The ascension of Saddam Hussein to the peak of Iraqi power began in 1958 when a coup led by Brigadier General Abdul Karim Qassim overthrew the Hashemite monarchy which had been held together by British military power. Qassim lasted only as long as February 1963 when he was overthrown by General Ahmed Hasan al-Bakr,  a leading member of the Ba’th Party.  He, and the Party, were overthrown in turn, but came back to power in 1968, from which time Hussein began to make his rise. [The United States, by the way, supported the Ba’thists,  as being most aligned with its interests — secular, and anti-communist.]

The Long Way Back, an important Iraqi novel, a familial saga — taking place  within a few square blocks in Baghdad, and with links to Baquba– by Fuad al Takarli, [1980, translation 2001 by Catherine Cobham] takes place in the year leading up to the 14 Ramadan [February ’63] coup.  In fact, it and the life of a key character, end during the shelling of the neighborhood; the life of another character had virtually ended a few months earlier with her rape by a Ba’thist uniformed cousin.

Perhaps “saga” is too grand a word for the interweaving lives of four generations of mostly women and their off-spring, who for one reason or another are all living together in a fairly large, though not elegant house in the Bab al-Shaykh nighborhood of Baghdad.  It is headed up by Nuriya, also called Bibi by the youngest, the daughter of great grandmother Um Hassan who querulously calls for her meals, along with Safiya, the elder sister of her son-in-law, Nuriya’s husband Abu Midhat.  With this older generation are gathered the three grown children of Nuriya and Abu Midhat, one of whom, Madiha, is separated from her husband Husayn and has with her two daughters, Sana and Suha. The eldest son is Midhat and the youngest, Karim.  Visiting for several months is  Nuriya’s sister, Najaya and her single, lovely daughter Munira.   Munira is thus the cousin of Madiha’s children and –as Arabic society allowed in 1963– the object of longing and possible marriage to two of the brothers.  The making of an intricate web of actions, fears, desires, and as, in most Middle Eastern familes, plenty of advice, pressure, disapproval and minute keeping track of daily activites is set, to tighten and sometimes break in its telling.

It takes a bit to warm up to the whole clan, not the least because of the array of names, new to western readers. Umm Hassan for example refers to the Mother of Hassan where Hassan is the first born.  The mother, and indeed the father who becomes Abu Hassan, all but lose their given names. It takes a bit to sort this out.  In fact, I created a family tree after I realized I didn’t know who was doing what with whom.

Additionally, al-Takarli is somewhat of an experimentalist.  Sequential chapters give first person privileges to different narrators, but without identifying them.  Unlike Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, for example, where different chapters have different first person narrators, but titled with the speaker’s name, location and date (e.g.  Maria Font, Mexico D.F. December, 1976… [“I began to wither, to fall apart that winter….”] The Long Way Back lets us, forces us, to figure it out. e.g. Chapter Two  “They were in the alcove talking, drinking tea, talking some more.  From my sick bed I listened to them…”  And while in this case, the “I” follows from a “he” in the chapter just proceeding, who has arrived with blood on his clothes, helping us guess an identity, this is not always so.  Often it will take several pages before a name, or relation to the “I” is mentioned and we know who is speaking. Other chapters use third person narration, and a few use breaks — like film jump-cuts–  to move from one set of characters, third-person, to a single character, first person, and back again. Whew! In addition, many of the techniques of modern writing are used: moving from outside description to inside, whether thoughts or dreams, without markers.  This road he is talking about?  Is he on it, actually, or dreaming it?  And stream of consciousness, plenty of it.

The alley way is as muddy and twisted as the lives of the inhabitants.  And you bob up and down as you walk along, you bastard.  Al-salam alaykum, Hajji Wahib.  Upon you be peace and God’s mercy.  Shall I borrow some money from him?  He’s looking at you as if you’re the devil or a naked woman.  You go up and down and down and down, then up again.  You must walk straight.  Like that.  Stick your chest out.  That’s it.  Up and down you go again, son of a bitch.  And the quarter dinar?  No trace of it.  Pockets full of holes.  You paid for the drinks.  That must be it.  The last few hours of the evening will always remain a blur.  You’re walking as straight as the canon of Abu Khizam, without a penny in your pocket.

