The Iraqi author Haifa Zangana: writing lends a voice to the displaced

The Iraqi author Haifa Zangana says writing about her experiences helps sort her feelings and lends a voice to those who have been displaced.

London – 24 January 2011 – Iraqi author Haifa Zangana photographed at her North London home. (Matt Crossick/The National)
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The nightmares haunted her for more than a decade. In one, Haifa Zangana found herself endlessly signing confessions in a claustrophobic room with an ever-smiling torturer.

In another, she was stuck in a house crammed with relatives but unable to make her way over to her mother and father to tell them she loved them.

In a third, she wandered the streets of her decrepit, rundown home city of Baghdad, dust covering the buildings and parks she knew and loved so well.

So Zangana began to write. Excruciating, agonising memories she had long tried to bury exorcised themselves in page after page of scrawled recollections of being tortured and imprisoned as an opponent of Saddam Hussein's Baath regime.

It took her eight years to complete Dreaming of Baghdad, the first of many books exploring her role as a woman and a radical activist in Iraq's oppressive system and more recently, objecting to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

"I wrote this book ... when I had persistent nightmares about my past," she says in the prologue. "I wrote it at a time when I didn't want or wasn't able to deal with memories of what had happened to me in prison. I wrote it while I was living in exile, missing my family terribly, believing I would never return to live in Baghdad again."

Nearly four decades on from her imprisonment, she is still living in London with her mathematician husband and 33-year-old daughter, but Zangana, now aged 60, is preoccupied with one thought: when she will be able to return home.

Her house is filled with books, rich tapestries and artwork reminding her of her roots. She writes to recall, weaving sepia-tinted, nostalgic memories of places such as Zino, the village on the Iran-Iraq border she used to visit as a child, in between the horror.

"We would like to go back if there is some kind of light at the end of the tunnel," she sighs. "After 2003 my husband and I went immediately to Baghdad. He had a heart attack there so we came back. I visited again alone three years ago and stayed more than a month. I just decided this is where I belong and again things got out of hand and I had to leave. I chose the worst time and targeting of people was an almost daily event. Because I write and I am well-known, it is dangerous on a personal level. It is getting more difficult to go back and settle."

But Zangana, who will appear on a panel of women writers from the Middle East at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair on March 19, spent years weighed down by constant feelings of guilt; guilt that she survived when her communist comrades were executed back in the 1970s; guilt about leaving Iraq; and guilt about abandoning her family.

"I lived with guilt for far too many years but not anymore," she says. "When I was a young woman in Iraq and imprisoned and my group was executed but I survived and left the country, many people died in the war. I was feeling guilty all the time as if being alive was something to feel guilty about. I don't think I have the same feeling any more. Whatever Iraqis suffer, you suffer.

"Sometimes they advise you to stay where you are because you are doing a good job, because you are giving a voice to the voiceless, which makes you reduce your feeling of guilt from being away.

"Iraqi people appreciate whatever you are doing, wherever you are. People say: 'We want you alive, you are no use dead.'

"You are relating to your people all the time, whether through writing or painting. People inside Iraq don't have the freedom or the capabilities to voice something as an activist on behalf of people in detention or victims of human rights issues, so it is up to those of us who can to speak out."

Today, Zangana is as outspoken as ever but her rage is directed towards the perpetrators of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent "puppet government": "As we resist the occupation now, our message is clear: we did not struggle for decades to replace one torturer with another."

The daughter of a Kurdish father and an Iraqi mother, Zangana, born in Baghdad in 1950 and one of nine siblings, grew up surrounded by politics. Her father was a communist and at the age of 16, Zangana joined a union of radical Iraqi students.

As she became more embroiled in a subversive communist faction, her parents urged her to reconsider: "My father was extremely worried. A few years earlier he had given up any political activity and became a Kurdish national instead. He gave me a clear picture of what I was supposed to expect if I was arrested. The warnings were frightening but I said I was continuing what I was doing.

"At that time, everything was indicating that the Baath regime was a fascist party so I joined a faction of young people, who represented socialism with democracy, everything we thought we were missing. My mother did not say much but whatever I did, she would be in tears and one time, she begged me to give up. She said it was going to lead us into trouble and was worried about the whole family being affected but I was a stubborn woman."

Zangana lived at home but spent days away from her family on Iraqi Communist Party assignments, visiting bases in Nawchilican in northern Iraq and training in the south of the country as a fighter and transporting weapons.

