Before Exile: Four Iraqi Narratives

By Lynne Rogers

The Last Jews of Baghdad: Remembering a Lost Homeland

By Nissim Rejwan, Foreword by Joel Beinin.

The University of Texas at Austin Press, 2004

Two Grandmothers from Baghdad and Other Memoirs of Monkith Saaid

By Rebecca Joubin

DeWeideblik Press, the Netherlands, 2004

The Woman of the Flask

By Selim Matar

Trans. Peter Clark

The American University in Cairo Press, 2005

Saddam City

By Mahmoud Saeed

Trans. Ahmad Sadri

Saqi Books, London 2004

The tragedy of the American war in Iraq has overshadowed the devastation brought to Iraqis by the rise of Saddam and the Baath Party. Nevertheless, Iraqi authors have responded to the havoc wreaked upon their lives through fiction and biography. Four recent and very different narratives testify to an unbearable climate of fear and inhumanity that eventually led each author into exile.

 “The Last Jews in Baghdad: Remembering a Lost Homeland,” records a period of peaceful co-existence between Iraqi Jews and Arabs. In this quiet and tasteful memoir, Nissim Rejwan shares the story of his youth in Iraq preceding his participation in the mass migration of Iraqi Jews to Israel in 1951.

A literary and film critic for the English language newspaper Iraq Times, Rejwan, largely self-educated, spent his days working at the Al Rabita bookshop and could be found most evenings at the Café Swiss with the young leftist intelligentsia of Baghdad. His memoirs portray the youthful liberal yearning for freedom and new ideas as his Marxist leanings motivate him to learn English and introduced him to the likes of T.S. Eliot. Having worked at a variety of odd jobs since the age of nine, his frank recollection of his political, intellectual and sexual development creates an intimate retrospective of the social milieu of the streets of Baghdad. He documents the intellectual energy between WWI and WWII, a time when the majority of Iraqi Jews perceived themselves as “loyal citizens who saw in Iraq their only homeland and had no contacts with or sympathy for the Zionists in Palestine.” Unfortunately, the succeeding Iraqi government’s persecution of the Jewish community and the lure of settlements opened another chapter in Iraqi history.

The ironies of the friendships formed between the Iraqi Jews, Muslims and Christians during the establishment of the state of Israel are not lost on Rejwan. After his immigration, he visits a comrade of his now-deceased friend, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, and is certain the Palestinian must be wondering, “How in the world could his friend Jabra, a fugitive from the Jews, have had this Jew for a friend?” For Rejwan, “the recent history of the Iraqi Jewish community as a whole, was a history neglected, a history almost willfully ignored” by the Israeli establishment. While one would prefer Rejwan, as a former Marxist with an Iraqi cultural identity, had confided more of his reactions to the occupation as an Israeli settler instead of engaging in continual name dropping, his memoir and Joel Beinin’s insightful introduction evoke a nostalgic Baghdad.

With less sentimentalism, the second text, “Two Grandmothers from Baghdad and Other Memoirs of Monkith Saaid,” explores the political roots of Iraq’s conflicts through the domestic despotism of a village family. Rebecca Joubin, wife of Iraqi sculptor Monkith Saaid and author of his story, refers to her biography as a novel. In several chapters, she self-consciously muses on her writing process to record the childhood memories of her husband. Saaid’s story becomes her “novel,” beginning in Damascus where they meet, fall in love and marry.

Noting the Shahrazad gender reversal, Joubin distinguishes her exceptional Shahrazad who tells “stories to escape life, to keep me by his side through the torment of the night. For it was during the night that the harrowing memories attacked him. Leaving him bleeding in misery.” However, the reader, who is not in love with Saaid, might perceive these memories with skepticism and little empathy. Nevertheless, if one overlooks the settling of scores with his first wife and others from his past, this coming-of-age narrative presents a panorama of life in Griyat, an Iraqi village on the Tigris River where the ascent of Saddam Hussein disrupts life’s rhythms.

Even before the rise of the infamous dictator, Saaid as a child creates an imaginary world in which to escape “the patriarchal structure that was so inexplicably intent on crushing him.” Expelled from school and subsequently from his father’s home, the depressed Saaid flees his petty neighbors “who could not see anything beyond their narrow borders” and the obligatory military inscription, seeking freedom in the bureaucracy of Syria. When his araq-drinking days with other exiles and the Syrian intelligentsia veer towards self-destruction, the Iraqi poet Muzaffar al-Nuwwab intervenes, arranging a teaching position for Saaid in Libya. He declines the offer, however; rather than sculpt in honor of Qadhafi, he finds refuge once again in Damascus.

