Profile: Najem Wali
This Iraqi-born author fled the tyranny of his homeland as a young man, finding freedom of expression and opportunity abroad.
“There is one question that has bothered me since I was a child,” wrote Iraqi author Najem Wali in the German daily Kolner Stadtanzeiger in a column in honor of Israel’s 60th anniversary.
“How did that omnipotent country make the Arab nation sink into a coma, as the official spokesmen would have us believe? Why did they simultaneously think that a small country of Zionist gangs was going to ultimately be wiped off the map? I never found a convincing answer.”
In 2007, he went to Israel—twice within a two-month period—to take a look for himself. “I found out what the Arab countries are afraid of,” he continued in the article. “They are afraid their citizens will visit Israel. They are afraid they will compare the rights of Israeli citizens to those of citizens of their countries. Such a visitor would…discover that…those Palestinians have the same basic rights as all the other citizens. That they can express themselves freely, live by their traditions and establish political parties.”
Wali argues that Israel is not responsible for the Arab world’s backwardness, fanaticism or corruption and that the Arab regimes have merely used the country as a scapegoat to deny their own responsibility for their problems.
The 52-year-old Wali, who fled former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror in 1980 and now lives in Berlin, is a Muslim proud to call himself a friend of Israel. He defends the Jewish state in articles in the Arab and German presses, in books and at appearances at international book fairs and writers’ forums in the Arab world. His support for Israel has been condemned by some of his fellow Arab writers: Palestinian poet Musa Hawamdeh, on Al-Tajdeed al-Arabi, a Saudi intellectual Web site, accused Wali of “standing with the executioner against the victim” and ignoring the suffering of his Iraqi and Palestinian brethren. Wali’s response is a book about a recent visit to Israel, sarcastically titled Journey Into the Heart of the Enemy (McAdam/Cage).
Wali graduated from Baghdad University with a degree in German literature in 1978, did two years of military service and then began writing articles critical of Saddam Hussein’s regime. He was arrested and tortured for six weeks. After his release, the Iran-Iraq war broke out, and Wali was called up for reserve duty. He fled the country and has lived abroad since, mostly in Berlin, with a four-year interval in Madrid and shorter stays in Oxford and Florence. He is married to 45-year-old actor and singer Inaam Wali. They have no children.
Wali returned to the country of his birth in 2004, which he couldn’t do during Hussein’s days in power; it was still dangerous, this time because of insurgents and extreme religious groups rather than the government. He noticed more visible signs of religiousness.
“My thermometer for the situation in Iraq is to ask a drinker,” he said. “If they are O.K., things are O.K. If things are bad, they are the first to suffer because the armed militias close down the bars and usually confiscate the liquor to sell it on the black market for many times the price.”
Inaam Wali, who also visited recently, added: “It used to be rare to see women on the streets in scarves. Now most of the women are wearing hijabs and headgear all over the country and you feel uncomfortable if you go without it.”
“It is important to hear what the simple people in Iraq say,” Najem Wali explained. “They say: ‘Saddam gave us death and security. Bush gave us only death.’ What I say is this: We had a dictatorship and tyranny. Now we have corruption, violence and lies from all sides—from the Iraqi government and from the Bush administration. If the situation does not change, it will be very dangerous—if not a disaster—for the whole region, and the only winner in the end will be the dark religious powers in the countries of the Middle East.”
Besides being a freelance journalist, cultural correspondent and columnist for the world’s largest Arabic-language newspaper, London-based Al Hayat, Wali is the author of numerous novels and short-story collections that have been translated into several languages. The English translation of his novel The Journey to Tell al-Lahm will be published by McAdam/Cage next year.
“He is a very important Iraqi writer,” said Sasson Somekh, a professor of Arabic literature at Tel Aviv University and an Israel Prize laureate. “His books are not autobiographical but reflect his experience as a soldier during Saddam’s times, the army culture, the persecution of intellectuals and how it destroyed families.”
Wali’s work came to the attention of another Israeli professor, historian Amatzia Baram of Haifa University, who decided to invite him in 2007 to a conference—“Iraq, Past and Present”—on the off-chance the Iraqi writer would accept. He did.
“I was very impressed by him as a writer,” said Baram, “by his beautiful language, his power of description and something more, a soulfulness, a subtle humor, a deep humanism in every area he engages.”
