Iraqi-American author Layla Qasrany reflects on Iraqi and American “Angel” cities, and the difficulties of writing Iraqi stories:
There are countless stories that need to be written since the fall of Saddam in 2003: There was the absurd eight-year war with Iran, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the attack on the Shi’ite cities in the same year, the displacement of Assyrian and Kurd people from their villages and the bombing of old churches that go back to the early Christian century. It’s necessary to tell stories of the years of famine, the killing and the mass murders; all that, worth documenting, is worth documenting badly. It is the duty of the writers.
But the time is passing and I just wonder, where are they, the stories and their tellers?
Perhaps the writer is still under shock, while still trying to either survive in the struggles of the daily life in an unsecure country, or he or she is busy trying to make ends meet in the Diasporas. Living under the brutality of the Ba’ath party that controlled our daily life in all its details was a challenge. It was something that no other nation experienced except perhaps the North Korea of today. Saddam’s gang put their hands on everything: arts, curriculum books, history, and of course the media. They disrupted radio stations, such as the broadcast of Voice of America in Arabic, not to mention controlling television station.
In the early 80’s, an FM station was installed in Iraq and it broadcasted the best from the classic songs and the big hits back them. But even the songs were under scrutiny, and the famous Bahamanian band, Boney M, had their songs banned by the Ba’athists because of their famous Psalm/ song, “By the Rivers of Babylon.”
During the years of Saddam’s ruling, there was only one television station that was strictly controlled by the Ba’athists. First thing the Iraqis did after the fall of Saddam nearly ten years ago was to have sattelite stations. Today, there are more than fifty stations, far exceeding the number of such stations in any other Arab country.
Back in the 80’s, as I was still living in Iraq, each week my siblings and I looked forward for Sunday nights and Wednesday nights — for those were the foreign movie nights. Even if Saddam strived to make the west look immoral and unjust, for us it was simply a way of entertaining, and a form of getting to know the West.
The films were carefully censored by the Ba’ath party members who controlled the television stations. Most of the films broadcast on the sole channel were Hollywood films; very seldom we would watch a European films by Fellini or a good French one. The end of “The D. H. Lawrence “The Virgin and the Gypsy” is still a mystery for me, for it was censored and was cut at the end (perhaps rated as restricted!). To know the ending of the “Virgin and the Gypsy”, I might have to see this masterpiece of Franco Nero or read the book, whichever comes first!
The American films were picked carefully. Most of the time a movie was played more than once in a short period of time for a propaganda purposes. This what happened with Angel City, an American television film (1980) starring Arnold Waite. The film is about a poor family that moves to Florida to work in a cucumber farm. Later, they encountered challenges such as the rape of the teenage daughter. The family soon finds there is no way out. It’s an ideal film to be easy translated as if there were no justice, no mercy, and no freedom.
I kind of liked to watch this film, even if it was a depressing one; something reminds you of the John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath. Today, I live in the States, and I’ve seen for myself the real Angel City of America, and still laugh, or sometimes cry, when I think of the Iraqi “Angel City” of Saddam!
I’m sure there are lots of anecdotes waiting to be told. What’s so sad is that such a story might seem very outdated in the day and age where the sectarian conflicts have overshadowed the years of Saddam’s ruling and a notorious tyrant is no longer seen as a common enemy.
Layla Qasrany an Iraqi-American writer who published her first novel in Arabic (Sahdoutha) in 2011.