HEREâe(TM)S WHAT the novel Naphtalene and the war diary Baghdad Burning have in common: The protagonists of both books speak in young, assertive female voices that describe life in Baghdad; they even live in the same area of the city, al-Aâe(TM)dhamiyya. Both recall summertime domestic rituals âe" the washing of courtyards, the storage of winter clothes, family meals eaten on cool clean floors. Both are skillfully written, compelling reads, richly deserving of the prizes each has won.
Naphtalene begins in 1940s Baghdad. Nine-year-old Huda lives amid the turmoil of an extended family. When her emotionally volatile father rejects her mother, forcing her to leave home and children, even Hudaâe(TM)s compassionate and loving grandmother wonâe(TM)t stop him. True to the fleeting, unexpected preoccupations of a child, Hudaâe(TM)s detailed impressions dissolve into one another, and the past can be evoked in the same tense as the present. The highly poetic style conjures all the vividness of the seeing, smelling, hearing and feeling of a child who keenly observes her domestic world, particularly the cruelties and disappointments of the adults in her family. But she has none of their power to alter the course of her future.
Baghdad Burning begins precisely at 7:36 pm on Sunday August 17, 2003. In her first posting, the blogger known only as Riverbend announces: âeoeIâe(TM)m female, Iraqi, and 24. I survived the war. Thatâe(TM)s all you need to know.âe The book is a compilation of Riverbendâe(TM)s blog entries from the first year of the war. We soon learn about the job she lost in the chaos and destruction of the bombings (âeoeI made as much money as my two male colleaguesâe ), the daily frustration of scarce electricity and the âeoetenacity of the Iraqi sense of humourâe after the long nightmare of a family memberâe(TM)s kidnapping ends in joy and relief with his return:
Here was A., with a gash in his headâe¦bruisedâe¦feet bleedingâe¦and he was cracking jokes: âeoeThey actually only wanted $5,000,âe he said at one point, âeoebut I was outraged âe" told them I was worth AT LEAST $20,000.
Over the course of a year, Riverbendâe(TM)s politically trenchant, dryly humorous writings give us an unprecedented view of war, fear and the slowly eroding hopes of an entire nation.
Admittedly, lumping these two books together for the purpose of this essay is not fair to either author âe" each has a much larger scope than this review can encompass. Blame can be laid quite cheerfully, though, at the door of the U.S. war machine; thanks to it, weâe(TM)re now compelled to discuss all books by Iraqi women, regardless of when they were written, under the dismal light of Rumsfeldâe(TM)s red glare. (Naphtalene was actually written in 1986, but reprinted by the Feminist Press in New York just last year).
Still, this is one injustice that can be amended. It is worth reflecting on the stark contrast between Riverbendâe(TM)s factual war dispatches and Alia Mamdouhâe(TM)s highly allusive, dreamlike fiction, because in many ways it reveals the impact of this ruinous war on our own cultural expectations.
Riverbend is not only conscious of the larger world outside her burning city âe" as long as the electricity is running, she is an active moral agent within, and makes a substantial impact on, that larger world.
Riverbend is an Iraqi under occupation. But she is also a full citizen of the blogosphere, fluent in its idiom; speaking truth to power on one page and offering it her favourite Iraqi recipes on the next.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the danger and hardship of her circumstances, Riverbendâe(TM)s urgent dispatches primarily address western readers unfamiliar with Iraqi Muslim culture. In the midst of her political insights, she frequently responds to her readers emails, taking the time to act as a cultural and religious interpreter, explaining Ramadan, Islamic law and variations in Muslim womenâe(TM)s dress, within a quickly sketched Iraqi context.
All of these issues have become ideological flashpoints between rival factions struggling for the right to define Iraqâe(TM)s political future. As a stakeholder in that future, Riverbend emphatically expresses her opinions: she has nothing to gain by holding back. âeoeIâe(TM)m telling everyone now âe" if I get any more emails about how free and liberated the Iraqi women are * now * thanks to America, they can expect a very nasty answer.âe
Indeed, while Riverbendâe(TM)s actual identity remains a secret throughout Baghdad Burning, neither she nor we can be under any illusion that what she is sharing with us is a truly private life. Privacy is a luxury to which only people living in peaceful stability are entitled; Riverbend has fully capitulated âe" she has no choice âe" to the global Muslim condition as defined by the War on Terror, where her beliefs and practices carry a political freight she has not chosen but to which, under western scrutiny, she is held accountable. Baghdad Burning shows us what it takes to be a steadfast witness to the brutal and exact costs of war, and survive.
In contrast, the rhythms and tensions of Naphtalene pull the reader inward, to private sorrows and secret pleasures. The pious and the profane in the lives of its characters are woven seamlessly together. Huda is at once attracted and repelled by scenes such as the fervent womenâe(TM)s mourning rituals at her own motherâe(TM)s funeral, by the stifling heat and smell of womenâe(TM)s bodies in the hammam, and the violent rage of her housebound, frustrated aunt. In these scenes, prayer is unselfconscious, performed without translation:
She prayed. Then her tears startedâe¦she wept until the whole grave was covered with tears. She passed through Aleppo and Mecca; she pronounced the Prophetâe(TM)s name as if washing herself with it. She felt her pain light the incense for him. She did not forget us, those who stood round her: âeoePray the fatiha. Huda, breathe on your motherâe(TM)s soul. This is where we will all be buried.âe
The continual incantations of Hudaâe(TM)s grandmother recall a time and place when Muslim religious feeling could be something profoundly feminine and intimate. Naphtalene, devoid of linear structure, is occasionally a difficult work, full of strange music, slow to yield meaning, as if there were ample time to absorb its subtleties.
Perhaps what spans from Naphtalene to Baghdad Burning has simply to do with the distance between fiction and non-fiction. But we must also recall that in the twenty years since Alia Mamdouh, exiled in Paris, wrote the novel, something called âeoeIslamâe has become an urgent geopolitical problem requiring the strenuous exertions of think tanks and policy directives. The mere depiction of Muslim womenâe(TM)s private lives, unhurried by the political expediencies of the present, unconscious of the occupierâe(TM)s gaze, now seems distinctly subversive.âe"Rahat Kurd
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