Return to Ruin
Iraqi Narratives of Exile and Nostalgia
Zainab Saleh



The past loomed large when I was growing up under Saddam Hussein’s regime. My mother reminisced about the social and political landscape under the monarchy (1921–1958) quite often, and she would contrast that landscape with the status quo under Hussein’s reign. These reminiscences were sometimes nostalgic, sometimes contradictory. On the one hand, they revolved around the social and political vibrancy that dominated the Iraqi street between the late 1940s and early 1960s. On the other hand, they touched on the abject poverty in Iraqi society and the persecution and precarity that her family endured due to its political activism. My parents belonged to a generation that was deeply attuned to anticolonial struggles and social inequalities. They each joined the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) at an early age, in the late 1940s or early 1950s. My mother, especially, talked about her clandestine activism—since the ICP was banned under the monarchy—and the protests in which she participated in 1948 and 1952 against different Iraqi governments, which were seen as corrupt and beholden to British interests in Iraq.

My mother talked about how Al-Wathba—or “The Leap,” a series of protests in 1948 against the Portsmouth Treaty, which tied Iraq closely to Britain and grew to include different sectors of the society—defined her political outlook. She was only thirteen at the time, and she marched with middle school, high school, and college students to protest the treaty. She remembered details about where the march started and ended, how the police opened fire on the protesters, and how the massive protests led to the resignation of the prime minister. My mother cherished the memories of Al-Wathba for the anticolonial momentum and sense of camaraderie it engendered. She felt she was part of a political event in which the Iraqi people, rather than a colonial power or state, would shape the future of Iraq. The Iraqi people rose against—leaped against—the colonial status quo and forced the government to fold and annul the treaty.

I am more familiar with the history of my mother’s family, especially her and her father’s activism. My mother often spoke about how the monarchy persecuted her father due to his critical articles on the ruling class as well as his close contacts with the Iraqi Communist Party. My grandfather had a big influence on his children, in particular my mother, who joined the ICP at the age of sixteen. Predictably, my grandfather’s political views landed him in jail many times. As a result, he was often fired from his position as an Arabic teacher in public schools, and my grandmother, who was an uneducated housewife, had to make ends meet. I grew up with stories of my grandmother and one of her children making strenuous trips to a notorious prison in southern Iraq when my grandfather had been sentenced to a year in jail; of my grandmother burning my grandfather’s papers, ICP pamphlets, or Marxist literature in the house following each arrest to avoid further incrimination or interrogation; and of my mother taking extra caution when she went to secretly held meetings or distributed ICP publications. The power of the secret police was not to be taken lightly. While my mother was never arrested under the monarchy, she failed to obtain “the certificate of good behavior” issued by the Office of General Security, which was required to attend a university or college. Like many young Iraqi communists who failed to secure this document, she went to Egypt to pursue her bachelor’s degree. It was there that she met my father, who also had had to go to Cairo for his undergraduate degree, and fell in love with him.

Under Hussein’s regime, my mother narrated these stories with a tinge of nostalgia. While she criticized the monarchy’s persecution of political opponents and the abject poverty that affected a large segment of Iraqi society, she emphasized that the ruling elites showed respect and restraint toward political dissidents. She talked about how the policemen who arrested my grandfather were very polite and apologized to him and his family for arresting him, emphasizing that they were only following orders; how her political activism did not affect the ability of her siblings to secure “the certificate of good behavior” or chances to go to universities; how friends did not stop visiting them after the arrest of my grandfather; and how my grandfather could easily find teaching jobs in Jewish schools in Baghdad when the government fired him from the public schools. The fact that the family had not been socially shunned or collectively punished under the monarchy assumed a new significance when Hussein’s reign began.

The fall of the monarchy in 1958 was a time of great happiness for my mother. There is a picture of her in a newspaper hugging an Iraqi friend as they heard the news while in Egypt. My mother looked young and full of hope, her face beaming, as if her dreams had just come true. Indeed, the fall of the monarchy was a moment that vindicated the will of the people and their desire to get rid of British colonial domination and an oppressive feudal system. Many believed that only a promising future could follow. To my parents and other Iraqi students, the fall of the monarchy meant that they could return to Iraq to complete their degrees and get involved in building up their country. Of course, these dreams never materialized. Political life in Iraq after the monarchy came to be defined by a bitter rivalry between communists and Arab nationalists. Anxious about the prospects of oil nationalization, the United States grew determined to overthrow the Iraqi government under the pretext of combating communism in Iraq. So began the country’s descent into an era of postcolonial chaos.

I am less certain about my father’s political development, but I think he was exposed to Marxist ideas and joined the Iraqi Communist Party while still in school. I do not know my father’s family, the majority of whom lived in Najaf, in the south of Iraq. By the time I was born, my father was not on speaking terms with his siblings, who lived in Baghdad. His sister, once an ardent communist, later became a loyalist of the Ba‘th regime and worked for the intelligence agency under Hussein’s rule. My father’s siblings were divided over her loyalty to the regime, and my father eventually ended all contact with them, a decision that seemed to relieve his brothers and sisters. Indeed, by the 1970s, having a communist or a dissident in one’s family had consequences for everyone, even distant relatives. A person could not study specific topics at university—such as journalism, education, and physical education—if she had a fourth cousin who was a communist or a member of a banned religious party. People lost jobs or ended up in jail because of the activism of their relatives. For my paternal uncles and aunts, not having a relationship with my father was welcomed. It proved to the regime that they did not share my father’s political views.

I am assuming my father’s connections with the ICP persisted, because he was a staunch supporter of the party until his death in 1982. My mother, however, became disillusioned in the early 1960s and left the party. She never explained why, but she often mentioned her disappointment with some party members who were driven by personal interests rather than principles. Yet she firmly believed that communism as a theory was laudable and that things only went wrong in practice. Her comrades, understandably, disagreed with her and accused her of being a bourgeois sellout. She knew she could not stay in Iraq after she ended her relations with the party. Ironically, her only option was to go to the Soviet Union, which offered hundreds of fellowships to Iraqis interested in studying in the USSR. My mother received a fellowship and chose to do a PhD in Russian literature. In many ways, her decision to sever all ties with the ICP saved her from a bleak fate, for she left Iraq in 1962, a year before the first CIA-backed Ba‘th coup. The CIA provided the leaders of the coup with lists of thousands of ICP members. This short-lived coup started with a brutal campaign against communists, many of whom were subsequently imprisoned, raped, tortured, or executed. My father was tortured and sentenced to one year in jail. My mother and grandfather were spared because they were abroad, but my mother could not return to Iraq after finishing her PhD in 1969. Following the second Ba‘th coup, in 1968, she was banned from entering the country because of her political history. Despite the ominous political situation, she wanted to return. She waited for a year and then secured permission to come back when the Ba‘th regime relaxed its persecution of communists for a while. She felt that Iraq was the place where she belonged and held on to a hope that the Ba‘th regime would soon collapse.