At that conference, Wali read his short story, “The Three Pillars of Wisdom,” which he wrote for the occasion. The autobiographical tale features a Jewish doctor who saved Wali’s life when he was a child, and how Wali has maintained warm feelings toward Jews ever since.
“His story about his love of his Jewish countrymen and the Jewish doctor who helped him was written with real feeling,” said Somekh. “You could say maybe he wrote it to please someone, but…the man wrote from the bottom of his heart.”
Over a double espresso at a café on the banks of Berlin’s Ufer River on a sunny day last spring, Wali, a youthful man of medium build with olive skin and a twinkle in his eye, discussed everything from personal pursuits—his love of cooking, reading and travel and his fondness for studying languages—to his longtime friendly relations with the Jewish people.
Born in the southern Iraqi port town of Basra in 1956 and raised in the nearby town of Amara, Wali remembers a multiethnic environment where Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians, Jews, Mandians, Acadians, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds and Turkemans lived together. The town’s Jewish district was called Torat (Torah). When Wali drank a cup of cooking fuel when he was 5 years old, his father rushed him to Dr. Daoud Gabbay, the best doctor in town and a Jew.
“I will never forget the sentence Dr. Gabbay said that day,” Wali wrote in “The Three Pillars of Wisdom.” “‘You never have to worry about this child again,’ advised Dr. Gabbay. ‘Anyone who drinks this much kerosene and stays alive will have a very long life….’”
Growing up, Wali never heard anyone speak ill of the Jews at home, and when he began learning of their persecution by the state, he instinctively rose to their defense. In the eighth grade, a new English teacher, who came to his first class drunk, offered extra credit points to any student who provided information about “Jewish spies” and even more points every time a Jew was hanged. Wali made him a counteroffer: to deduct points from his grade for every execution.
In 1969, the Baath party under Hussein’s predecessor, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, staged a series of showcase trials against “Jewish spies”; many were hanged. Wali recalls families taking their children for picnics alongside the bodies, which hanged from the gallows for three days after the executions in Baghdad and Basra. Contemporaneously, the young Wali fell sick for weeks with high fever.
Over the years, his respect for the Jewish people only grew. “The Jews are the most ancient people in the region and had a major positive cultural influence on it,” he said. “The Muslims only came later and received much from the Jews. But this is not talked about, and a lot of people don’t like it when I bring it up because it contradicts their preconceived notions about the Jews as the big enemy.”
Despite the sympathy he felt, Wali only started to build connections with Israel in 2006, after a German publisher gave him a copy of the book Victoria by Iraqi-born Israeli writer Sami Michael, author of the classic A Trumpet in the Wadi (Simon & Schuster). Victoria’s story of a Jewish family in early 20th-century Baghdad had a major impact on Wali, who was subsequently invited to a conference about Michael at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
Michael, 82, has deep respect for Wali as a writer, but believes his attitude toward the Jews and Israel is “not a special case.” Rather, it is typical of the five million or so exiles from Iraq—a number including original exiles and their descendents—“who remember the golden days of the 1930s and ’40s when there was an atmosphere of dialogue and coexistence…,” Michael concluded, adding that not only the Arab regimes but also the Zionist movement suppressed that memory.
Michael thinks the reality described in Victoria reminded Wali of his own childhood. In turn, Michael was deeply moved by The Journey to Tell al-Lahm, set during the Iran-Iraq war.
“He is a real innovator in Arabic and especially Iraqi literature,” Michael said. “There is a tremendous influence of Germany, where Najem lives, with an amazing ability to use the spoken and literary forms of Arabic. The book has not only a political but a great literary message. It portrays the touching and tragic situation into which Iraq sunk under the rule of tyranny. I don’t only recommend it, I am going to press to get it translated into Hebrew.”
In 2007, Wali attended the Jerusalem International Book Fair: He received a warm welcome. “Everybody wanted to meet me, take me out, invite me to their homes,” he recalled. “I was staying at a little inn in Jerusalem and the owner didn’t understand why the phone didn’t stop ringing for me. Finally he came up to me and said, ‘Excuse me, but who are you?’ I told him, ‘Before I answer that, come here and have your picture taken with me, just in case one day I win the Nobel Prize,’” Wali said with a laugh.
Musing over the animosity between Jews and Arabs, he concluded, “If people knew each other, they would see how much they have in common and there wouldn’t be so much hostility.
“The world changes,” Wali said. “That’s why I’m not a pessimist. After all, here we are, a Jew and a Muslim having coffee in a peaceful and safe Berlin. Who would have imagined?”