Salim Matar’s novel (The woman of the Flask) in the The AmericanUniversity 2007


The AmericanUniversity in Kuwait 

The Iraqi Identity and its Effect on Literature

The Woman of the Flask as an Example

By: Mona K. Hussein

To my people;

The victims of horrific ideologies

And false thoughts..


The twentieth century has been a changeable era in different levels in the world, but maybe it’s noticeable for most of us how it has been a very fraught era especially for the third world as a colonized region. Of course, one of those countries is Iraq which had its regime changed three times within one century only; starting up with the English domination symbolized by king Faisal the first, Communists by Abdulkareem Qasem, Ba’athists by the brothers Aref, Ahmed Hassan Al- Baker, and then Saddam Hussein.

I choose here to talk about those changes in the previous century and how it does effect the Iraqi mentality, forma, history, memory, literature, and all sorts of societal and humanized concepts. As an academic student, I don’t want to make any judgments but try to display the most important parts of the Iraqi history politically, sociologically, and literary.

Even though, this paper is presented to be related in most ways to the post-colonial literature, it’s concept, theory, and texts. But I believe, as a student of great Western scholars like Edward W. Said and Hanna Batatu (Palestinian intellectuals), that there’s no way to read literature deeply and differently away from the political and sociological concepts.

It was Said who found a small paragraph in a feminist novel (MansfieldPark) by Jane Austen from the nineteenth century which has a small referring to the slavery trade and English empire’s ideas. This finding made the western universities go back to Austen’s novel and try to discover more details about the English history through literature as a documenting tool. (See: Said, Edward W. Culture and imperialism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994).

I focus in the second part of the paper on Salim Matar’s novel (The woman of the Flask) that was translated to English by the American University of Cairo just recently and it has been a very often discussed topic in the Arabic cultural amidst not as an Iraqi novel that reflects an Iraqi way of thinking but as an imaginative modern piece. This novel in specific tries to read the Iraqi humans’ history with all its changes and says what most of Iraqis say: “We are Iraqis. We go back to the Sumerians, Assyrians, Acadians, Babylonians, etc..

The Iraqi case has been always a complicated issue that can not be defined easily and because of the multi cultures, ethnicities, nations, languages, religions and sects, you can't argue or discuss the Iraqi nation without relating it to all the mentioned aspects. That's why I'm trying to point out some important periods in the Iraqi history and analyze it through an Iraqi literature piece.

“History is an endless argument”(Geyl 126) but just trying to involve in this infinite argument is better than nothing. Frankly, I’m just trying in this paper to present my Iraqi nation in two parts; the historical one and the literary one that is effected by the first part at the first level.

With the importance of mentioning that I tried my best to be as adjective as possible: “And even if my feelings always stand beside the poor and weak people in an obvious way, but I never tried to overset the facts according to my feelings, at least, not in a conscious way”(Batatu 37).

The 1st part:

The Political and Sociological history of Iraq

v The Monarchy:

Although the Iraqi historians confess that the English colonizer had offered a lot of positive things for the Iraqi society starting from theatre and cinema and ending up with the trains but that wasn’t enough for the Iraqis at that time because the English colonizer chose to keep the good things he brought to his ‘mollycoddle colony’ for just specific people; the non Iraqi king, Sunnis, Jews, soldiers and officers. All the English tries to develop Iraq was mainly focused on the oil regions; that’s why we see theatres and cinemas in areas like Baghdad as the capital and the city of the highest percentage of Jewish population in Iraq and Basra as one of the very wealthy areas of oil in Iraq. And that’s why we see these two cities more modernized and developed than the other ones. Which means that the English colonizer wasn’t really better than the Ottoman one (Maybe he was more peaceful or more diplomatic) and he wasn’t really looking after the comfort of its ‘mollycoddle colony’!

That’s why Shi’ites in Iraq were one of the main reasons of the success of Iraqi revolution (The 20’s revolution as Iraqis called it). They have been discriminated by the English colonizer and the monarchy even though King Faisal once mentioned in his diaries that it annoys him when he hears people saying: “the death for Shi’ites, the hunger for Shi’ites, but the jobs for Sunnis” and he tried as much as he can to make Shi’ites have a good life in Iraq when he was ruling Iraq but that was out of his hand because as long as most of Shi’ites are poor, Britain will never find an importance for those people.

