Reading the Republic: Best Books to Understand Iraq

Baghdad 2010/Photo: CC/Omar Chatriwala/Flickr

Like many other nations in the Middle East, Iraq has suffered a turbulent and often violent history marked by uprisings, coups, and political unrest. In a broad sense, it is a country well-known to most in the United States, although largely and solely as a longtime adversary under the regime of Saddam Hussein. Hussein and his Arab nationalist Ba’ath Party were infamous for myriad human rights violations and war crimes throughout the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s. The international outcry, coupled with Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait in 1990 led to the U.S.-led invasion and the Gulf War. Iraq would once again find itself at odds with the United States in 2003 following the 9/11 attacks, when the U.S. invaded the country based on the unfounded idea that Iraq was amassing weapons of mass destruction – an idea that ultimately proved false.

In recent years, Iraq has been at the center of the conflict with ISIS and most recently was named as one of the seven Muslim-majority countries in President Trump’s contentious travel ban. Iraq is a complicated nation, a focal point for Middle East conflict and U.S. intervention. The twelve books below, many by Iraqi authors who were exiled or imprisoned under the government of Saddam Hussein, should provide a clearer picture of a country tragically torn by violence and strife.

  • The cover of the book The Corpse Exhibition

    The Corpse Exhibition

    And Other Stories of Iraq

    In his debut collection of fiction, Hassan Blasim presents the Iraqi perspective on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a surrealistic edge that sharpens the emotional impact of these tales. The stories are at turns darkly comic, haunting, and unflinching in their treatment of the horrors of war.

  • The cover of the book Basrayatha: Portrait of a City

    Basrayatha: Portrait of a City

    In Basrayatha: Portrait of a City, Iraqi author Mohammed Khudayyir pays tribute to his birth city of Basra. It is equal parts travelogue, memoir, and meditation not only on the city of his youth, but on a bygone period of Iraqi history and culture.

  • The cover of the book The Iraq War

    The Iraq War

    The Military Offensive, from Victory in 21 Days to the Insurgent Aftermath

    With The Iraq War, military historian John Keegan provides one of the fullest accounts of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. Drawing on interviews with Donald Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks, Keegan presents an incisive history on the war and its fallout.

  • The cover of the book A Sky So Close

    A Sky So Close

    A Novel

    This coming-of-age story centers on a girl straddling two worlds, and takes us from Baghdad at the dawn of the war to England. As the daughter of an Iraqi father and an English mother, the unnamed girl in Betool Khedairi’s novel does not quite fit in the Iraqi countryside, nor is she at home in the western school of music and ballet that her mother forces her to attend. Khedari – who has an Iraqi father and Scottish mother – no doubt draws on her own experience for this debut novel.

  • The cover of the book Zubaida's Window

    Zubaida's Window

    Iraqi journalist Iqbal Al-Qazwini was exiled from Iraq in 1978 during the rise of Saddam Hussein. In Zubaida’s Window, she turns to fiction to chronicle an experience that many Iraqi exiles knew well – the complicated emotions that come with watching the U.S. invasion of her homeland from some distant country.

  • The cover of the book The World Through the Eyes of Angels

    The World Through the Eyes of Angels

    Exiled author Mahmoud Saeed – whose works led to repeated imprisonments in his native Iraq – channels his childhood in Mosul to conjure an Iraq lost to the rise of Saddam Hussein. Set in Mosul in the 1940s and ‘50s, Saeed’s twelve interconnected stories present a young boy living through childhood and adolescence with a tone as haunting and melancholic as it is tinged with nostalgia.

  • The cover of the book The Corpse Washer

    The Corpse Washer

    In his novel The Corpse Washer, Baghdad-born author Sinan Antoon charts the decline of Iraqi society through the lens of a Shi’ite family of corpse washers and shrouders. Young Jawad seeks to break family tradition and attend Baghdad’s Academy of Fine Arts, but the reign of Saddam Hussein, the economic strife of the 1990s, and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq force him to return to his family and once again wash and shroud the corpses piling up in his beloved city.

  • The cover of the book Closing His Eyes

    Closing His Eyes

    This collection of short stories by Basra-born author Luay Hamza Abbas tells of everyday Iraqi lives touched by the violence, fear, and war that has dominated life in this nation for so much of the last two decades. It is a powerful look into the way the country’s seemingly ceaseless volatility affects the lives of the average Iraqi citizen.

  • The cover of the book Knife Sharpener

    Knife Sharpener

    This posthumous collection of poetry celebrates the work of influential Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus with poems written between 1991 and his death in 2007. As with many other Iraqi authors, he spent a large portion of his career exiled from the country. His sparse and evocative poems often illustrated the pain he felt for his country.

  • The cover of the book The Mirror Test

    The Mirror Test

    America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan

    Having spent seven years on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan working for the U.S. State Department, J. Kael Weston returned to the U.S. wondering what, if anything, had been learned from the wars. This book, built on the stories of Iraqis, Afghans, and Americans, seeks to unearth answers. It is an unflinching examination of warfare, diplomacy, and America’s presence abroad.

  • The cover of the book Mayada, Daughter of Iraq

    Mayada, Daughter of Iraq

    One Woman's Survival Under Saddam Hussein

    This book from writer Jean Sasson tells the tragic story of Mayada, a woman born to a wealthy Iraqi family and eventually imprisoned under the Hussein regime. In cell fifty-two of the infamous Baladiyat prison, Sasson lived among seventeen other women from all walks of life. This book chronicles the story of these “shadow women.”

  • The cover of the book Fiasco


    The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005

    This Pulitzer Prize finalist from Thomas E. Ricks may be the definitive examination of America’s 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. With deep access to U.S. personnel – including more than one hundred senior officers – as well as a trove of documents, Ricks breaks down the tactical successes and strategic failures that led to the morass in Iraq.