Literature from the “Axis of Evil”

Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Other Enemy Nations

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Literature from the "Axis of Evil" Reading Group Guide

written by Alexander Cuadros



1. Can one discern a single thread that unites the poems and stories of Iran? Of Iraq? Of North Korea? Are there any common threads between the different countries in this anthology, any shared tactics, techniques, or limitations born of their governments' censorship and isolation? How is the writing of the exiles in the anthology different from that of the writers still living in their native countries? How are the stories and poems of these writers different from those of Americans?


The Vice Principal

2. The bookish young narrator wrestles with whether or not to continue writing after a story of his lands him in trouble with the vice principal of his school. What might the author be implying when the boy says to the vice principal, in reference to what one can and cannot write, …some swear can have them coming from the mouth of a character in the story"? How does this tie in with the narrator's decision, at the end of the story, to sign a statement dictated by the principal swearing that he will not write "anything that violates the order and the discipline of the classroom"? What do these two quotes tell us about writing in Iran?

from A Little Less Conversation

3. Toward the beginning the narrator writes: "To describe Tehran would be like spelling out a frenzied, hour-long dinner table discussion to a complete newcomer." How does the narrator succeed or fail in describing Tehran and all of its contradictions? What does he mean when he writes, at the end, that "the 1979 revolution still is, and hopefully always will be, a matter of dignity"? Even if this statement is meant to be ironic, how does "dignity" fit in to the laundry list of Western goods that precedes it? Why might one find "West Coast hip hop...Nike and Puma" but not Hard Rock Café, and why would that be "a marvelous stroke of luck"?


poem: Baghdad My Beloved

4. The author writes, addressing Baghdad, "You needn't crucify yourself / ...on the edge of a page / of history that is not your own..." To whom, if not to Baghdad and its people, does Baghdad's history belong? The author writes, "Here is my share of victims"—what is the author's part in the wars that have torn the city apart, if he has lived in exile for twenty years? What is he does he mean when he writes, "Here is.../ my share of moon / my harvest of emptiness"? Can one speak of a city as innocent, somehow separate from the actions of its people, as when the author writes, again addressing Baghdad, that civilization "has robbed you of your innocence"? Or is he addressing the Baghdad of the exile, the nostalgic Baghdad of his imagination that perhaps never really existed?

from At the Borderline

5. Nowhere in this story is Iraq mentioned specifically. The narrator refers to men who "spoke both languages" and to the men's "own country," but never to specific names or places. What is the effect of this? Could this smuggler who digs up landmines exist in any country? The narrator writes that the landmines are inscribed with lettering "not meant to be read, intended to disappear in the explosion, into a wound and pain, thereby delivering their message." What might these landmines, with their hidden "message," represent? And what about the man who smuggles them?

from Scattered Crumbs

6. When Ijayel learns of the death of his son-in-law Fauzi, he says, "My son-in-law was martyred in the war fighting for the homeland." After a succession of casualties resulting not from combat with Iran but from Iraqi government repression, can we be certain that Fauzi died as a "martyr"—on the front? Could he just as easily be another soldier executed for desertion? What can we tell about the way the Iraqi people experienced the Iran-Iraq war if, as we might gather from this excerpt, as many Iraqis were "martyred" at home as in battle?

Hameed Nylon

7. The Kirkuk described in "Hameed Nylon," like García Márquez's Macondo, is a place where rumor is nearly as important in shaping reality as fact—if not more important, at times—and where superstition and religion are often indistinguishable from one another. What might the author be implying in the series of deliberations over who caused the "miracle" of the torrential downpour? What impression do we come away with, after the demonstration that begins as a protest against Hameed Nylon's firing and ends as a mass prayer for rain, of Iraqis' convictions and their willingness to be led astray?

