In February, a group of students and I visited the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. Originally built to be used as a medium-security prison, it went unoccupied for years. Eventually, as expansions in civil detention accelerated after 2001, the Corrections Corporation of America (now CoreCivic) turned the prison compound into one of the largest and most remote immigration detention centers in the country. In coordination with El Refugio volunteers, we visited with people in detention and observed cases in the adjacent courthouse. Each hearing lasted only a few minutes; most ended with the assigning of yet another court date. Several petitioners in detention pleaded for immediate deportation rather than remain at Stewart. Every time, the judge denied the request, explaining that he could not trust anyone to make such an important decision under such intense emotional conditions. 1

At the time of our visit, the COVID-19 pandemic was mere weeks into the future for Stewart Detention Center. Well documented for its terrible conditions and deportation rates, Stewart halted its already-restrictive no-contact visits in mid-March. But the highly inter-relational nature of carceral practices continued: the people caged and the people employed to guard them got sick. ICE deported people who became potential viral transmitters internationally. Awaiting deportation, Santiago Baten-Oxlaj became the first detainee from Stewart to die of COVID-19, followed by Jose Guillén-Vega.2

Meanwhile, in an online chat with my contemporary literature class, a student invoked Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers. They proposed that the pandemic was their generation's 9/11. The analogy gave an early moment of confusion some gravity, but it left me with a sense of dread. "9/11" was my generation's 9/11  by which I mean an event sealed from the manifold histories of racial colonial violence that shaped its immediate and continuing unfoldings: a memorialization weaponized righteously, viciously, expansively; and a shorthand for the recent past, despite its signs of life pulsing everywhere.3 Seized by the United States as proprietary national trauma, "9/11" remains a kind of perpetual year zero for the political imagination. Confinement operations attempts to discursively police who could lay claim to the event and how were underway in US-centered discussions of writing and art within days.4

The reception of Spiegelman's comics is a case in point. After his controversial black-on-black cover of the towers for the New Yorker in late September 2001, no major US outlet would publish his comics: instead, the comics were originally serialized in the German newspaper Die Zeit before their assembly in 2004 by Viking. But even then, Spiegelman's Left internationalist imagination tends to get obscured by reviewers' preoccupation with his personal trauma and worries about the future of US democracy.

I begin with these two personal anecdotes to situate my writing in its particular time of necropolitical expulsion politics and nationalism. The purpose of my essay is to reflect on the confinement operations at work in how we write and think about practices and narratives of detention after 9/11. To take seriously radical anti-imperial internationalist imaginations in literature and art requires being open to connections between things that don't seem to belong to the same history, genre, or literary formation.

It may be helpful to say at the outset what this essay is not. While this essay concentrates on Iraqi diasporic writing and art, it does not serve to merely include Iraqi voices into the category of 9/11 literature and art. Mere inclusion brings neither redress nor transformative thought. Moreover, the essay is not about Iraqi voices as such. It reflects on texts made by writers and artists connected to Iraq but based in different international locations within the Global North. We can call it an Iraqi diaspora, if by diaspora we insist here on the explicit and critical internationalism of these writers and artists.

Diasporas have manifold and competing attachments to places and politics. Growing up in an Iraqi diasporic community in the United States, I have seen its version of model minority politics and "refugee patriotism" combined with imperial political aspirations for post-Saddam Iraqi democracy. In the context of the Iraqi diaspora and the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, Iraqi diasporic voices were included in the lead-up and prosecution of the war: they were used as proof that the US incorporated "Iraqi voices."

An imperial innovation of the British Mandate system, what we now call Iraq has been made colonial, postcolonial, and anti-colonial so many times, sometimes at once. But "Iraq" has emerged as if it were a recent literary category, even within postcolonial thought. To think about detention operations through Iraq is to inquire into the "postcolonial contemporary" that we differentially inhabit.5 It is to dwell on the possibility that what we call the global 9/11 is a genre in detention, in need of conceptual unraveling.

