Twenty five years ago, the United States and its allies unleashed a massive bombardment campaign that destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure, killing hundreds of thousands along the way. The Gulf War, as it was known around the world, would prove to be a critical moment in the destruction of Iraq. Its effects are still felt today. On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Gulf War, we speak to renowned Iraqi novelist Sinan Antoon about his reflections and memories from that fateful day.

The skies of Baghdad burn as the Gulf War kicks off on January 17, 1991.

The skies of Baghdad burn as the Gulf War kicks off on January 17, 1991.

Q: You lived in Baghdad, Iraq throughout the Gulf War. Where were you the day the Gulf War began, and what do you remember from that specific day? A: January 15th was the deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait and, if not, the US and its allies were to start their military operations. The stakes were very high as was the tone of the threats being exchanged. There was talk of chemical weapons being used by the Iraqi regime against Israel and the latter’s retaliation was to be a nuclear attack. I mention this because many of us were not sure of what was to come.

There were programs on TV instructing citizens on what precautions to take to prepare for a chemical attack; sealing one room in the house, storing canned food and water in it, having towels handy to wet them and use as masks. So we did all of that. There were chemical masks being sold on the black market. At Suq Mraydi (market) in al-Thawra (now al-Sadr) city.

I remember being at the dentist a week before and his secretary was not taking any appointments after the 15th of January. Many Baghdad families left Baghdad and went to stay with relatives in other provinces thinking Baghdad would get the brunt of the bombing. So the last few days before the 15th were very eerie in Baghdad. Many of the shops and restaurants were closed. I remember a dear friend saying how forlorn and sad the city was. We were bidding friends farewell because we didn’t know if we would ever see them again.

That’s what we did the evening of the 16th. Some friends and relatives visited and we chatted about when the bombing would start and what would become of us then said goodbye. I woke up at 2:37 AM to the sound of bombs. The electricity went out and we wouldn’t have it back until April of that year. My room was on the second floor of our house so I went down to the living room and we sat listening to the radio (BBC and Voice of America). I remember Bush’s (the father) voice saying: the liberation of Kuwait has begun.

We had experienced air raids and bombing during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), but this was very intense and it persisted for three hours. My brother called a few hours later and said that we should join him and his wife and daughter. They were going to a shelter in the neighborhood of Al-Karrada Kharij. Our house was close to al-Rashid Air Base and he thought it would safer to go to the shelter. We took our IDs and some money and drove to Al-Karrada. The traffic lights were not working and there were very few cars rushing. On the way to the shelter we heard Saddam deliver his speech on Iraqi radio. It started with “laqad ghadara al-ghadirun” (the treacherous have betrayed us!). The shelter turned out to be the basement of a restaurant. Ironically, it was close to a number of the US’ favorite targets that were bombed time and again every night. We stayed there for two weeks, but then decided to go home.

Q: How do you remember the next two months: the duration of Operation Desert Storm? A: The restaurant basement was very crowded. It was very difficult to find a spot to sleep, so we took turns. After a few days the water tanks were depleted, so the bathroom had to be shut. We had to improvise and be resourceful! After two weeks we went to my cousin’s house where some of our relatives were staying. We shared what had remained of the food in our houses. The noise of the bombing was the same as was the danger.

Our biggest fear was death of course. When you’re in a dark shelter and there is massive bombing every night you realize how absurd it all is and tragic as well.

Water came once every three days and when it did we had to fill every pot, tub, and bottle. There was no electricity and the phones were dead. There was no fuel either. We bought bikes to use for buying groceries and to check on relatives and friends. After the first week or so the bombing settled into a rhythm. The Americans would start bombing in the evening around 8. My aunt called it “haflat il-amreekan.” (America’s party) So we used the daytime for chores and what not. We adapted and acclimated, even to the bombing. By the last few weeks we would be playing cards or a game and if one of us stopped to listen to the sound of the bombing the other would rebuke him!

Q: How did you keep up with the news of the war? What do you remember from the media coverage? A: The radio was our only source. It was frustrating the first few days, because the refrain was “targets in Iraq and Kuwait.” But after buying the bike my cousin and I would ride to the places and buildings we heard were bombed to see for ourselves. I still remember seeing one of the bridges after the bombing. It looked like a broken smile!

The Gulf War was the first war to be covered around the clock, broadcast live into millions of households around the world.
Q: What do you remember from the night the Amiriyah Bomb shelter was bombed? A: We heard on the radio that it had been bombed and that it was a massacre of civilians. The rest is known now.

Q: You’ve said that the Gulf War is forgotten. Why is it so? A: Because remembering the Gulf War and its perpetrators and their allies and paying close attention to its destructive effects would disrupt the simplistic master narrative about Iraq and why it ended where it is now. I was always opposed to Saddam and the Ba`th and was against the invasion of Kuwait. However, what “Desert Storm” did was destroy the infrastructure of Iraq and its social fabric. James Baker said that they bombed Iraq to “the pre-industrial age.”

Bombing a society back to the preindustrial age is a genocidal crime. Add to that the economic embargo and its lethal effects on every facet of Iraqi life and society. The Gulf War also illustrated the complicity and duplicity of Arab governments and their role in the destruction of Iraq. Their territories were used as launching pads for aggression and destruction. Understanding the effects of that war would illuminate so much about the latter stages of destruction.

Q: How formative or destructive were those years for you as a human being and a writer? A: Watching one’s country and hometown get destroyed sears one’s soul and psyche forever. Those years showed me how barbarism was at the heart of our modern world. Not the barbarism of dictatorship, the barbarism of western liberal democracies, delivered through remote-control and watched comfortably by the citizens of said democracies.

After I left Iraq and went to the US I realized that bombing Iraq and its people back to the preindustrial age was a spectacle. Infotainment. I understood why the bombing started at 2:37 AM. Because that is prime time in the USA. As a writer it reinforced my commitment to tell our stories, in our language. There is an African proverb that says: “Until lions have their historians, histories of the hunt will glorify the hunter.”

Q: As you look back at the Gulf War now, twenty five years later, what do you feel? A: Sorrow and anger.

Q: What’s next for you? A: I just finished a novel (in Arabic) entitled “Fihris” and it was published last week in Beirut by Dar al-Jamal. The novel is narrated by two Iraqis, one, a bookseller in Baghdad and the other, an academic in New York. It is about how and if one can ever come to terms with the destruction of one’s country. Can what is lost even be measured or quantified? There is also a book of poems (in Arabic) that will come out in June, also in Beirut. I’m also translating a novel by Ibtisam Azem called The Book of Disappearance into English. And will start my fifth novel once I am done.

Sinan Antoon

Sinan Antoon (Baghdad, 1967) is a poet, novelist, scholar, and translator. He holds degrees from Baghdad, Georgetown, and Harvard, where he earned a doctorate in Arabic literature. He has published two collections of poetry and four novels. His works have been translated to nine languages. His translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s last prose book In the Presence of Absence won the 2012 American Literary Translators’ Award. His translation of his own novel, The Corpse Washer, won the 2014 Saif Ghobash Prize for Literary Translation and was longlisted for the International Prize for Foreign Fiction. His third novel, Ya Maryam, was shortlisted for the Arabic Booker. His fourth novel, Fihris, was published in Beirut in January of 2016 by Dar al-Jamal. His scholarly works include The Poetics of the Obscene: Ibn al-Hajjaj and Sukhf (Palgrave, 2014). In 2003 he returned to his native Baghdad to co-direct About Baghdad; a documentary about life under occupation. He is co-founder and co-editor of Jadaliyya. He is an associate professor at New York University. You can follow him on twitter @sinanantoon.