Our Winter 2021 series on Iraq’s diverse literary scene, in Iraq and in the diaspora, continues with the introduction to When Darkness Falls (Idha al-Ayyam Aghsaqat) is a semi-autobiographical novel by Iraqi author Hayat Sharara:
By Hend Saeed
I was introduced to Hayat Sharara’s novel When Darkness Falls a few years ago while visiting a friend in Amman, who was surprised I didn’t know about the book or the Sharara family.
As I began reading the introduction, I became fascinated by Hayat’s personality and life, and I was thankful that her sister Balkis had written this introduction. Since that time, I have wanted to find more about her and to write about her — so the world could know about this incredible Iraqi woman.
I imagine that, if she were still alive, she would be standing in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square among other Iraqi women shouting for freedom. She was a strong woman who lived, believed, loved, and absorbed literature from great poets, yet instead of being celebrated, she was abandoned and isolated by her people, her city and her country. After this, she decided to take matters into her own hands and leave the world.
The novel When Darkness Falls was published in 1999, two years after Hayat and her daughter Maha committed suicide. Hayat’s sister, Balkis Sharara, wrote the novel’s moving sixteen-page introduction, translated to English below.
While our deep wounds are still healing, two years after the death of my sister and her daughter, I feel it is time to read her novel. I am not evaluating her literary work, but highlighting what she suffered in the last fifty years, as many educated people suffered. The novel is a record of the life of Iraqi university students and their daily trials as they tried to make a living while keeping their dignity and humanity.
In her introduction, Balkis sheds the light on life in the Sharara family starting in 1935, the year Hayat was born in Najaf, and on Hayat’s personal life until 1997, the year of her death, salting in letters Hayat wrote to her sisters Balkis and Mariam.
By Balkis Sharara
Translated by Hend Saeed
Hayat was born in the old city of Najaf in 1935, the third daughter of Mohammad Sharara.
Najaf was the city of the dead and the living — the dead, who were brought by their families from all around the Muslim world to be buried in this holy city — and the living families, who prayed all day and night in its mosques. It was also a city that played a big role in social reforms, and where a number of newspapers and magazines were published, such as The Phone, The Civilizations, and Al-Bayan. It was home to many authors and poets who enriched the Iraqi literary scene, such as Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, Ali al-Sharqi, Jafar al-Khalili, Saad Saleh, Mohammad Sharara, and Hussein Marwa.
Although Najaf was considered a city of social reform, it was still a closed tribal community, with women looked upon as a lower rank from men, and they were also considered the one solely responsible for their child’s gender. Thus Hayat’s mother was blamed by the community for having three daughters. Yet Mohammad Sharara was more educated and advanced in his thinking about women, and he didn’t let anyone to interfere in his daughters’ upbringing.
In 1936, the family moved to Nasiriyah, after Hayat’s father took a job as an Arabic-language teacher in al-Nasiriyah High School. But soon he felt this wasn’t the job or place for him.
That summer, the family left for Lebanon, where they lived for a year, during which time Hayat’s brother (Ibrahim) was born. Both families — the Shararas and the Zains — celebrated the birth of the boy who would carry the family name, and they congratulated the father while ignoring the mother.
A few weeks before they left to return to Iraq, Hayat got sick with typhoid, and her parents decided to leave her with her grandmother in Lebanon. Less than two years old, Hayat was unable to express herself and her objections in words, but only with tears. Two years later, the family went back to Lebanon in the summer. Hayat didn’t recognize them, and when they took her back to Hella where they lived, she found it difficult to settle in the kindergarten, for she couldn’t understand the Iraqi dialect.
The Sharara poetry nights in Baghdad
The family moved to Baghdad in the mid-forties and lived in the Seven Palaces neighborhood, in a house facing the Tigris River, surrounded by a large garden with tall trees.
They held a weekly gathering for poets, authors, and thinkers who did not necessarily share the same political views, but who shared a love of literature and who later established the foundations of Arabic modernist poetry, such as Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Lamia Abbas Amara, Muhammad Mahdi al- Jawahiri, Hussein Marwa, Nazik al-Mala’ika (sometimes accompanied by her father Sadiq al-Mala’ika or her brother Nazar), Akram al-Watri, Buland al-Haydari, and Mushin Amin.
