community of intellectuals, many of them still in shock after the bombing and occupation. On Tuesday, a friend was visiting the national library, which is guarded by a writer who sits in a chair in front of the building. The writer sits there because he wants to protect it from looters. When my colleague mentioned that she knew Mokhtar, the man saluted. In the Arab world a Mokhtar is a village leader, a respected man.

Mokhtar, a slight man with gray eyes and a white-edged beard, is the author of "Al Jemel Bima Hamel," a novel about Iraq under Saddam. The title loosely translates to "The Heavily Burdened Camel," an expression used by Iraqis when they have returned home to find their place looted and stripped bare. At the moment he told us the title of that novel there were people all over Baghdad looting and burning unguarded buildings.

The highway to Abu Ghraib is modern and the ride reminded me of driving in California. Baghdad is a city of 5 million people and it was warm and the air was dry and dusty. It's a graceful city, particularly by the Tigris where there are strands of palms and eucalyptus trees for shade. Just before we left with Hamid al Mokhtar for Abu Ghraib, we had lunch with him in a cafe in a neighborhood called Waziria. In Arabic, wazir means minister. Waziria is the diplomatic district, but it is a place where Baghdad intellectuals congregate, and they are just now returning from exile. Mokhtar too is returning from a kind of exile. In the cool basement of the restaurant, we listened while Mokhtar told us a prison story, which he said was a kind of joke.

There was a guard at Abu Ghraib who was in love, but he had a problem. The guard wanted to write a love letter to his girl. But he did not know how to write a love letter, and knew that if he tried, it would come out all wrong. So Mokhtar agreed when the guard asked him for help. The writer agreed because it was the only way he could get fresh air, so he wrote as many letters as he could for the man. When Mokhtar wrote a love letter, the guard allowed him to walk outside in the exercise yard and breathe air that did not smell like a crowd of men in bad conditions. The guard loved the girl deeply and Mokhtar made sure the letters captured the most intimate details of their life. Mokhtar listened and wrote it all down, with passion. Writers always end up in the love letter trade in prisons.

"The problem," he then told us, "was that during a routine interrogation, and this one was very bad, they covered my eyes and took me to the torture chamber so that I couldn't see who was doing it. It was terrible and I cried. But after a while the blind slipped and I saw that it was the same guard who asked me to write the love letters." Mokhtar said he was amazed that it was the lover who was doing the brutal work.

When Mokhtar told us that the story was a kind of joke, he was laughing at first, not because it was funny, but because it was incomprehensible. When he was talking about the love letters it seemed at first to be a happy memory and the story then dissolved into blackness.

Mokhtar, unlike many of the other inmates at Abu Ghraib, was a political and had already been arrested several times by the mukhabarat in the early '90s. After finding an anti-Saddam manuscript, the police took him to Abu Ghraib after a month-long interrogation and the judgment of the revolutionary court. He was tortured not once, but regularly.

Even inside the prison, the authorities did not trust him, and gave him the bed directly across from a man who worked for the party as a spy. They did not want him to write, although they allowed him to manage the library, which the prisoners were too frightened to use. The men thought that if they checked out a book, the guards would use it as evidence against them. Mokhtar slept during the day to escape the prison and wrote at night using the paper his family brought him when they visited.

Like many dissident writers who do not go into exile, Mokhtar wrote much of his work in secret. Because the censor read all the novels the Iraqi writers bothered to submit for publication, he refused to submit his work. Mokhtar had only one officially published novel in his home country. His other novels were smuggled out and published in Spain and the Netherlands, but he has never seen them in print. When he told us that he'd never seen his novels, he shrugged, but I caught a deep sadness, because he wanted to see them alive in the world. In Europe they were perched on bookshelves, but inside Iraq his novels were circulated secretly among readers, as laser-printer samizdat. Someone would print out an edition from a computer and then use a Xerox machine to make copies. The readers passed the copies around. This is how Mokhtar is famous here, though he never had the benefit of being promoted by a publisher. He told us that his literary heroes are James Joyce, William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf.

In May, 2003, I was traveling with a colleague, the Dutch author Minka Nijhuis, when we arrived at the meeting hall for the Iraqi Writer's Union. A man inside was about to be elected president of the organization, the first time the group had held free elections in a very long time. The man was the Iraqi poet, Hamid Al Mokhtar, and he would be our introduction to the literary culture of Iraq.

Al Mokhtar had spent eight years in prison under Saddam and had been tortured. We returned to Abu Ghraib so he could describe what he witnessed there. Later, when I learned that Abu Ghraib was again being used as a prison by the American forces, I was shocked that the authorities would convert a symbol of the brutality old regime to serve their own purposes. Al Mokhtar said prophetically that it should be torn down, without a brick left standing.

This story originally appeared in

LEAD IMAGE: April, 2003, Baghdad, Iraq. In the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Baghdad was thrown into confusion as members of the old government fled without anyone to replace them. U.S. forces, spread extremely thinly, were given order not to interfere with bands of looters stripping and burning buildings.
Photo: Sion Touhig
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