Afterward, the history changed and the Shi’ites had the chance to be part of the Iraqi society and its different classes not only as a bunch of poor farmers but also as an economic and political power.

Among the first thirty years of the last century, Jews were the highest population in Baghdad and they were the ones who took control over the Iraqi market. Also, they established a new Iraqi music at that time after they kept the secrets of Iraqi Maqams for a long time without teaching them to any not trusted person. They established all the show places for music and dancing. They moved many western ideas or styles to the streets of Baghdad and broke the red lines of not allowing women to sing at night clubs for example or the bad look toward those who want to play music all the time and work in it professionally which is not an acceptable thing in the Iraqi society back then; they just think that a Musician doesn’t really know how to make money by a ‘noble’ job, that’s why he chose to sing! But that wasn’t the case after what the Iraqi Jews did; they formatted the whole Iraqi mentality in several years with the help of their money and the English colonizer. Then, Baghdad started having most of its women wearing short skirts without being criticized, finishing their higher studies abroad, and participating in the whole social and political life.

It doesn’t really matter if the Jews were doing that just for their own benefit but what all Iraqis believe in is that Iraqi Jewish community has been always a quite one which didn’t have that much of political power because that was for the Sunnis more than anyone else. It’s a local community that has its finger stamps on the Iraqi history and the process of the Human development even if Iraq lost most of them after they immigrated to Israel or forced to (That’s still debatable).

Then, the immigration of Iraqi Jews gave the chance for the Shi’ites to take control over trading and they proved their goodness in that. For sure, that was annoying Sunnis at the beginning but afterward the unity of Sunnis and Shi’ites to fight against the English enemy made them focus on one aim.

Hanna Batatu talked in his book “Shi’ites of Iraq” about that in details and he explained how the Shi’ites weren’t really trying to identify themselves as Shi’ites even though they have been discriminated because of their sect, but they just didn’t have this actual conscious of the religious identity. At that time, they didn’t have any type of organized religious movements which aim to educate people and conscript them for specific reasons. The domination of Mullahs was serving the seigneurs who were serving the monarchy and it’s colonizer. And after all that was just a try to classify the Iraqi society and take it apart: “Traders were being classified not only ethnically (Arabs, Kurds, Turkmans, Aramaeans, and Armenians) but also according to their classes and their fortune” (Batatu 11)

“The monarchy tried to classify the Iraqi society in the following way: Religiously, Muslims over Christians, Jews, and Sabians. Sectarialy, Sunnis over Shi’ites. Ethnically, gorgonians and Turks over Arabs, Kurds, and Persians. And socially, pashas first, head officers, Sufi and Sunni leaders, then traders”. (18)

Politically, the Shi’ites never had any effect on the power itself, they had some times were they were able to express their voices but the actual presidential power has never been Shi’ite among the last century. Maybe Qasem was their favorite one because his mother was a Shi’ite Kurdish (Akrad Filia – which means a Shi’ite Kurd who immigrated to the south or the capital because of their sect and they can speak Arabic but many of them can speak none of the four Kurdish main languages because they are more ‘Arabized’).

Moreover, we need to have a look at the social classes during the time of monarchy away from Baghdad. We will see that the other parts of Iraq were under the domination of tribes and Mullahs. During the monarchy time, Belonging to Arabic roots especially in the country-sides was a very important thing and many of the tribes were using it to get power and fortune. Actually, tribes (as a very Arab thing that the Arab history was built on) were used in a way that kept the Iraqi farmers and tribes’ individuals away from civilization and close to the abuse of colonizer, monarchy, seigneurs, Mullahs, traders and Sheikhs of tribes.

Arab Nationalism reached Iraq at that time especially during and after the second world war and the Iraqi Arab Nationalists were supporting Germany because they had the same hate for U.K and its supporting for Israel. Those Arab nationalists encouraged Germany to kill the Jews and they asked all Iraqis to kill the Iraqi Jews. One of them was called Rashed Ali Al- Kilani who made a revolution that lasted for months and then failed against the English. And he cooperated in making holocausts against Kurds, Assyrians, Communists, and Jews. He was one of those Arab extremists who wanted to keep just the Arabs and Sunnis in Iraq.