During these meetings, Hayat would sit in a corner of the guest room with a notebook in her small hand, writing down their arguments and conversations and memorizing what they were reciting. These were the main seeds of her literary and political interest, besides her father’s recitation competitions, which he ran for his family every day.
Sharara’s girls were influenced by these family close friends: Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Lamia Abbas Amara, and Nazik al-Mala’ika. Hayat had memorized most of al-Sayyab’s, Amara’s and al-Malaika’s poetry before she was twelve years old.
Al–Sayyab had notable features: small eyes, a large nose and ears, brown skin, and his lips protruded over a bump in his teeth. He had a great knowledge of Arabic and English literatures and was a freethinker, so he didn’t commit to any traditional poetic rhymes, and was one of the few who established the new modernist poetry in the Arab world.
He rebelled against the social and political situation, and against his family’s wealth, and he joined the communist party. He believed in saving humanity from suffering, but at the same time he was shy, sensitive, and loved everything beautiful around him. He liked beautiful women, but if the woman didn’t share his feelings, he would criticize her in a poem. His love for Lamia Abbas Amara wasn’t a secret, and it was clear in the poems that he recited in the meetings. Amara knew about his feelings for her, and she would look at him with her beautiful eyes, which hid their endless meanings.
Lamia Abbas Amara was beautiful, tall, slim, with large black eyes and dark black hair, and she mostly wore black dresses. Amara was confident and had a sense of humor. Her personality, her way of using body language, and the way her voice rose and fell as she recited poetry created a magic atmosphere that took over the audience. Her poems were short, sensitive, and their main subject was love.
Nazik al-Mala’ika was short, chubby, and simple in her looks. She was sensitive, with a voice that was soft and low unless she was reciting poetry. She was well-read, highly educated, and knew English, Arabic, Latin, and French. She looked sad, and had a tragic view of life that was reflected in her poems.
Beside the literary gatherings, al-Malaika had other meetings at home, which were attended by different educated people and left-wing thinkers, such as the poet Khathim al-Samawi, Jasim al- Rejab, and teachers from Shamash School and Higher Institute of Teachers.
Iraq political life and its influence on the Sharara family
Late 1940s and 1950s
In 1948, Israel was established by UN resolution. Demonstrations and anger took over many Arab countries, including universities and schools in Baghdad. Hayat was still in primary school, and she wasn’t allowed to take part in the demonstrations, but she waited for her elder sisters to tell her what was happening.
Also in 1948, the Iraqi Prime Minister was about to sign the Portsmouth Agreement, but he retreated after the al-Wathbah demonstration incident, when demonstrators who were near Mood Bridge and headed toward British Embassy were killed by live fire. Jaffer al-Jawahiri, brother of the famous poet Muhammad Mahdi Al Jawahiri was killed. Al-Jawahiri wrote a poem about him, which was recited many times and became a local Iraqi anthem. It began:
Do you know or don’t you?
The wounds of the dead are mouths
In 1949, the government announced martial law; political parties were dissolved, and newspapers were shut down. Many opposition-party leaders, communist thinkers, and university students were arrested and send to Abu Ghraib prison, including Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri. Mohammad Sharara and his brother Murtatha and Hussein Marwa’s family were stripped of their citizenship.
Police raided al-Sharara’s home in West Karrada on the Tigris River at night and searched all the rooms. They confiscated books, documents, and photos of the Sharara girls that had been taken during the funeral of the killed demonstrators.
Hayat’s mother, who kept her Lebanese accent, was a simple, beautiful, short, and slightly overweight woman who taught her children to tell the truth and take responsibility from a young age. She supported her husband’s political work even though she didn’t agree with him, and many times she found she had to sell some of her jewelry or a piece of land in Lebanon to support her family.
Hayat’s mother sent food to the prison every day in a basket covered with white fabric. Her husband and his brother sent back their dirty clothes to be washed. She searched the returned basket for any small pieces of paper that might give them an idea about the men’s situation.
