Literary life is budding again in war-ravaged Iraq but chaos on the ground can be as daunting as Saddam Hussein's official censors once were, authors told the world's biggest book fair Thursday.
At a panel discussion called "Iraq: The New Beginning" at the fair in this western Germany city, Iraq poets and publishers described a jarring new landscape littered with fresh dangers for creative minds.
"We are dealing with death and destruction and killing every day, that means the death and destruction and killing of culture too," said poet Kazim Hegaz, who lives in the southern city of Basra.
"I think poetry in some ways is in a worse state than before (the US-led war) because with the upheaval, nobody knows where he stands and aesthetic tastes are at a stand-still."
Hegaz said although a market for fiction was gradually emerging, Iraqi authors were finding it difficult to capture the ever-shifting reality in their country in novels or even short stories.
He said journalism was the first form of writing coming into its own. While just five newspapers were published in the country under Saddam Hussein, some 160 Iraqi dailies and weeklies are now available and voicing strong opinions about the rocky post-Baathist transition.
Gulala Nouri, a divorced mother of one living in the northern city of Mosul, said she had internalized state censorship to such an extent before the 2003 war that she found it difficult now to test the limits of her poetry.
"The walls in my mind are still there and it will take a while to learn to write what I like," she said.
Nouri said that because the overthrow of Saddam's government had allowed radical Islamist groups to thrive in some areas, women writers in particular were faced with new restrictions and threats.
"People are frightened of the extremist groups - you have to assume they could strike any day," she said.
Hegaz said pan-Arab poetry festivals had been organized under Saddam but that attendance was mandatory, creating a somewhat surreal artistic atmosphere. He said three literary events had been organized in the past year but that security concerns had kept many writers from attending.
Meanwhile two of the scheduled participants in Frankfurt, Basra-based author Hussain Abdallatif and Baghdad poet Ahmed Saadawi, were forced to cancel the trip at the last minute due to security or logistical problems.
Khalid al-Maaly, an Iraqi poet and publisher with offices in both the western German city of Cologne and Baghdad, said he was disappointed that wealthy Arab publishing groups had not stepped in to help rebuild the industry in Iraq when such subsidies were common throughout the region.
"I sent out several requests but did not even receive a rejection letter," he said.
Despite the uncertain future, Hegaz said he and his compatriots were hopeful they could convert their tumultuous national history into rich literature.
"Iraq is a country of many civilizations - they are all still there, they have endured," he said.
"Iraqis have inherited this great past which makes me optimistic despite the occupation and the presence of foreign troops."
The 56th annual Frankfurt Book Fair, running through Sunday, has invited publishers and writers from the Arab world as its guests of honor this year.