For all that, once the family and their relationships take hold we have an compelling and thought filled story.  As outsiders we are taken inside an Iraqi family of modest means, and begin to see the daily routine. Breakfasts of  tea, flat bread, black olives,  white cheese, cucumbers and tomatoes.   Lunch in the early afternoon, followed by a nap, in pajamas (over underwear) — for the men.   Women, in black scarves –” Her white face, framed by the black scarf, formed a complete circle”– serving meals.  The food preparation, and clean up, and how its divided — never the men.  Tea being served, constantly; never alcohol — though arak and beer are certainly part of the men’s lives, whether in actual bars, or make-shift drinking corners of local stores.

The custom of sleeping under the stars on the flat roof during the hot months, men and women alike, the noises of sleeping shared.  The belief in jinns, or other mysterious actors that appear and disappear, and seem to explain some of what happens in a person’s life.   Somewhat of a surprise, and it’s not the first time I’ve encountered it in Arabic fiction, is the, shall we say, child rearing practices encountered.

You stupid little girl,” shouted her mother. “Don’t put your hands on your hair when they’re all greasy.   Anyone would think those plates belong to your father, the way you smash them all the time!”   She clouted her across her shoulders and gave her a push, still shouting.

 

Al-Takarli asks some of the big questions we expect in big novels — “You, who are you, really?”  “There’s nothing you feel passing as much as your own life.  Don’t tell me life begins at forty, or sixty…”, ” Did human beings have any meaning?,” and ” “I was seriously trying to collect my thoughts, see what my life meant and work out what I felt about death. But – in the darkness of my room… I was aware of only one thing: my sense of defeat—again.”

The novel really begins to pick up speed, and add tension, as the rumors of resistance to bloody Qassim begin to float.  First we become aware of Munira’s fear, of someone, knocking at the door, some shape of a person.  Her favorite niece, Sana, picks up on it.  We begin to understand that both her cousins, Midhat and Karim,  are tiptoeing around being in love with her.  Karim seems more desperate, but also feels himself less worthy.  Midhat moves from the well-why-not-she’s-available to a full fledged love for her, which culminates in their marriage.  As this is happening, however, we learn that she has been raped by a nephew, a few years younger than she, and is one of the reason she and her mother are now in the big house.

He tried to kiss her and she moved her mouth away; immediately, in another part of her body, she felt an instinctive movement from him, which told her clearly what he had in mind.  She was a little surprised, but not afraid; another word from her would bring him to his senses. She wanted to get free of him and cut this dreadful current passing between them…

“For a split second she had a profound sense of what was happening to her; she was on the edge of the abyss, contemplating her end. Her whole life was concentrated in those few moments when her nakedness, her virginity, and the cruel vertigo within her merged, and she submitted. The fear came belatedly, fear of everything: the distant shadows, the hot earth under her buttocks, the sun, the knife piercing her entrails, the shuddering sighs and the blood which stained the trembling flesh.”

Unaccountably, she does not tell her prospective husband, who finds on their wedding night, that she is not a virgin.  The impact on him is beyond what most western readers can make sense of.

Her skin was delicate, her breasts and stomach rounded.  Her pelvic bone momentarily attracted his attention and he saw her gently closing her thighs.  She was underneath him, tight against him, not talking.  Her rosy brown body was telling him something which he didn’t pick up.  When she pulled him back towards her as if she didn’t want him to look too long at the secret parts of her body, he felt her opening her thighs again to take him inside her.

…When it was all over , he went out of the bedroom and walked up and down in the dark.  It was past three in the morning, and the night hung heavily over the ghastly world.  He was distraught.  He wanted to go downstairs but didn’t have the strength… He was trembling , his insides churning.  He did not want to see another living soul…. He was revolted, humiliated…as he looked over at the faint light of their bedroom he had an attack of nausea.  His body was rocked by violent spasms, his mouth filled with bitter liquid, and his eyes watered.  He was crushed….

Midhat leaves the house.  As the hours of the coup unfold, with sniper fire, and random explosions, he hides with his  former brother-in-law, Husayn, who has long struggled at the edge of existence, cut through with drink and poverty, but now trying to pull himself together, and act as a courier back to the family on Midhat’s behalf.  It really is quite a tour de force and though it’s hard for us to fully enter into Midhat’s  “revulsion,” or to believe he never asks Munira, nor knows about her rape, the sheer impact on his life becomes real for us, like reading and understanding a religious conversion experience, though we’ve never had one.  The most important measure of a writer — to bring us into awareness we’ve never had before.