The Sharara weekly literary meetings stopped after many who attended the gathering were persecuted or imprisoned.
The poet al-Jawahiri visited the family after he was released from prison, and one night he recited a poem that he had written on a cigarette paper inside Abu Ghraib prison, about a French girl. Al-Jawahiri used to recite slowly and repeat each line twice before he moved to the next line, and by that time Hayat would have memorized it and repeated it with him.
“I used to memorize the poems that were recited in the meetings quickly, and I was able to memorize some of Badr’s poems that had not been published and the poems where he had changed their titles or events or the year that he wrote them,” Hayat wrote to her sister.
After losing his job, Hayat’s father opened a small dairy shop in partnership with a friend. He had to work long hours and, instead of talking about politics and literary issues as he used to, he started talking about the secret of making good yoghurt. A year later, he was exhausted couldn’t go on. He sold his business and lost his money.
He then went back to teach in private schools. In the morning, he gave lectures at Al Shamash School (the Jewish community school) and in the evening he worked at Al Jaffariya School. He enjoyed the atmosphere of writing and literature even with the long work hours.
Growing up in these circumstances and witnessing the injustice and unfair treatment of her family and their friends, Hayat joined political work at a young age, aiming to fight injustice. She was an excellent candidate for the communist party, who were looking for young people who believed in them.
In 1952, at the age of seventeen, she was nominated to attend the Peace Conference in Prague. Soon after she left, and on November 23, 1952, an uprising took place demanding the cancellation of the 1930s treaty and changing the election law. Four students were expelled from Commerce College in Baghdad University, which led to a larger demonstration that was attacked by police. Martial law was announced, and a number of students, thinkers, and left-wings activists were arrested.
The police raided the Sharara family home and, when they didn’t find Hayat’s father, who was hiding in Najaf, they took her brother Ibrahim, who was fourteen years old. Ibrahim was released four days later, with the help of Bahjat al-Attiyah, Director of Public Security at that time. He was friends with Mohammad Sharara, but didn’t support his political views.
Mohammad Sharara was sentenced to a year in prison by a military court for being a member of a peace-supporting organization, publishing articles, and for signing the petition against Al-Shishakli.
The prison authorities decided to move the political prisoners from Baghdad to Baqubah prison, and when the prisoners didn’t obey, the authorities fired live rounds at them; eight of the prisoners were killed and many were injured. Hayat’s father was one of the injured. No one from his family was able to visit him for a month, until his wife was able to get permission to visit. When Hayat’s mother found her husband wearing a nightshirt covered in dried blood that had turned to dark red, she broke into tears and he replied with a poem (“Tears”).
In 1953, the student protests broke out, and because Mohammad Sharara’s name was on the blacklist, police raided his home again while he was still in prison.
Hayat was nearly eighteen when she came back from Austria in 1953. She was totally committed to the communist party rules and beliefs. But the party was divided into two groups, after a split between the political prisoners inside prison. Her father joined the opposing group, who thought that the communist party wasn’t representing its values and beliefs: freedom, justice, and democracy. Hayat stayed in hiding at her friend’s house for two months, fearing the authorities and the party, and she didn’t even visit her family after her father was released from prison.
In 1954, and being on the blacklist and under the threat of being arrested if any unrest occurred, and also unable to publish in Iraq, Mohammad Sharara left for Lebanon.
Hayat finished high school but wasn’t accepted in a university, because she couldn’t get a good-behavior certificate due to her political views. (The Good Behavior certificate was a weapon used against the communist and left-wing students to prevent them from getting higher education or work in the government after graduation, so many of them left for Syria or Egypt.
Hayat left for Syria, but she arrived late for the school year, so she went to Egypt to study English at Cairo University. There, she met Mohammad Saleh Samesem, who later became her husband. Mohammad’s family was known to Hayat’s family, but she hadn’t met him in Baghdad. He had fled Iraq during the time of the monarchy, like many other students.
They shared a love of literature and poetry, became close friends, and later fell in love. He asked for her hand in marriage, and they stayed engaged for thirteen years because of various circumstances.