The essay analyzes the disjuncture between the desire to categorize Iraqi writing or art into genres of 9/11 and the failure to conceptualize violence in its liberal international forms. We risk our own confinement operations in contemporary criticism and theory. Categories and genres of 9/11 inadvertently can help a text travel while keeping its full capaciousness and significance in detention, confined by patterns of genre recognition that privilege genre as a way to bypass a significant reckoning with the histories of the present and its imperial durabilities. The pattern Melani McAlister identifies in US cinema since the 1970s can extend to literary categories, where artistic responses to foreign policy events ideologically prepares spectators or readers for understanding the next "conflict." The need to fit within an ideologically stifling category of 9/11 literature and art can disappear Iraqi detainees, heads covered in sandbags and flexicuffs on their wrists in the sand, Photoshopped from the cover of a veteran's book of poetry on the war. It can prompt Arab American writers and artists to participate in neo-Orientalist fiction. It can promote a category of "global literature" in its neoliberal multicultural variety oriented toward easy access to cultures in the Global South, "in a form that does not seem to require too much specialized knowledge."6

Iraqi writing and artwork unravels 9/11 to reveal it as a genre in detention. Short artworks organize quick cuts between genres here: Wafaa Bilal's performance art, rap videos PHATWA by Yassin "Narcy" Alsalman and This Is Iraq by IN-Z (an allusion to the state agency, Immigration New Zealand), and Hassan Blasim's short story "The Truck to Berlin."7 Each reflects on imaginative geographies of the policed and occupied as they circulate in and beyond the coordinates of 9/11. Each conceives of confinement operations in Iraq as international and knotted with anti-Black and colonial racisms, and each artist inhabits different relations to Iraq in diaspora.8 Together, they invite us to revise our received understanding of 9/11 and imperial liberal violence, both foreign and domestic.


Wafaa Bilal entered his "paintball prison" in May 2007. For thirty-one days he lived inside Flat File gallery in Chicago, spending almost every minute confined to a room where he and his team set up spare living quarters and a 24/7 web broadcast. Anyone could go to the project's website, where there was a chat box and access to a paintball gun fitted to a robotic arm that you could use to shoot at Bilal from much closer range than the manufacturer recommends. Bilal allowed himself only occasional short breaks. He gained weight and skin rashes. His PTSD returned. His nostrils filled with the smell of fish oil from more than 60,000 shots fired.

Domestic Tension was presented without prefatory narrative or historical context. In his YouTube diaries and participation in the chat, though, Bilal documented the process of living in a confined space as a potential target of remote-controlled violence, humanitarian intervention, and constant surveillance. The masochistic interactive performance put Bilal's body at the center of the camera, but Domestic Tension puts those behind the gun on display, through users' responses--a toxic mix of gaming, sex, aggression, racial innocence, Global North nationalisms, and humanitarian care.9

In Bilal's subsequent book, Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life, and Resistance under the Gun (2008), sites of confinement became an occasion for narrative: at home with a difficult father; at the campus security office, where Ba'ath party officials demanded explanations of his artwork; in three refugee camps, patrolled by soldiers in Kuwait, US-occupied Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. He narrates the confluence of family and national trauma, from the first 1968 Ba'ath revolution to the US missile strike that killed his brother Haji in 2004 at a checkpoint in their hometown of Kufa.10

Meanwhile, outside Domestic Tension's gallery space of controlled risk, the notoriously militarized police of Chicago kept working: where officers have the asymmetrical power to do what they want to their targets of presumptive suspicion, to shoot, kill, torture, frame, exploit, all in the name of "law and order," community policing, public safety, the fixing of broken windows.

Fred Moten proposed that it is insurgent Black social life, in its openness, its "unfixity," that constitutes an ongoing threat to the existing order. He proposed of Black lives, "We are the broken windows [...] And we need to look through the broken window, unfixed, to see reality."11 In his gallery, Bilal's plexiglass shield quickly shattered from the force of so many paintballs shot at close range.


Detainment begins the moment law enforcement asks you a question. When Moten says that Black life's radical potential continues to make Blackness a police target, he signals that potential as insurgent. Yassin "Narcy" Alsalman's PHATWA dramatizes such insurgence, altering fatwa from an authoritative statement to preserve the existing order into a repudiation of the existing order.