At the time of Iraqi monarchy, you can conclude that the Iraqi identity seems confused. It suffer from discrimination according to the sects, religions, ethnicities, and classes. People were having many inside wars with the other Iraqi on a side and with the colonizer and its presenter (The king) on the other side.

v The Republic of Iraq:

After the fall down of the monarchy, Abdulkareem Qasem raised as a communist leader who was one of the main organizers of the Iraqi communist party that many of the historians clarified how it contained many of the low and middle classes including the Shi’ites, the farmers, and the small traders. Qasem’s time awaken the strength of Sunni domination over Iraq and its capital in specific. Even though he was a Sunni and from a Shi’ite Kurdish mother, Qasem never stood beside one of the sects and the strength he gave to the Shi’ites was because of his ambition to offer a better life for the poor people who the majority of them were Shi’ites. (See: Trip, Charles. A History of Iraq. Cambridge, Polity press, 2000).

Being an Iraqi despite your sect was a very annoying thing in Qasem for the Arab nationalists (Nasirians and Ba’athists). He tried his best to make the non- Arab nationalist Iraqis take the higher positions in Iraq and even though his period wasn’t clear from suffocating times but overall it was the era of liberality, ideological variety and productivity ever in Iraq throughout the last century. (See: Zubaida, Sami. “Community, Class & Minorities in Iraq Politics; The Iraq Revolution of 1958” I.B Tauris, London 1998).

In 1963, Ba’athists came to power after assassinating Qasem on TV and started offensives of killing the heads of communist party till they reached the stage by the time of Ahmed Hassan Al-baker (who’s one of Saddam’s relatives) where they killed anyone who had any of Karl Marx’s books for example. “Ba’athists came to power with an American support that was afraid from a strong communist Iraq, and when they started killing, they never had enough. They worked on strengthen Sunni power in Iraq based on the system of the Arab tribe and deleting all what Qasem did for the Iraqis in offering jobs despite your religion, sect, or ethnicity and other adjustments Qasem worked on. They started another era of terror”. (Zubaida 209)

Then, Saddam showed up. He was different than the Ba’athist presidents before him, he was more intelligent. Saddam came back to Iraq with the help of his uncle and the president before Ahmed Hassan Al- Baker. Many Iraqis think that Saddam forced Al- Baker to sign that he doesn’t want to be a president anymore, so Saddam can take his presidential position. Before that, Saddam was in exile in Syria after he tried with some Ba’athists to assassinate Abdulkareem Qasem who later on has forgiven them and decided not to prosecute them.

Saddam was more influenced by the System of the Arab tribe. He belongs to one of the Northern Arab tribes that came from Najd to Iraq centuries ago. They are too proud of themselves to be able to accept other ethnicities, religions, and sect. Ba’athists at Saddam’s time didn’t hesitate to state their hate toward Shi’ites, Kurds, Persians, and Jews. It’s not a new thing for anyone that the discriminative forma of Saddam was shown by his holocausts done against Shi’ites and Kurds.

When you look at Saddam’s political family, you will discover that most of the close people to him are from his own tribe or Northern Arab tribes even though he later on tried to pretend that he’s the grandson of prophet Mohammed or Imam Ali (Sayd) which is a very annoying thing for Shi’ites or his try to include a Kurdish minister and another Christian just to apply the Ba’athist ideas about one Arab nation despite your religion.

The Iraqi Republic seems to give us an impression that there’s kind of a one Iraqi identity. For sure it’s an identity that includes different people from different aspects, but at least the Iraqi society parts are more attached to each other and the regional dividing no longer exists. It was the time of establishment of Iraqi identity probably because the Iraqi war became just an inside war between parties at the first level and sects in an invisible way.

v Kurds:

The Kurds as a nation is a very debatable concept for many historians and politicians. Because of the complication of Kurds and their contain of different religious and ethnical groups, I see that maybe I have to clarify part of the Kurdish image which many of us don’t know. Beside the issue of an independent Kurdish country being discussed repeatedly by the media, scholars, and people.