While in Egypt, she volunteered in the army after the tripartite aggression, or Suez War, on Egypt. In 1957, a student asked her to help him in a project about al-Jawahiri that was aired on Egyptian radio, and she recited al-Jawahiri’s poems while the student talked about his achievements. Taha Hussein was impressed with the program and asked them to repeat it.
In 1958, Hayat, Mohammad Saleh Samesem, and her father came back to Iraq after the 14th of July revolution, like many other exiles who returned in hopes that the revolution would achieve justice and democracy. But soon that hope disappeared when people attacked the monarch’s palace, stealing and killing everyone inside, and hanging their bodies out in the July heat, encouraged by the Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Arif. Chaos took over as people came to see the hanging bodies in the summer heat.
After few weeks, it became an obvious split and fight over the power between Prime Minister Abdul al-Karim Qasim and his deputy Abdul Salam Arif. The democrats and the communists supported Abdul Karim Qasim while the Baathists and nationalists supported Abdul Salam Arif, who was supported by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser played a big role in this division, as he hoped Iraq would join the Syrian and Egyptian union, and he was against the Federation of Arab Republics, and the Iraqi people were divided over that.
That division, and the fight to have full authority over the country, escalated when Qasim appointed his relative Fadel al-Mahdawi as president of the People’s Court of Baghdad to try the previous government’s politicians. The courtroom was chaotic; people were reciting poetry and giving speeches and some were cheering for the judge.
The local resistance formed a militia, creating an atmosphere of fear and terror in Baghdad’s streets. They invaded government spaces in the morning, arresting employees who were against the revolution, went around Baghdad at sunset searching people, and imposed a curfew at midnight that continued through most of Abdul Karim Qasim’s rule.
The communist party and its supporters took advantage of this chaos and arranged a “peace train” to Mosul, but the visit turned out to be a disciplinary task for the people who were considered against the revolution, and it ended in killing and executing people in Mosul and Kirkuk.
The situation led to al-Shawaf coup attempt that ended in arrests, killings, torture, and the execution of the suspects after they were trailed in al-Mahdawi court. Abdul Salam Arif was arrested and sentenced to death, but Abdul Karim Qasim pardoned him after a short time.
The communists and leftists supported Qasim, and helped him to take over most of the country vital centers for a while, but his long speeches and the daily demonstrations paralyzed schools, universities, and trades.
This division in political life created a division and enmity between people in the community and even between families and friends, and it became an issue of choosing between the colors red and green. Green represented nationalists, and red communists. Even children were asking their mothers to wear a certain color.
When Hayat entered university to finish her studies in English literature, she had an inner conflict about the communist party’s actions, which she felt weren’t aligned with the party’s beliefs, but she still took on the responsibilities that were given to her by the party. Soon, she was exhausted, struggling to juggle her studies, the party work, and her inner conflicts.
Even with all the chaos that was happening, Iraq saw some freedom of thought as political parties were allowed to publish newspapers and magazines, such as The Voice of the People, which was published by the communist party, and also publications against Abdul Karim Qasim.
The Ba’ath party, which wasn’t popular before the revolution, became more active and stronger when they worked with the nationalists, taking advantage of people’s fear of the communists, encouraging the political religious movement in an attempt to isolate and weaken the leftists and communists, and accusing them of violating religion. People demonstrated in al-Adhamiyah District against the communists, asking to kill the non-believers, and the fight was clear in the union elections, which gradually came under the control of the nationalists and Ba’athists.
Abdul Karim Qasim’s government weakened, his supports were getting assassinated daily, and he survived an assassination attempt. Hayat’s father was put on the assassination list because he wrote an article in support of Abdul Karim Qasim.
At the end of 1960, Hayat’s father was sentenced to three months in Amarah prison, after he wrote an article criticizing the teacher’s union elections. After his release, he realized that the Iraq revolution and Nouri Saeed’s Iraq were no different, and that there was no hope in achieving justice, and he decided to leave.