In PHATWA, Narcy plays a version of himself, an aspiring Iraqi-Canadian rapper who is detained at the airport while waiting for Flight 911 to New York. His friend Yusho, who's Black, speculates on their relative "racial baggage."12

Yusho asks: "Yo Narcy, do you really think that they're watching us? ... Who do you think they're gonna harass more, man, me or you?" Narcy answers, "Man, obviously me, dawg, you know Iraq is the new Black," then looks stoically into the distance. The rap track bursts in as a comical FBI agent comes onto the scene, points to Narcy's "SAME SHIT/DIFFERENT SADDAM" t-shirt that incriminates US-led "regime change" alongside Iraqi state corruption and takes him away for interrogation.

A body search reveals not a suicide bomber jacket but dozens of Narcy's PHATWA CDs and a mic duct taped to his chest and torso. The bag search yields not a terrorist manual but a copy of Petrosexual Man magazine with headlines like: "Occupied passion. We'll never pull out!"; and "Strapped to an oil rig and ready to BLOW!"13 As Narcy is led away, the song's last line is, "I get deported, somewhere to die."

The video reveals racial profiling in New York and random detention in Iraq as interconnected, made through the links between broken windows policing and liberal imperial counterinsurgency. With Yusho outside the frame, we can only guess whether he would have made Flight 911 to New York or been detained in the next room.

PHATWA responds to Yusho's proposal that Narcy take the dread of racial profiling and "flip it." Yusho proposes a fatwa; Narcy calls Iraq the new Black. Rather than read Narcy's line in the logic of substitution as if Iraq replaces Blackness as the state's primary racial targetwe can consider the shared traffic between radical freedom movements as well as manifold counterinsurgencies.

The most spectacular image in the video is of men in bright orange jumpsuits with black hoods over their faces and zip ties on their wrists. PHATWA bills them as "The Bagheads." Sometimes one appears as an apparition. Sometimes they stand behind a seated Narcy, snapping their fingers and moving from side to side in doo-wop Motown style.

Histories gather in the orange threads of a uniform made notorious by the Global War on Terror but once an emblem of US prison modernization. Linking international and US carceral sites, they remind us to pay attention not just to extreme cases but to the normalized brutality of ordinary arrests and lawfully caged people, liberal tactics of a global system of class and race war rendered procedural.14

Rapper IN-Z carries forward the orange jumpsuit in his reworking of Childish Gambino's This is America.15 This is Iraq starts with IN-Z in a traditional dishdashah, joining an older Iraqi musician seated on a rug, tuning his oud, as US soldiers dance in the background. Within seconds, the camera pans back to IN-Z now in an orange jumpsuit, handed a gun, and forced by the soldiers to shoot the old man. The orange jumpsuit signifies spectacles of detention but also routine policing under occupation, as collapsed Iraqi judiciary, police, and prison systems are rebuilt and reformed.


Ferial Ghazoul notes, "the collective Iraqi experience in the second half of the twentieth century [...] has been characterized by upheavals, wars, revolutions, violence and sanctions amounting to a historical nightmare and a horror serial."16 Within Iraq, writers and artists also risk being targeted by state or nonstate political actors for their writing and artworks, navigate financial and publishing pressures, and contend with their own marginalization within international book marketsa situation ameliorated only partly by scholarship, anthologies, online cultural magazines, and growing attention from Arabic and English book markets and prizes. One can glean something about the complex relationship between Iraqi writers based internationally and those based in Iraq by reading Sinan Antoon's 2019 novel The Book of Collateral Damage, in which an Iraqi-American graduate student becomes entrusted with an experimental book of Iraq's war losses, authored by a bookseller from Baghdad's al-Mutanabbi street famous for its bookshops and the target of a 2007 car bombing.