This isn’t to say there is nothing but gloom.  The recollections of Munira of their oh so tentative courtship, always with a chaperone, if only sweet Sana; the description of the Baghdad night as they sleep on the roof:

As he climbed the stairs to the roof he heard the Bab al-Shaykh clock chiming gently and deliberately.  He didn’t count the chimes, just heard them, and when he left the darkness of the stairs and his eyes were lost in the sky crowded with pale stars , the clock began to chime melodiously again. He breathed deeply.  The cool air worked a strange magic, infalting his chest with life.  His eye took time to adjust to the darknes on the terrace, and the white beds looked like night birds perching there.  He walked quietly over to his bed and sat down on it.  There were random snores from all around the roof, but this did not mar the silence of the night.  He looked over to where her bed was, but couldn’t make it out.

 

Great images, something I always look for in translated literature: how does an author describe people and events to bring them alive to our imagination?

Abu Shakir laughed and sat back on the wooden bench, drawing in his limbs like a large beetle,” or ” They were like two crows in their dark corner.” I liked especially, “The two women’s conversation was like the murmur of water simmering on the stove, combining as it does the aural and the actual; the women would be in the kitchen, the two murmurings blending and separating over time.  It’s worth mentioning here that while much of the novel is of women’s conversations — always in the house– the men have their place as well.  Some of their conversations and activities are in the same house, but a great deal of it is out in public spaces, a bar, a small store, a rooming house, indicative without saying so of another piece of a cultural mosaic the reader in English may find striking.

 

In a complex story, with voices fading in and out of the page there were very few translation mis-steps. “Damn, she hadn’t meant to talk like this,” sounds odd to my ear, coming from an Iraqi woman.  Translators have the unenviable job of trying to bring the foreign into the familiar but sometimes the familiar is too familiar, too marked as American (or German, or French) to be thought of as coming from the mouth of one not.  I don’t know what the explicative is in Arabic, but I would have searched for something else I think.  What about  “I’m going to have a quick siesta after my lunch”? Or, “He had his arms folded, resigned as a red sheep.”  I have no idea what a  “red sheep” is, or means, and have not been able to track it down.  There must have been some alliteration Cobham was after, but if one misses the sense of it, then it doesn’t work. [It’s been shown, on the contrary, that an image “fast as a ziplote”  will work, even not knowing what a ziplote is.  In part this is so because most languages have the “fast as….” phrasing, and because “fast” is a physical action we can imagine.  We can fill in that, whatever a ziplote is, it must be fast, really fast!  That doesn’t work as well for “resignation.”]

*

Al-Takarli was awarded the Sultan Bin Owais (UAE) prize for 1998-99 for fiction.  Though much of his work is not yet available in English,  Catherine Cobham, who admirably translated The Long Way Back, offers a short theatrical piece, one of the last pieces he wrote before his death in 2008  — Colored Telephones: A Dialogue Interestingly, he worked in the Iraqi ministry of  Justice for 35 years, much of that time as a judge in Baghdad’s Court of Appeals.  How, we might wonder, does a writer continue a professional life under a regime such as Saddam Hussein?

In this interesting interview in 2007, while living in Aman, Jordan, he gives a partial answer.

In general, during Saddam’s time I wanted to continue writing, and thus I was careful not to arouse his antagonism. I never paid him compliments, but neither was I antagonistic or hostile toward him. I did not scream or curse, and in general, since my criticism was not considered direct or impolite, the authorities left me alone. Even when “The Faraway Man” was published in Beirut, and in 1980 distributed successfully in Iraq, the authorities left me alone. Because the story was highly critical of the Baath Party, people often wondered how I had not been imprisoned. Indeed, there were Baath members who reprobated my work, but there were also others who were so mesmerized by this novel that seemed to touch people’s hearts that they did not interfere in its distribution. In the end, I think the reality was that those in authority did not really understand it.

Read the whole interview (short) for a love story, as well: writer and translator [oh! if only it were always that way!]  And for more on his style, and impact on Iraqi literature try this write up at arabworldbooks. com

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