In 1961, Hayat applied for a scholarship to finish her studies in Moscow. She wanted to leave the communist party, but she knew that she couldn’t do that while still in Iraq, as some members of the party would attack her and accuse her of treachery.
On February 8, 1963, less than a year after the assassination attempt against Abdul Karim Qasim, the Ba’ath party came to power with a deadly coup that saw killings and torture. The new militia “National Guard” arrested people, questioned them, and tortured them. Prisons were full of people; even the Olympic Club became a prison. A number of professors, students, and other educated people were buried in mass graves. Some were fired from their work.
The US played a big role in this, and one of the embassy employees even said that they were aware of many names in the new government before it was announced. Ali Salah Al Saadi, the minister of the interior, said “we came in an American train.”
Hayat was still in Moscow studying for her PhD, and her father was teaching at Beijing University, but that didn’t stop the authorities from searching their house. Four days after the coup, the National Guard visited the family, pointing a rifle at Hayat’s mother face and asking for Hayat and her father. When they heard that both of them were outside Iraq, they took her brother Ibrahim as a hostage. Ibrahim was released, after searching his documents and belongings, and after they discovered that he studied in the UK and was friends with Baha Sahbib and Ahmed al Naqib, who were both members of the Ba’ath Party.
The curfew continued for a few days, and arrests of opposition figures continued. Hayat’s mother feared for her family and her son, and so she burned all the books and the documents that belonged to her husband and to Hayat, including Hayat’s poems and writings.
A few months later, Abdul Salam Arif led a coup against the Ba’ath Party, when he felt that he was losing power, but soon after he died in a plane crush on his way to Baghdad. His bother Abdul Rahman Arif came to power. Meanwhile, the Baath party was becoming the biggest opposition power, and they succeeded in a second coup in July. The Ba’ath Party forgave the democrats, communists, leftists, and nationalists, and gave them back their jobs.
In 1968, Hayat came back to Baghdad after six years in Moscow finishing her PhD in the Russian literature. She spent her last year on her paper (Tolstoy as Artist) while working as a translator and selling her clothes to pay for her studies and cost of living, after the Russians didn’t grant her a scholarship for her sixth year because she wasn’t cooperating with the Iraqi communists in Moscow. She left political life and got more involved in literature and research, and later worked in the Art College, in the Russian language department.
In 1970, Hayat married Dr. Mohammad Saleh Samesem in court with two witnesses and moved with him into a rented home with simple furniture.
Hayat’s mother passed away at the end of 1970, and she felt that her mother had sacrificed a lot for her, as she had spent most of her life away from the family.
During the first ten years of Baath party rule, and after their bloody beginning in 1969, the authorities arrested only those they considered dangerous. In 1973, oil money came to Iraq, but most of it was spend on arms, and only a small part was left for education and health.
The economy flourished and salaries increased. With more income, people wanted to spend more money, but even so, people had to stand in line for hours to get their basic food of eggs and chicken. Employees, including professors, spent their spare time lining up to buy basic food for their families. A whole generation was raised without knowing the taste of bananas, as the government stopped importing them, since they were easily spoiled.
At that time, Saddam was vice president, but he was ruling the country, despite the fact that Ahmed Hassan al-Baker was the president. Saddam visited homes all around the country and gave gifts of fridges and TVs, becoming popular among people. All Iraqis with an Ottoman background were considered Iranian and were deported to the Iranian borders without any belongings, and the government confiscated their homes and belongings. Some families were divided if the parents were from different backgrounds.
Many were persuaded to join the Baath Party. People were offered grants, travel, and other privileges if they did, and Hayat was asked either to join the Baath Party or leave teaching at the university. She refused to join, and was transferred to a translation job in Diwaniyah at a Russian project under the Ministry of Industry. She stayed in that job until she met the president, who let her return to her job at the university in Baghdad. That when her husband Mohammad was arrested, during an arrest campaign that was moving through Iraq. They came to him after midnight and asked him politely to join them for a 15-minute questioning—that was how they used to behave with the educated—but Mohammad, who’d had a long day in surgery, wondered if he would ever come back. Mohammad was taken blindfolded, and was imprisoned for a month, during which he was questioned, tortured, and deprived from sleep, but they didn’t manage to get any confession from him. He then was thrown out in the street next to the emergency hospital where he was working.