Hassan Blasim's fiction was not born marketed. Before securing a UK press, Blasim posted his short stories directly online in Iraqi Arabic to avoid censorship and the small corruptions of Arabic publishing. He has since published two short story collections with Comma Press (Freedom of Madman Square and The Iraqi Christ), a collection that combines many of those stories into a US release (The Corpse Exhibition), an edited anthology featuring diasporic and Iraq-based writers (Iraq + 100), and a novel out this year (God 99), all translated into English by Jonathan Wright. Reviewers have been obsessed with fitting Blasim's high-octane multi-genre fiction into masculine genealogies of serious literature: Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Marquéz, Carlos Fuentes, Roberto Bolaño, Nikolai Gogol, Franz Kafka, Günter Grass. A featured blurb cuts out lineage altogether, simply calling Blasim "perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive."17

Countering critical praise for his ostensible magical realism, Blasim half-jokingly calls his style "nightmare realism." His literary internationalism can invite these connections, as in his story "The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes," but Blasim reworks those links in ways that confound commodified descriptions of magical realism. His work also belongs to broad experiments in contemporary Iraqi fiction to extend the limits of horror, gothic, and related genres through serious artistic engagements with the political conditions of life and death, from the start of the war with Iran in 1980 through the Gulf War, sanctions, and the post-2003 US invasion.

Blasim's fiction is shocking in its formally audacious reworkings of horror, speculation, sci-fi, the supernatural, and the gothic. But some among its Global North readership risk repurposing genre as the solution to their own imperial racial innocence. Conceptual confinement happens when emphasizing genre becomes a readerly tactic to confine the text to ideological expectations, and to preserve the imperial racial innocence that persists around 9/11, despite the artwork's formal complexity and resistance to such confinement.

"The Truck to Berlin" opens with an unnamed narrator who left sanctions-era Iraq but decides to stay undocumented in Istanbul rather than continue to Europe. He recounts the horror story he'd heard about a truck that contained thirty-five young Iraqi men pretending to be a cargo of canned fruit. Serbian police find the truck days after the smuggler abandoned it near the forested border with Hungary. When they open the back door, "a young man soaked in blood jump[s] down from inside and r[uns] like a madman towards the forest," and disappears. In the truck are thirty-four shredded bodies "as though hungry wolves had been there" to turn young men into "a large soggy mass of flesh, blood and shit."18

A thoughtful, growing body of scholarship on Blasim has highlighted the lines from this story. I supply two connections that widen the interpretive field in terms of temporality, genre, and geopolitical range. First, the story works as a response to a classic realist refugee migration narrative, Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani's 1962 "Men in the Sun." Written while Kanafani was in hiding in Beirut from Israeli agents, the story follows three Palestinian refugees who pay a smuggler to take them to Kuwait in a sealed water tank, hoping to trade their dispossession as refugees for the more profitable dispossession of undocumented work. Kanafani's story runs about fifty pages but paces the smuggling sequence by the minutes, while Blasim's rewrite runs under ten pages but stretches the smuggling sequence over seven days, dilating the time of waiting and prolonging their deaths as a slow devastation of flesh.

The narrator of "The Truck to Berlin" recounts how a Serbian policeman witnessed the sole survivor of the truck disaster turn into a werewolf. The policeman's desire to be believed hounds him: fellow officers don't corroborate his account, and he's left insisting to his wife "I'm not mad, woman. I tell you for the thousandth time . . . he started to run on all fours, then turned into a grey wolf, before he vanished."19 Because the lone survivor transforms into a predator, the international border system has an alibi for the violence of confinement that has led to countless deaths from clandestine migration. Or, as Rita Sakr reads it, the figure becomes a fugitive, expelled from the political order, placing him beyond the usual humanitarian confines of refugee narratives.20

Second, Blasim's story echoes the real-life massacre of detainees in the first months of the US war in Afghanistan. Laleh Khalili recounts the "'death-by-container' of unknown thousands of Taliban prisoners at the end of November 2001" at the hands of Abd-al-Rashid Dostum, a Northern Alliance warlord and US proxy on the CIA payroll.21 After Taliban forces surrendered, Dostum's commander ordered "freight container after freight container to be filled with Taliban detainees to be transported from Mazar-e-Sharif to Sheberghan prison in Dasht-e-Leyli. The containers had no ventilation, air-conditioning, or waste system." The prisoners were crammed in by the hundreds. "After twenty-four hours without water, survivors spoke of having 'licked and chewed each other's skin to stay alive.'" US special forces were aware but more focused "on prison security" to prevent more prison uprisings.22 The FBI, State Department, and even United Nations noted the massacre and mass graves but prevented any serious investigation, and "news stories about the event itself were overtaken by stories of US detention centers in Afghanistan and later at Guantánamo Bay."23