North Korea

A Tale of Music

8. In a country where it is forbidden to criticize the state, is it possible to see the shadow of Korean government repression in the narrator's depiction of Japanese repression of Koreans? The adulation for Kim Jong Il often approaches hyperbole—can we allow for the possibility of irony here? (Or is that merely wishful thinking?) Stonemasonry is in sharp contrast with the narrator's brother's previous vocation, music; is this meant, as it appears, to show how emotionally rewarding it is to fulfill one's duty to the state? Or does this bleak and joyless occupation instead—whether subversively or unintentionally—merely show that the North Korean idea of duty and fulfillment is preposterous?

from Hwangjini

9. This story, unlike the other two from North Korea, is not defined by its adherence to the party line. How is the writing different here from that of the other two stories? Do we see any of the same themes—duty, for instance—and are they treated differently? How might writing about the past free the author not just in terms of content, but in terms of style, in literary terms?

The Fifth Photograph

10. Even more so than in "A Tale of Music," here the goal seems not so much to narrate a story but to teach a lesson, to reinforce the party line. Still, can one discern, in the negative space created by the moralism and nationalist hyperbole on display here, the true shape of North Koreans' feelings about their country? Could there be a parallel between the national shame of the Russian Katya and that of a North Korean population for whom rhetoric cannot possibly match reality? Or should we instead merely attempt to appreciate the story's narrative merits with the understanding that they are subject to a set of rules and conditions just as, for example, Renaissance religious and court painting was? Finally, what does the ominous last line of the story mean?


On the Sacks

11. Hanna Mina's story is a prime example of social realism, where the purpose is not so much to craft characters but to depict a national character and conditions of life. What does Mina imply, through his incorrigible young narrator, about the function of writers, the intellectual class, in Syrian society? How does it complicate the story to learn, at the end, that the narrator shares the author's first name? How is it significant that the narrator, now famous, started writing, as Yazirly says, "at my place! On the sacks!"?

from Jurists of Darkness

12. Mullah Binavi puts forth a face of strength, wealth, and respectability even as his estate is crumbling around him. Can Binavi be seen, then, as a symbol of the Syrian state? If so, what does his newborn son—a terrifying aberration, aging several years every hour that passes—represent? What is the "blue space" that overcomes the Mullah toward the end? And what—if they are not merely a moody leitmotiv— might the bird traps represent?


The Soldiers' Plumes

13. Al-Maghur, in looking back at his childhood during World War II, accepts that his memories have been distorted by time—to the point that "one cannot separate the soldiers' plumes from bird feathers." Can we, then, still take his memoir as fact? How, if "some people take up a place in memory that does not suit their place in chronology," is such an admittedly flawed document valuable, when we have reliable histories of the Italian occupation and Allied liberation of Tripoli?


poem: Coffee and Water

14. An unnamed man expresses an almost obsessive nostalgia for his home country. How might Eltayeb, a foreign-born Sudanese, experience nostalgia differently from the man in this poem? What does Eltayeb mean when he writes that "He tries to get the water back / into the water"? What does this impossible—yet miserably evocative—task signify?

The Sweetest Tea with the Most Beautiful Woman in the World

15. This story lacks any specific details about time or place—merely desert. Can we assume we are in Sudan? Even if so, we are missing clues that might tell us what army the narrator belongs to. Does the author, with his naïve, dreamy narrator, end up humanizing this faceless soldier—who could be a member of the Janjaweed of the present day, or on one side or another of the country's first civil war, or of its second? Do you think this was the author's intent? What are we to make of the dreamlike sequence at the end, with the beautiful woman and her endless supply of sugar?


poem: Project for a Commemorative Mural (Mixed Media)

16. What does the author suggest about her heritage with the refrain of "going"/"returning"? What, in her case, is the difference between "going" to Russia and "returning" there? Why does she use the term "extraterrestrial" to describe the Russian language and the Russian woman—herself?—whom we see throughout, wearing headphones?

Women of the Federation

17. Throughout, the narrator makes light of Cuba's isolation, his countrymen's ignorance about the rest of the world—the location of Laos, for example, or Rabindranath Tagore's true nationality, or Pudge's five rudimentary words of English. How does his fantasy of the Pope's visit fit into this landscape of isolation? There are casual mentions throughout of Cuba's precarious state of affairs, as when the electricity goes off, but the narrator glosses over them quickly. How is this expressed differently from in the other stories in this anthology? Does it mean that these failings are less meaningful to Cubans, more accepted, or merely more ingrained in their daily lives?