He came back, broken and unable to come back to life. He was afraid for his family. The local Ba’ath Party pursued him, threatening and insisting that he join the party. That put him under pressure and despair, so he began drinking alcohol to bury his burdens, suffering and humiliation, and this reflected in his relations with his family, who he ignored. His daughter Maha became scared of him, hiding when he was around.
Hayat was unsure how to face her new reality and how to overcome this problem; she took on writing and spent her time between the university and the university library.
Her father passed away suddenly in 1979. She was devastated, as they had become close when he returned from Lebanon in 1976 and lived with her for three years, after spending most of his life in exile. He left a big void in her life, and she felt lonely and disconnected from the world.
Hayat wasn’t happy that she had to bury her father in Najaf (Wadi al-Salam). In a letter to her sister, she wrote, “He wouldn’t like that, he should have been buried on a hill or mountain where there are birds and green trees.”
Hayat started to collect her father’s work, a project that took two years to finish, and which required her to spend time in the National Library and Al Khaqani Library and the university library, as well as travelling to Lebanon. She didn’t have time for her family, and she was aware that she wasn’t giving time to her daughters. “Raising children was difficult and need someone to be relaxed; she tried to teach them to be independent,’ she wrote to her sister.
In September 1980, the Iraq-Iran war broke out on the south border of Iraq.
Hayat spent most of her time with her daughters at home after schools were closed; meanwhile, her husband was occupied, busy with his long hours of work at the hospital.
In 1982, her husband Mohammad died suddenly from a brain clot, and she found herself alone with her two daughters: Maha, 11, and Zainab, 9, and with no family to support her, as both her sisters were living outside Iraq. She spent her time teaching her daughters English and Arabic, working on her projects, and reading. She wanted to write about her life and the changes in her life and beliefs.
She start re-reading Taha Hussein, and she wrote to her sister in 1986, “After reading Taha Hussein for the second time, I decided to re-read the books I have read. I feel that I had spent my life looking at things from one point of view, and unable to understand the issues, or else I was influenced by my father. We grew up in an atmosphere that saw life either as black or white, while life isn’t that. I feel that I have lost many years of my life, in which I only understood the matters theoretically, but not practically. But as they say, whoever walks the road reaches the destination, and I am at the beginning of the road.”
Hayat felt that teaching was a waste of time, and she was frustrated, even though she understood the situation of the students, who were failing so as not to be sent to war, after many young people lost their lives in the war.
Hayat was busy with her daily life and spending time with her daughters, taking them to cultural events such as The Babylon Art Festival, and with her reading and writing. She start complaining about how life was full of work and problems and there was not enough time to do all that she wanted.
But despite the war, the 1980s was her best time for writing, publishing, and translating. She published her father’s book Al Mutannabi in 1988, Russian Poetry in 1981, Stranger in the City in 1983, Old Days and, These Old Days in 1986 and 1988. She also translated books from Russian and wrote two novels, but couldn’t find a publisher. She also wrote articles about poetry and theatre and other works.
Hayat wanted to write about al-Sayyab and al-Mala’ika and their relationship with al-Sharara, as no one knew about that period of their lives.
In one of her letters, she wrote to her sister, “I am trying to write about the people we knew, starting with Nazik al-Mala’ika. I was surprised to see her on TV when she attended the Writer’s Union conference in Baghdad; she couldn’t attend this year because she was paralyzed, and it was hard to get words out.”
And about Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, she wrote, “I need anything you know about him or remember; no one knows about his relationship with our family, these are missing links in his life. Do you remember the two poems that he recited at our house, which wasn’t published in his collection?”
She published an article about Badr al-Sayyab from her memories in Aqlam magazine at the end of 1989, and it was well received.