The historians never agreed on one definition for the Kurdish nation. Some of them refused to consider the Kurds as one nation because of several reasons. Some of those reasons are the absence of one Kurdish language because all those who are being considered as Kurds according to the modern history came from different places and have different religions. That’s why there are more than four Kurdish languages at least (Karmanjia, Soraniya, Thathaiya, and Koraniya) and there are about seven religions (Islam with its two sects, Christianity, Judaism, Alawites, Kakaiya, Yazidia, and Zoroastrian).

And as the Kurds were discriminated by Arabs (Ba’athists sent the Kurds Filis ‘the Shi’ite Kurds’ to Iran in 1969 describing them as ‘non Iraqis’ because they are actually double cursed of being Kurdish and Shi’ite!), Turks, and Persians. But Kurds actually participated in the Holocausts against the Armenians in Turkey (1914-1915) and against the Assyrians in Iraq (Even though, the new definition of Assyrians refer to them as Kurdish Christians).

What makes a nation according to the British Sociologist Antony D. Smith is “Belonging to an ethnicity that has between its individuals common myths about its origin, that are related to a specific land, it has some common cultural specifications, and shared belonging feelings and cooperation between its individuals” (Smith 253)

Or maybe it’s what Stalin claimed the nation to be: “it has a common history, language, land, economical life, and culture that expresses the spirit of the nation”. Which made Stalin hesitate and not cooperate with the Kurds in helping them to make their independency because they don’t actually have one language, ethnicity, or economical life.

Kurds are part of the Iraqi identity even if we will or will not consider them as a nation because they have been always part of a conflict going on in Iraq like the conflicts with Arab nationalists, Ba’athists, and Sunnis. The Iraq conflicts here can defined (as I believe) as the main thing to identify the Iraqi Identity. It’s the real soul of Iraqi Identity.

The 2nd part: 

The Woman f the Flask

v Introduction:

Literary, Iraqi texts have been very influenced by the different societal aspects that create their identity. They have been influenced by ideologies, religious beliefs, and political changes. That's why the Iraqi literature is being categorized as a war literature; it's a literature that is more likely to bring up the issue of death, sadness, failed love, and nostalgia inside a war story.

In the 1960’s, the Iraqi novel in particular changed a lot due to the new translated texts. It started to leave the shallowness and the classical romantic way of writing prose. It started to follow the western style especially the Russian, English, and Latin American styles. It's true that following those styles became to the extend where the Iraqi novel turned to be just another versions of some translated novels. Also, it affected the sense of Iraqi identity being explored through literature.

However, I find another positive side to that. The fact that Iraqi literature is being so influenced by the western style of writing prose has a lot to do with the Iraqi identity. The novels that were being translated to the Iraqi readers were documenting the very sensitive period of time from the western histories especially the war periods. That way the Iraqi reader and writer found his identity being displayed similarly by other literatures in a very creative way. Following those translated novels seemed to him as the right way to write about the relationship between the Iraqi person and war.

In comparison with the Iraqi poets, there were a few Iraqi novelists before the 60's and 70's. The Iraqi environment itself and the society are more likely to have poets more than writers because poetry is being used in the daily language in Iraq and it's always part of their memory and historical stories. Poetry in Iraq is the most documented tool of history.

By the 60's and 70's, Iraqi novel started to establish itself and be more and more related to the daily reality. It has been always an imaginative novel or a political novel and rarely an imaginative political humanized novel. But in the 80's, due to the Iraqi- Iranian war, the Iraqi novel was focusing on the first level in war details. It started to create its own shape as a mirror of Iraqi reality, identity, life, people, and history.

Some of the writers tried to write novels that belong to the global creativity, away from the Iraqi experience with war because they believed that war is a threat to humanity. Others preferred to examine the conflict between the people and war in Iraq because it seems to them more real and faithful.

