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A Small Feast: Iraqi Satire Explores Lost Homeland
By Lynne Rogers
By Muhsin al-Ramli
Trans. Yasmeen S. Hanoosh
The University of Arkansas Press, 2002.
The Iraqi novelist Muhsin al-Ramli’s novel, “Scattered Crumbs,” translated by Yasmeen S. Hanoosh and winner of the Arabic Translation Award, is a literary gem that shines with the humanity of Iraq. This brief novel begins as a satire of life in an Iraqi village under an anonymous yet easily-recognized dictator and offers a poignant self-examination of impotency and exile. Unlike many novels that deal with the despair of exile, “Scattered Crumbs” never loses sight of the horrific conditions in a lost homeland.
The narrative opens in Spain with the narrator’s attempt to retrace the exodus of his nondescript cousin, Mahmoud. The narrator’s efforts usher him back to memories of his village on the Tigris River, and the reader is introduced to a recognizable panoply of local characters. With echoes of the magico-realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the political humor of Emile Habibi, the narrator’s extended family of several generations reflects the rise of the Iraqi military, the ramifications of war and the subsequent moral and aesthetic dilemmas for the villagers.
The narrator observes that “sad stories become monotonous in Iraq because of their abundance” and proceeds with a hilarious family history. With affection, he describes the intellectual climate of the village: “What is not known today we will know tomorrow, and what cannot be known does not interest us.” He recounts village lore of when a hedgehog’s needle gets caught in his uncle’s throat and he can only “bah” like a sheep. “All whose eyes saw the thin thread of blood spurting and receding with the rise and fall of his Adam’s apple did not forget his bahbahs, not to this very day when they sit around the coffee pots and discuss newspaper stories about the European Common Market and the declarations of the American president and cowboy movies and the gory assassinations.” The juxtaposition of the content and context of the conversation implies a social criticism of Iraq with which many Americans can easily empathize.
The same uncle becomes known as “Nationan Ijayel,” when, to the mullah’s chagrin, he mistakenly blurts out, “I worship my homeland! I worship my homeland!” Through this uncle, al-Ramli begins his multi-layered mockery of the uncritical nationalism of the previous well-meaning but naive generation.
With the exception of his great-grandfather, who reputedly stabbed a British officer, “that son of a bitch” and his nationalistic uncle, the family males unilaterally desert the battlefront. The fates of the narrator’s cousins paint a claustrophobic portrait of a military regime built on empty rhetoric, greed, and fear. Qasim, the artist figure who invents “Qasimicalligraphy,” explains the generational and ideological conflict to his beautiful sister: “Father thinks that the land is more important than the people, and I think the reverse, and the Leader takes advantage of this difference by pitting us against each other without giving a damn about the land or the people.” Warda, with her feminine sensibility, doesn’t understand, for “he doesn’t know either of you. Leave him on his throne and make up with Father.” As the war progresses, the army unsuccessfully resorts to recruiting his cousin, the village idiot, through torture, and executes Qasim for desertion.
Finally, after the deaths and exile of almost an entire generation of males, Qasim’s painting, and not his “prescription glasses,” inspires his uncle’s epiphany. Honest artistic expression functions as a catalyst to understanding. For American readers, this engaging novel with the bite of Arabic humor reminds us that even when “the price of bullets was paid,” hatred lingers as a menacing inheritance. The lonely narrator in exile, one of Iraq’s scattered crumbs, concludes with the painful consolation of a poem by Mahir al-Asfar. “Scattered Crumbs” captures the flavor of village life and the vacuousness of exile in a melody of memory and poetry. Both humorous and tragic, “Scattered Crumbs” confirms the vibrancy of contemporary Arabic culture and testifies to the comprehensive need for more Arabic translations.
This book review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, no.52, (Summer 2004)