Many Iraqi governments imposed travel bans in order to stop educated people and thinkers from traveling outside Iraq. Starting in 1958, people were required to have certificates of “good behavior” in order to travel (which weren’t given to people who joined the opposition parties). In 1963, the communists and leftists weren’t allowed to travel. Iraqis in general weren’t allowed to travel in 1967, and in 1972 only Ba’athists were allowed to travel.
It was the same for most of 1980s. Iraqis weren’t able to get travel permits during the 1980s or, if they did, women had to be accompanied by guardian (a father, husband, brother, or uncle from her father’s side) to be able to travel.
Hayat applied for a travel permit in 1980, 1983, 1985, and 1987 to travel to Lebanon or to visit her sister Balkis, but she was only able to get it in 1990, ten years after her first request, and she went to London with her two daughters to visit her sister Mariam.
The Gulf War broke out while Hayat was in London, and she deiced to go back to Iraq.
In 1991, women under 45 weren’t allowed to travel without a guardian, and her daughters didn’t have one. In 1992, she got permission to travel to Lebanon alone, but she was stopped at the border for taking her manuscripts outside Iraq without permission, and by the time she went back to get it approved by the Ministry of Communication, her travel approval had expired, and she had to get another one before going back again by car to Lebanon. It was her first time leaving the girls alone.
In 1993, she wanted to travel, but then decided against it, after her house was burgled, like many people’s houses. People were living under difficult conditions, with no power and no safety. The Najaf and Karbala graveyards were destroyed after the government laid a road through the Wadi al-Salam graveyard, destroying many graves, including the Sharara family plots, in an attempt to find the opposition figures hiding in the graveyard.
Hayat’s communication with her sisters continued via phone and letters, but later it became almost impossible to make international calls.
She started writing short stories, she told her sister, “I feel that I have found myself in writing, because I am enjoying it and I found that writing needs knowledge and reading about details in life and events. When I finish writing ten stories, I will publish them with the title Deepest Whisper.’
She also started to collect information and materials about Nazik al-Mala’ika after she decided to write her biography. After meeting Nazik’s sister, she wrote to her sister, “It seems that I am unable to write her biography, as I am not allowed to write about so many issues, even simple ones like her current sickness. I am thinking about writing pages about her life after I have collected a good deal of information.” She published a chapter of the book in Al Jumhourya newspaper before the book was published, but Malaika’s family complained about it.
Hayat wrote in the introduction of her book Pages from Nazik al-Mala’ika’s Life: “I collected plenty of materials, but there were still some parts of her life unknown to me, especially the sixties, about which I found only some information that doesn’t fit in the book. I faced another big problem, which I didn’t recognize when I first started working on the book; the sensitivity of women’s situations in our community, and the number of restrictions that burden her. Writing about women’s personal lives in detail isn’t acceptable by individuals or the community; many normal things are considered a shame, and that no one should talk about it, and I start thinking that even our existence in this world is a ‘shame.’ The word eib rings in my head, it is eib to love, to sing, to get sick, to divorce, to show your emotions…and.…and. I felt these social chains were burdening me with fear, despair, and confusion, and I almost abandoned work on the book, but when I looked at the materials that I had collected, I knew that if I didn’t publish it now, it would never be published.”
The book got two different reactions. Some critics praised her work, and some thought that she should have written about the love in Nazik’s life. Al-Mala’ika’s family members were upset.
She published short stories, which were well-received by readers, but not by critics. Yet despite the bad reviews from critics, she continued writing and decided to stop translation. In 1993, she wrote: “There are so many books that I need to read, but I can’t find the time, besides I am reading slowly and getting tired easily, even when I am reading novels. But I still can understand quickly. It is the age, even though I used to get tired easily in the past. I think it is the typhoid from my childhood that affected me. Writing is a craft that needs continuous reading and working. I read a lot of literary criticism, novels, stories, and Arabic-language books and others. There are more books that I need to read. Knowledge is like a sea—the more you drink from it the more you want.”
In 1992, the Americans bombed Iraq again, but even though most of the bombing was on the outskirts of Baghdad, Hayat and her daughters avoided going out of the house unless it was necessary.