Accompanied by his bride, Saaid finally returns to Baghdad only to find that a fatal litany of friends and relatives who have perished either at the hands of the Baath Party or through the war with Iran awaits him. Joubin’s “Two Grandmothers from Baghdad” records a bitter and grim village childhood tempered with fleeting moments of nostalgia and a passion for art.

The two novels, “Saddam City” by Mahmoud Saeed and “The Woman of the Flask” by Selim Matar, attest to Iraq’s military inscription policy reminiscent of Belgium’s policy under King Leopold. The authors, having remained in Iraq longer than had Saiid, offer these two fictional works, which take the reader into Iraq after Saddam’s power has been fully established through terror.

In “The Woman of the Flask,” Adam attempts to escape the horrors of his enforced inscription six times before successfully immigrating to Switzerland with his friend and a flask, a memento from his father. In Switzerland, the forgotten flask catches his attention, and releases a voluptuous genie, Hajir, his paternal legacy of pleasure. Having been passed down from one forefather to the next, she leads him on a pilgrimage of stories from the Arab world and North Africa, offering him in his exile a connection to his Iraqi heritage. The descriptions of her traditional Arab beauty provide a sharp contrast to his graphic accounts of soldiering and her list of lovers who, like Adam, procreate with their wives but find solace and inspiration in her arms. As she weaves her stories of ancient wars and interbreeding, she dismantles the notion of ethnic purity and the East/West divide. Simultaneously, Adam introduces her to European modernity, causing Hajir to dream of shedding her own immortality.

Hajir’s ephemeral presence inspires metaphysical dreams in both Adam and the friend who had accompanied him from Iraq. In one dream, the friend wonders, “Was Man, with all the confidence in his own intelligence, maturity, and superiority over the rest of creation, nothing more than a cell of imagination in my own brain?” Hajir brings to her lovers history, physical pleasure and unanswered philosophical questions. Predictably, as she regains her own mortality, her generous spirit diminishes. While the blatant and shameless male chauvinism might annoy some readers, the poetic attempt to wrestle with issues larger than the personal pain of exile ought to be appreciated. As a literary experiment, the fluid narrative reflects the novel’s synthesis of chronology and geography.

Unlike Adam and his friend, the hero of Mahmoud Saeed’s novel never finds the luxury of metaphysical musings. The title of Saeed’s gripping and relentless novel, “Saddam City,” refers to the over-crowded Iraqi prisons. Imprisoned himself six times, Saeed’s narrative follows the incarceration of Mustafa Ali Noman, an aging professor and non-practicing Muslim who suffers from chronic dysentery and who has recently arranged to purchase a house for his family. As his car stalls on his way to work on an otherwise ordinary day, security officials arrive, escorting this benign hero to an interrogation, thus setting off an odyssey of hunger, beatings, dislocation, blindfolds, handcuffs, hoods and various other forms of torture.

As Mustafa is herded from one prison to the next through Iraq, he becomes acquainted with the tapestry of Iraqi society. Although the prisoners hail from all socio-economic classes, political affiliations and educational levels, the prison cells pulse in the clandestine whispers of Kurdish and Arabic in the touching camaraderie founded on the Baath oppression. While some prisoners are being held for their support of the Ansar al-Islam resistance, others are jailed for nonsensical traffic violations or merely for being in the same family or location as a resistor.

While in prison, Mustafa learns about “never reported operations” of resistance and Saddam’s policy against the so-called “Iranian immigrants.” Despite the acceleration of his torture and his physical deterioration, Mustafa, as the narrator of his story, remains an astute, critical, steadfast and realistic observer of his environment. In the face of increasing hardship, he finds it “incredible” that the prisoners manage to adapt to each new level of degradation.

The advent of the Iran-Iraq war considerably alters the prison climate. When the government fails to send meals to the prisoners, the guards occasionally share their own meager rations with them. Eventually the policemen and soldiers who refuse to fight are integrated into the prison population. Understandably, to obtain his freedom, Mustafa agrees to join the Baath Party. Keeping with its poignant realism, the novel closes with the relieved and weeping Mustafa who, clutching a rock, embraces his first moments of relative freedom. Unhindered by poetic flights of fantasy or clichés, Mahmoud Saeed’s “Saddam City” captures the cruel capriciousness of tyranny and genuinely represents the variegated fabric of the seemingly endless guest list of Iraqi prisons. Although the media and attorneys await Saddam Hussein’s trial, these four authors have already reached their verdicts.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, no. 50/51 (Winter/Spring 2005)

Copyright (c) 2005 by Al Jadid