In the final scene of IN-Z's This is Iraq, a Black man in an orange jumpsuit sweeps the floor of blood with a push broom. The old musician and the rapper stand facing each other, oblivious to the blood and the sweeping. IN-Z is dressed in his dishdashah again. Before the video ends, the elder man recites lines from modern Iraqi poet Badr Shakr Al-Sayyab's "The River and Death" (1957), a poem that apostrophizes a rivulet in his beloved village of Jaykur, just south of Basra.

The poem overlays post-invasion catastrophes with a nostalgia for the beautiful Iraq before war, but it also brings the fuller coloniality of the present into the video's frame. Al-Sayyab's lifetime (1926-1964) overlapped with British control (1914-1958). He wrote "The River and Death" in Kuwait while hiding from the police crackdown on Iraqi communist and labor activists. The military coup of 14 July Revolution of 1958 overthrew the British Mandate-appointed monarchy and declared Iraq a free republic under Abd al-Karim Qasim. A failed 1959 coup attempt in Mosul by Qasim's rival, Abd al-Wahab al-Shawwaf, prompted new rounds of settling scores in weeks of anti-communist violence and counter-violence, including a massacre of Turkmen in Kirkuk by Kurdish Communist members. That event prompted al-Sayyab to renounce the Iraqi Communist Party for the Ba'ath Party.

I have no evidence that my grandfather shared in Al-Sayyab's political commitments. But he was swept up into acts of confinement that came in this period nonetheless. He was transferred to what may have been the same prison in Basra built for the British Petroleum Corporation, decades after the British introduced early prison reforms in Ottoman-controlled Iraq and forty years before US standard-issue orange jumpsuits. I never heard a word about what his experience was like: instead of narrative, there's a beautiful object, made under duress, or perhaps, despite it.

I think of him stitching beadwork at the Basra prison. The purse has cream white beadwork surrounding an extravagant peacock made of red, orange, gold, green, royal blue, and black beads, some opaque, some translucent. There is a single turquoise eye, the peacock in profile, looking back toward its tail feathers, on a tree limb that frames its body, in counterpoint to a white purse handle of cream beads. The beads are slightly cool to the touch. A handle is made of short metal wire twisted around the zipper, the only part of the purse that looks improvised. Inside is the luxurious color and cheap feel of velvet, with carefully made pockets, and a scent I can't quite place.

US counterinsurgency was already at work, if in a minor key, throughout the breathtaking contest between British imperialism, participatory politics, authoritarianism, and Cold War imperialism. In 1961 while my grandfather was in prison two Iraqi officials visited the United States for a training program.24 That kind of influence sounds miniscule when I think of the shocks of US trainingsreconstituted military, police, judiciaryto come. But it is an inflection point within the long historical deployment of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore identifies as "the strategies of organized violence and organized abandonment" that exemplify and protect the current order.25 I think of my grandfather making a craft art in a form, material, and conditions not of his choosing, within a prison that will have belonged to so many others' futures.

Angela Naimou teaches at Clemson University and co-edits the Humanity journal. She is the author of Salvage Work: U.S. and Caribbean Literatures amid the Debris of Legal Personhood (Fordham). She is working on a critical volume, "Diaspora and Literary Studies," and a monograph on contemporary literature and international border systems.


