Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Iraq: "Absent" by Betool Khedairi

I read books in no particular order determined by what I find when. In my last trip to the library, this title, Absent, came home in the same batch as Dancing Arabs because the authors' names--Khedairi and Kashua--are near one another on the shelves. As a search strategy, looking in specific ranges of the alphabet has been very helpful. For diversification of themes, perhaps less so.

Absent is set largely after the Gulf War of 1991, when Hussein invaded Kuwait and the U.S. responded, and before the U.S.-led invasion that began in 2002. However, a portion of reminiscences occur during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. The author writes at the end that she wants to highlight the Iraqi culture, as it is part of the cradle of civilization and so much has been destroyed in the past three-plus decades.

The tale is narrated by Dalal, a young woman raised by her mother's sister after being orphaned at four months of age. The title means many things. Dalal opens by telling us her aunt's husband defies tradition and instead of being renamed for the first child in his family (her), he insists on being called Abu Ghayeb, "father of the absent one" for the child he and his wife cannot have together. Absent also refers to the many aspects of life that dissolved with Saddam Hussein's rise to power, especially noticeable when compared with the "time of plenty" that Dalal remembers from early childhood. It also refers to people who suddenly disappear from the neighborhood. And to feelings, beliefs and loyalties that disappear, too, under the rigors of a struggle for daily life.

The characters are nearly all residents of the same apartment building. At the top lives a fortune teller. Dalal's family is downstairs and further down is a blind widower. Dalal's close friend, a nurse, lives on the 2nd floor. Mid-way through the book, a new ground-floor tenant appears,  a hairdresser who insists on being called a coiffeur. The fortune teller's waiting room is a hotbed for gossip but she keeps people's secrets. The coiffeur hears much gossip and how he uses what he learns is a primary driver for the action.

Dalal's aunt, called Umm Ghayeb (mother of the absent one) is a seamstress, now that her husband's job as a state tourism promoter is gone with the end of the "time of plenty."  Abu Ghayeb sets up an apiary and does well, with Dalal's willing assistance, in this new agricultural work.

The novel is mostly dialogue with occasional observations from the first-person narrator. She writes of post-Hussein expectations:

"In our teenage years, we had to join the National Union of Students. There we were told that our aims were 'Unity, Freedom, and Socialism,' and that we had to strive for 'One unified Arab nation...with an eternal message. . . . We had to attend the meetings unfailingly, maintain secrecy, and learn the president's quotes by heart." (p. 51)

Mixed with reporting like this are Dalal's skeptical commentary about Umm Mazin's fortune telling business, which includes a line of herbal remedies and spells, made more solemn by quotations from the Qu'ran. Dalal also learns about photography from the blind man, who was once a photographer, but who says he see more clearly now. Abu Ghayeb is a former art student who now collects contemporary works by friends, and his lessons about seeing and looking also inform the text, along with his instructions about keeping bees, the exemplary social insect whose lessons would benefit mankind if only we could learn.

These many stories, as disparate as the threads of stories in our own lives, come together in the late 1990s. Dalal has a part-time job with Saad, the coiffeur, and through him, she meets Adel. She is later seduced by Adel. The neighborhood receives missile strikes that kill some and injure many. The bees "turn" and become aggressive, attacking their own. Before the end, we learn the true reasons for Saad's shop and its location in that particular building. Dalal is the only one "left standing" and is now the only source of income for herself and her aunt. She seems to accept this and the novel closes with her beginning to teach a young man to read -- nurturing a slim reed for the reestablishment of civilization, despite the great losses she and her country have experienced.

The mordant humor shows a different perspective about what many Americans see as justifiable actions. This is Abu Ghayeb about bombings in the 1991 Gulf War:

"...Yes, 'intelligent missiles.' They stop at a red light on their way to the explosion. . . Truly smart weapons. They destroyed communication centers, sewage plants, and electricity generators. And they remembered to wipe out the water purification units as well. With their intelligence, they deprived a whole nation of clean drinking water." (p. 65-66)

Here is Dalal, describing a portion of a walk she takes with her aunt:

"We walk past the house that burned down because its owners had been hoarding petrol. They were afraid it would get stolen, so they stored it under the ground; but it had leaked, and their garden exploded."  (p. 95) 

Here is a lesson from the bees, via Abu Ghayeb:

"Dalal, if only we could learn from the bees! . . . Greed is the main problem. Look at the way the bee behaves when it goes out to collect the nectar. The first thing the bees do is check the amount of sugar in the flower. They suck from it what they need and won't exceed their limit."  (p. 175)

If one of Ms. Khedairi's purposes was education about the culture of Iraq, I must confess I didn't learn much about historical aspects. Maybe I already read too many works about the Tigris and Euphrates; the Caliph of Baghdad, when that city was the center of Islam; and the modern-era destruction of antiquities, and related subjects.

For daily life under Hussein, this is an evocative work that seems accurate. It is consistent with the books I've read about life under Khomeini in Iran (Children of the Jacaranda Tree) and in Palestine (Dancing Arabs) with regard to Islam and consistent with other tales of surviving dictatorships by Anchee MinJulia Alvarez, and Edwige Danticat.


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