One of those writers is Salim Matar who was born in Baghdad 1956, left Iraq in 1978, and studied sociology in France in 1981. He published his first novel "The woman of the Flask" in 1990 that got a lot of positive criticism from the Arab writers and was awarded with “The Critic Prize”. He also writes about the issues of Iraqi and Kurdish identities in the modern history.

v The First Part:

In his novel, Matar tries to set the Iraqi human as the child of old civilizations; the child of Sumerian Goddesses. It may seem as a very imaginative and poetic novel but deep inside, it's a very intelligent novel that talks about war and how does it affect the people and their ways in identifying themselves.

At the beginning of the novel, the narrator tries to clarify some points to us. He says that he didn't create up this story and that he just got it in a flask from a girl works in one of the bars in Geneva (where the writer lives now). Before that, he presented himself as an Iraqi who was a soldier in Iraq and has always dreamed of escaping to Europe.

The first part of the novel seems to talk about the pain of war more than anything else in a very frank way. He was describing the seven years he spent in the battle and his seven tries to escape that just the seventh one of them worked out:

Suddenly, I found myself being moved from the battle to a city I didn't know although I've heard and read about it. I was simply spending my seventh year in the war since the first month of the war in 1981 when they caught me and covered me with a war suit. They trained my hand to use the weapon and then they put me in a truck with some men who look like me. They threw us in the marshes and told us: “This is the homeland of your great grandfathers, dig your positions in it, and if you escaped we will get you back here again, but as corpses” (Matar 8).

Here, the writer tries to show how the Iraqi machine of war works out. It's a harsh machine that tries to teach people that the war means protecting your heritage, your honor, and your identity; if you didn't fight, you are not an Iraqi and you deserve death.

This harsh reality under war left the people with nothing except the dreams of escape. It imaged the west or the exile as the heaven for them because anywhere is better than the place of war and death:

Europe has become my hero and my promised land. Even its torments seemed to me different than the torments of the East; its starving, homelessness, discrimination, and misery were easier to accept than the ones in my country. (9)

This part of the novel in particular gives a lot of details about the way the Ba'athist regime deals with those who prefer life over war and death. It gives a whole image about this time of terror:

Among the seven years of war I tried to escape seven times. Six of them failed and the last one moved me to Geneva. It was not actually a try to escape as a much as it was an assembly in anonymous tunnels. And if I'm lucky because I could escape from the war, I consider myself luckier that I wasn't executed for my six tries to escape with the thousands of soldiers who were tortured, killed, and hanged up on the doors of their families after forcing their families to pay for the shots that killed their sons (9).

What was really amazing in this novel and its way in dealing with the theme of war is the definition of being patriotic that the narrator talked about. To him, being patriotic doesn't mean that he needs to fight and die; his survival means the survival of his country:

Should my soul be crushed and cut into pieces so the respectful politicians can sit around a table to divide some kilometers on the borders that are dyed with the blood of millions of desperate souls? And do you guarantee to me that those politicians after dividing the kilometers will negotiate God to get my life back that was crushed by their tanks and bombs? (9).

That seemed as a very interesting monologue between man and war; this suffering from trying to define the self, otherness, and harsh death. It's a try to destroy a whole heritage of war speeches which encourage people to die in order to be heroes and to prove that he is a patriotic who loves his country.

Finally, he escaped with two friends. One of them got a shot by the 'enemy' saying: "It's Ok. This is my destiny. It's Ok". And the other one fall dead on the narrator which made the narrator drink his spoiled blood:

I was screaming and thinking of nothing but one thing: how to get my friend's blood out of my viscera. I drank his blood while he was dieing! I felt nothing and I didn't even care about the sound of bombs and tanks. I just ran and ran and spit, I even spit my blood.

Then, the writer moves from the war to talk about Iraq as a big theme; Iraq as the history of human and humanity, all those myths about the creation of human, Goddesses, prophets, etc.. This description of the Iraqi people has been repeated many times throughout the novel, starting from the Sumerian goddesses and the myth of Gilgamesh and ending up with the modern Iraq: "They are adulterers who didn't distinguish between a lover, a sister, or a mother which made God curse them and turn them to stone (11)". Here, he was using the sculpture of woman whom the narrator saw in the war as a metaphor to the creation of Iraqi nation; how this nation became cursed and why.