"The Seventies were great," she says. "It was a time when we had the liberation movement, a time of hope and aspirations. You felt if you took part in this movement you were taking part in changing things. We were full of hopes. I was not unique. Most people were involved politically, it was part of daily life. You could not lie back and rest."

Her arrest at the age of 20 by the Iraqi secret intelligence was unexpected. Caught off guard on a trip home, she spent six months in three prisons being repeatedly beaten and interrogated.

But as the only female political prisoner she received leniency and escaped the fate of most of her young comrades - confessions extracted through torture, followed by a swift execution - because her uncle was working as one of Saddam's bodyguards.

"Dreaming of Baghdad is part of our collective memory," she says. "It was very important to document that part for the group of people involved and was very painful to write. When I had the time in the 1980s to look back at what happened in the early 1970s, even then it was really painful. I spent more than a decade trying to bury it. I wanted to come to terms and seek to forget.

"I thought, this is an important part, not just of my life, but of the group of people I was involved with. It was an important experience as a woman. For a few years I was the only one. Some people suggested while I was writing the chapters that it was going to help me on a personal level as a kind of therapy."

On her release, she had to report to security forces on a monthly basis and was still frequently hauled in to be interrogated whenever there was a fresh arrest of an activist.

Zangana returned to her studies and graduated from the Baghdad School of Pharmacy in 1974, then embarked on a doctorate, but under pressure from her family, who felt she was becoming a liability, she decided to leave Iraq.

She took a post as head of the medical department of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Beirut in 1975, then moved to London a year later. Even then, it took her a long time to find peace.

She wrote: "The city's doors are open wide. And yet, after 10 years, I am still hesitant to enter. I miss the past. I feel unfulfilled by my body, with wounds deeper than scars can reveal. At night, I wake in fear, surrounded by blood and my friends' faces."

She often describes her experiences in the third person, as if to somehow remove herself from the memory. They are interspersed with the abstract art she paints to again distance herself from recollections too painful to delve into and the stories of others, such as in her book Women on a Journey: Between Baghdad and London, which tells of the atrocities, violence and emotional wounds inflicted on ordinary displaced Iraqis.

In her latest book, The Torturer in the Mirror, Zangana is one of three essayists deploring the use of torture for its insidious effect on both victim and practitioner.

As she heads for what should be her golden years, the author and artist shows no sign of resting on her laurels and often gives lectures to a younger generation, whose heads are filled with romantic notions of their homeland.

"It seems they have a different perspective of what is happening but they still feel attached, even if they have never visited," she says. "These links are important, whether they are through Facebook or Twitter. My daughter was born in London but says she is an Iraqi. They can contribute in a way when you seek international support. You don't have to be an Iraqi or a Palestinian to feel the injustice.

"I have been very vocal. The injustice of the 2003 invasion was so clear and the destruction of Iraq is complete. I do not feel I am a hero like Nelson Mandela but I am also not a victim. It was my choice to be involved; we all have a responsibility.

"I chose to struggle and chose the means. I feel I am writing about myself, my heart, every issue I care about, it is the air I breathe. Everything I care about is Iraq."

Haifa Zangana will appear at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair on March 19 at 6.30pm. The fair runs from March 15 to 20 at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.

Five other celebrated female writers from the Arab world

SUSAN ABULHAWA The former journalist of Palestinian descent wrote Mornings in Jenin, praised by The Sunday Times for its "poetic prose", and is the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, a non-governmental organisation campaigning for children's play areas in Palestine and in refugee camps in Lebanon.

MAY ZIADE Deemed a "pioneer of Oriental feminism", she was born in Nazareth in 1886 and established a literary salon in Egypt in 1912 for fellow female poets and intellectuals. She wrote essays, poetry, critiques and novels, many about the emancipation of Arab women, and translated books from European languages into Arabic, including works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

DR NAWAL EL SAADAWI The 80-year-old outspoken feminist author from Egypt has written more than 40 fiction and non-fiction books on the role of women in Islam. A trained doctor, she is a vocal campaigner against female circumcision and is the author of Woman at Point Zero and the autobiographical A Daughter of Isis.

HODA BARAKAT The controversial Beirut-born author uses the Lebanese civil war as the backdrop to many of her works. Hajar al-Dahik, or The Stone of Laughter, was awarded the Al Naqid prize while Harit al-Miyah (The Tiller of Waters) won the 2000 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.

SUHEIR HAMMAD The award-winning poet, playwright and novelist was born in Jordan and taken to New York by her Palestinian refugee parents at the age of five, but was so influenced by their tales as she was growing up that dispossession and the struggle of immigration are now common threads running through her work.