  1. I thank Clemon University for the CU SEED grant that contributed to this essay. With thanks to Kalyan Nadiminti for organizing this cluster, the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University, and friends who read an earlier version or shared in conversation.[]
  2. See Gilberto Rosas and Virginia Raymond, "Migrant Detention Turns Deadlier," NACLA 52, no. 3, August 27, 2020.[]
  3. It went unnoticed, for instance, that our chat took place almost to the day of the US invasion of Iraq and the worldwide protests that coursed through the streets seventeen years earlier. Or that massive anti-government, youth-led protests in Baghdad had been going on for months before the pandemic, despite curfews and police violence. See also Ayça Çubukçu, For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).[]
  4. Arundhati Roy and a number of others received sharp criticism for their writings in the immediate aftermath, at a time when arts and culture circles seriously entertained the question of whether poetry were possible after 9/11. []
  5. See Jini Kim Watson and Gary Wilder, The Postcolonial Contemporary: Political Imaginaries for the Global Present (New York: Fordham Press, 2018).[]
  6. On the cover design of Brian Turner's Here, Bullet, see Sinan Antoon,"Embedded Poetry: Iraq; Through a Soldier's Binoculars," Jadaliyya, June 11, 2014. On neo-Orientalist Arab American fiction as an offshoot of the War on Terror, See Laila Amine, "Alicia Erian's Towelhead: The New Face of Orientalism in the US Ethnic Bildungsroman," College Literature 45, no. 4 (Fall 2018): 724-746. On the criticism of global literature as category, see Jodi Melamed, Represent and Destroy (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 161-162.[]
  7. Hassan Blasim, from The Madman of Freedom Square, translated by Jonathan Wright (Manchester, UK: Comma Press, 2009).[]
  8. Writers and artists in diaspora have by convention been privileged and gained international recognition more easily. Bilal came to the United States in 1992 via a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia. Blasim made the clandestine journey over four years to reach Finland in 2004 to gain asylum there. Montreal-based Narcy was born in Dubai to parents exiled from 1970s Basra, and Rapper IN-Z was born in Scotland to Iraqi parents and grew up in New Zealand.[]
  9. Wafaa Bilal, Shoot an Iraqi (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2008), 78-81. See Ronak K. Kapadia, Insurgent Aesthetics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), for discussion of Bilal's wider body of experimental performance art.[]
  10. Bilal dedicates the project to Haji and attributes the genesis of the paintball project to watching an interview with a drone operator, making death in a "conflict zone" from her "comfort zone."[]
  11. "Do Black Lives Matter? Robin D.G. Kelley and Fred in Conversation," Vimeo.  []
  12. Simone Brown, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).[]
  13. Animating PHATWA is the international security-police apparatus of Project O Canada and US law enforcement agencies after 9/11. It evokes Maher Arar's experience, detained at JFK on layover on his return flight to Canada following a family trip. Detained in solitary confinement and rendered (or "deported" according to US officials) to Syria, he was tortured for several months before his release.[]
  14. See Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (Oxford University Press, 2014). See also Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton, Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter (Verso Books, 2016).[]
  15. On "This Is America," see Sheri-Marie Harrison, "New Black Gothic," LARB, June 23, 2018. []
  16. Ferial Ghazoul, "Iraqi Short Fiction: The Unhomely at Home and Abroad," Journal of Arabic Literature 35, no. 1 (2004): 1.[]
  17. Attributed to The Guardian, but the statement is made by Robin Yassin-Kassab. Postcolonial and Arabic literature scholars have also sought to locate Blasim's work within established frames such as the postcolonial gothic or national fiction. Blasim's energetic iconoclasm also means his repertoire and critical genre recognition keeps shifting. See Rita Sakr "The More-than-Human Refugee Journey: Hassan Blasim's short stories," Journal of Postcolonial Writing(2019): 766-780. See also Nadia Atia "Death and Mourning in Contemporary Iraqi Texts," Interventions, 21, no. 8 (2019): 1068-1086. []
  18. Blasim, "The Truck to Berlin," in The Madman of Freedom Square (Manchester, UK: Comma Press, 2010), 73.[]
  19. Ibid., 73.[]
  20. Sakr, 771.[]
  21. Khalili, 116.[]
  22. Ibid., 117.[]
  23. Ibid., 117.[]
  24. Stuart Schrader, Borders without Badges (University of California Press, 2019), 324-373.[]
  25. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, "Prisons and Class Warfare: An Interview with Ruth Wilson Gilmore," interview by Clément Petitjean, August 2, 2018. See also "Ruth Wilson Gilmore makes the Case for Abolition," Intercept podcast with Chenjerai Kumanyika, June 10, 2020. []