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Contempt: State Literati vs. Street Literati in Modern Iraq

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AbstractThe standard narrative of modern Iraqi culture posits a reciprocal exchange of contempt between Iraqi state literati and anti-state literati. Several literary critics tell us that for decades this contempt has redounded to the ideological polarization of the Iraqi literary corpus, diminishing the number of independent intellectuals. This essay takes up key debates in the Iraqi literary scene, charting the Hashemite monarchy, Qāsim regime, Bath dictatorship, embargo years, and post-2003 occupation, and in so doing retraces the multiple ideological schisms and fractious state-writer relationships. Considering the history of contempt in Iraqi culture and literature today, the essay sheds light on the emergence of civic society in Iraq, dynamics within the public sphere, and the role of state ideology in cultural projects. It interrogates the ideology of “freedom” and its correlate “commitment” in the literary scene and their proliferating discourses in light of past and present political unrest in Iraq. Under the broad rubric of the “art of freedom,” and its correlate “modernity,” which have been the quest of generations of Iraqi intellectuals despite the interruptions of despots, this study examines some current impasses that have augmented the blatant exchange of contempt among Iraq’s literati. These impasses include the discrepancy between conceptual freedom and freedom as a cultural or political practice, sectarian discourses, media, and self-censorship. Examining the role of conceptual freedom and contempt in literary production also necessarily invites the discussion of the binary shape of contemporary Iraqi literature contestably as a product of “inside” and “outside” sensibilities and cultures.

Affiliations: 1: Portland State University, URL:


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