In a way, the writer was trying to say that the Iraqi nation was killed by joy or its passion of life using the ancient myths about all those who were cursed because they loved their sisters or had sex with their mothers etc.. It's a very repeated idea about the Iraqi nation that it's not a good nation with good worshippers who made God angry several times and that's why the Iraqi history is bloody and all the rest of it. Iraq to the writer is: "Kurds, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Yazidians, Atheists, shepherds, farmers, soldiers, and Academicians in a very obdurate nature with snow, diseases, bombs, bombers, and secret conspiracies (21)."

v The Second Part:

By the second part, the writer starts to present the story of the woman of the flask; the story that he got from the irrigator. It’s the story that amazed him and reminded him of the beauty of his country. He first introduces his friend Adam that was with him since they were Childs and who looks different than him where Adam is the mind and he is the body and the joy. It looks so much like the myth of Gilgamesh; those two companions who were looking for the plant of eternity and one of them was symbolizing the mind and the other was symbolizing the body.

The whole novel here turns to be 'a fairy tale' when Adam discovers the woman of the Flask who's a Sumerian beautiful woman who lived in the Flask for millions of years and met a lot of people from different times and regions. He was amazed when he saw her getting out of the flask; a very beautiful woman that meant to him the sexual joy and the identity at the same time.

When they became closer and closer the woman was telling him the stories of his great grandfathers and how did she get in the flask. She made him happy after he escaped from Iraq and saw all his dreams failing; the dreams of a real revolution.

The writer didn't want to write about politics and the changeable political Iraqi situation in a direct way but he used the stories of the woman to say that. For example, she once was telling Adam about one of the kings she had a relationship with, saying:

He wanted to be the king so he killed his three brothers. The first one he killed him and said that he died in the war fighting the enemy. And the second was poisoned by one of the woman he sent her to kill his brother. And the third became insane after the king convinced the goddess of water to take his brother’s lover away from him. (54)

It's a whole story that symbolizes the game of power; a game that was played many times in the history of Iraq. Saddam precisely did that. He killed his uncle – The previous ruler- his sons in law, his uncles, and his brothers just for the power: “He sent the wind of death to Sumer (Iraq), and killed millions and millions of people. Some of them survived and lived either in the marshes or in the deserts (55)”.

This novel is not examining one theme. It’s about the Iraqi identity on a side and Europe, love, woman, and this relationship between the east and west on the other hand. This transformation between the East and West by itself is a whole different theme. It explores the Iraqis as Easterners displaying the west. The west for the Iraqis who suffered from the war and Saddam regime is always better than nothing; it’s the dreamland where the beautiful blondes live and the government takes care of you because you are a refugee and a victim of a dictatorship. That’s surely not my opinion but it’s the opinion of most of Iraqis. Europe or the West to Iraqis is either a very liberal and free country to the extend where the Easterners can meet pretty girls and have sex with them without the need of marriage or it’s the place of freedom of speech and individuality; the shelter of those who suffered from all different types of discrimination and pain.

Although the west seems interesting and safe for those Easterners but they aren’t able yet to live in it. They deal with it as a strange region that they will not spend their lives in although they feel hopeless about the future of their country. It's this sense of home that shapes the lives of Iraqis who had to leave their countries running from war or execution.

What I can say about this novel as a final note is that it’s a very humanized novel that starts up with the suffering of Iraqi people because of the war and dictatorship, and turns to be a love and erotic story that has inside it the whole history of Iraq symbolized in short poetic myths and fairy tales.


Said, Edward W. Culture and imperialism New York: Vintage Books, 1994 

Trip, Charles. A History of Iraq. Cambridge, Polity press, 2000 

Zubaida, Sami. Community, Class & Minorities in Iraq Politics; The Iraq Revolution of 

1958 I.B Tauris, London 1998 

Batatu, Hanna. The Old Social Classes & The Revolutionary Movement In Iraq. London: 

Saqi Books, 2004. 

Lowith, Karl. Max Weber and Karl Marx. London: Routledge, 1993 

Geyl, Pieter. Pattern of the Past. London: Greenwood Press. 2001