Not finding an opportunity to publish, she started writing a novel, but she wasn’t sure of this new experience. She wrote, “I am still writing the novel, and I don’t know how it will end. The novel is moving me, and maybe I will finish it by summer. It is a new beautiful experience with no fixed result, but I enjoy writing it and it has become part of my life.”
The effect of economic sanctions took a toll on the country in 1994, when many basic foodstuffs and medicine disappeared from the market, and people were given food rations, like during the Second World War. Hayat, as an assistant professor, was receiving monthly expenses for food, but she had to line up for an hour or two to get the basic items. She felt humiliated because, in order to keep her special monthly expenses for food, she had to write what was required, which was against her beliefs.
In 1994, her daughter Maha graduated from university. She applied for a job at the Ministry of Oil, but was refused because she wasn’t a member of the Baath Party and because her mother was Hayat Sharara. Hayat thought work was important, but she knew that having a job wouldn’t grant any financial or practical rewards. She wanted for her daughters to be independent, and was hoping that life would go back to normal after they lifted the sanctions.
Maha lost hope in finding a job and start reading and studying literature, the Arabic language, literary criticism, and grammar, aiming to work as a journalist. Hayat was happy that Maha was taking these steps.
Zainib was working on collecting and indexing her grandfather’s books, after five of his books were burned in the fire at his publishing house in Lebanon. She was collecting his articles and writing and editing them, and Hayat decided to add Zainab’s name to her father’s books, which she was going to publish.
Even they were all busy, life wasn’t getting better, but instead became lifeless. She wrote, “We stopped walking outside after Zainab was almost run over by a car driven by young people harassing her while crossing the street. We enjoy nature from the roof and watch the sunset. We live to eat, drink, sleep, talk, and got to work, and that is how we know we are alive.”
Hayat stayed in contact with her sister, telling her about her daily life in Baghdad.
It was difficult for her to balance work and home, and she also felt that she was watched all the time, because she wasn’t a member of the Baath Party. She asked her sister not to send her letters to the university address, because the university opened the letters and sometimes they weren’t delivered to her. She was afraid to say anything.
In 1996, she asked for early retirement, but was refused, and her application was considered as a resignation. Thus ended her service of 26 years.
She thought of leaving Iraq, even though that was the last thing she wanted. She tried to get permission to travel with her daughters, without a guardian, and wrote a letter to the president. The letter was returned to her, and she was asked to re-write it by asking for his generosity rather than asking for her rights as she had composed the letter; yet she refused to do so.
Iraqis were then living in a prison, surrounded by police and security that controlled people’s lives in their schools, streets, and even their homes. Life became more difficult with the sanctions: economic, mental and intellectual. The educated people paid a high price, as they were isolated from the world, and nothing was allowed into the country—no books, newspapers, or even paper to print on, and besides that they were getting hungry. People were afraid, and children were taught not to mention anything said at home or to complain at school. They grew up with two personalities. People lived in fear and anxiety.
Hayat and her daughters spent time reading, walking, and watching the sunset as she wrote her novel (When Darkness Falls). But the continuous frustrations in her life made her feel she was facing a closed road—with no travel and no publishing—and she felt unable to face this ordeal, so she started to feel despair instead of facing and challenging the situation as she had before. She lost hope and reached the line between death and life and found refugee in ending her life’s journey.
Balkis’s dream of seeing Hayat in Baghdad vanished on August 1, 1997, when Hayat and her daughter Maha took their lives. She lost her battle in Baghdad, in the city that she had loved, the place where her father had died before her. Baghdad with its palm trees shadowing the orange trees. A city that was no longer the city she loved, but a city of sewage smells, of rubbish in the streets, and of no electricity.
Hayat was born in the city of Najaf, the city of the living and the dead, and she left this world in a violent manner after losing hope in her beloved city Baghdad, the City of Peace.
Hend Saeed is an Arabic literature & cultural consultant, literary translator, reader, writer, and life coach, and also an editor-at-large for ArabLit. She also contributes to other publications and has published a collection of short stories.
This post was first published in ArabLit: ‘When Darkness Falls’: On the Shortened, Brilliant Life of Iraqi Author Hayat Sharara