A Novel of Baghdad
By Alia Mamdouh
Feminist. 214 pp. $23.95
Girl Blog From Iraq
Feminist. 286 pp. Paperback, $14.95
As unimaginable as it may seem now, Iraq was once known for tranquility and prosperity. If the last few years have burned the country into America's consciousness as a place of insurgent-felled U.S. helicopters and suicide bombings, Naphtalene, a coming-of-age novel by Iraqi expatriate Alia Mamdouh, is a literary antidote.
Originally published in Arabic in 1986, the novel is set in 1950s Baghdad, an era of tight-knit communities and political calm. Nine-year-old Huda is a precocious tomboy who flits among the neighborhood markets -- one moment, like a little girl, chasing boys with stones, and the next, like a young woman, proclaiming that Mahmoud, one of the few boys who does not run from her flying rocks, will be her first love.
At home, she has less control. Her repressive father wants to beat Huda's free spirit out of her. "Huda is a boy," he says in frustration. "She's not afraid of me or anyone else." He forbids her to play with boys and, when she disobeys, orders her to cover her changing, pre-adolescent body with a head-to-toe abaya. As she grows toward puberty, she is surrounded by older women -- her dying mother, her grandmother, a cadre of aunts and neighbors. In the public bath, where women of all ages cast aside their inhibitions along with their clothes, Huda is both entertained and suffocated: "Everything passed before you: hands took you and cuddled you between their legs, calling the names of everyone you know, undoing your braids." Huda reacts as she often does when constricted. She breaks free, and the women curse her for it.
The title refers to the chemical used to repel moths; the metaphor suggests a fiery, gaseous substance not unlike a girl's combustible observations and memories. Huda's growing-up parallels the political shifts that loom for Baghdad, as Iraq's British-imposed monarchy is threatened by a growing sense of Arab nationalism. When Mahmoud shows her one of his anti-government leaflets, she muses, "I knew there was something like a bomb inside it, and if I touched it, it would blow my hand and head off."
Mamdouh beautifully evokes the sounds and scents of old Baghdad, as in her descriptions of Friday night prayers: stained tiles and worshippers with sweat-glistened faces, bare feet and nonstop supplications, incense and perfumes. Less successful is her constant alternating between first- and second-person narration, so that Huda, when she is talking to herself, seems to be talking to the reader. It can take a determined reader to follow the plot.
Mamdouh herself grew up in old Baghdad but left Iraq in 1982 and now lives in Paris. By contrast, the author of Baghdad Burning lives in the new Baghdad, blogging amid the bombs. The book, a collection of online postings by a young Iraqi woman who identifies herself only as Riverbend, intimately describes the shattered city with its shaken citizenry in the wake of the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. A computer programmer, she writes in English, in a chatty style that she explains by saying that while she was born in Iraq to Iraqi parents, she lived abroad for several years as a child. On Aug. 17, 2003, she posted her first blog as the tentative optimism that had held in the few months after the war was evaporating. "A little bit about myself: I'm female, I'm Iraqi and 24. I survived the war. That's all you need to know."
Interweaving fact and emotion, she tries to make sense of the swirling confusion of her life. Electric power is intermittent. She can discern various automatic weapons by their sounds. She is angry and humiliated about being searched by U.S. soldiers -- but they also get her pity for having to stand in the unforgiving sun. Two days after she began her blog, the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was bombed. Her post that night was titled "Unbelievable . . . ": "I'm so angry and frustrated. Nothing is moving forward -- there is NO progress and this is just an example."
"Explosions and bombing almost all day yesterday and deep into the night," she posted on Dec. 26, 2003, under the heading "Christmas in Baghdad." "At some points it gets hard to tell who is bombing who? Resistance or Americans? Tanks or mortars? Cluster bombs or IEDs?"
Riverbend sometimes lets herself rant in response to rampant ignorance -- such as the misperceptions in a news article about marriage between first cousins. That practice is out of vogue in large cities, she explains, because young people have lots of other choices. "Most people who get into college end up marrying someone from college, or someone they meet at work." And in smaller cities and towns dominated by four or five large tribes, she points out, anyone who isn't a direct relative is referred to as a "cousin."
In these moments, the importance of Riverbend's breathless, unedited, electronic first draft of history is clear: She is more of an expert on what it's like to be young, female and Iraqi than the best journalist could ever hope to be. I reported from Iraq in 2003, and I learned things from reading Riverbend that my articles never covered. There are problems with this format, however. Such in-your-face dispatches can play like an actor staring directly into the camera, giving us no affinity for the real world that Riverbend represents.
She is at her best when she mixes her postwar frustrations with snippets of ordinary life -- such as when "the Martha Stewart of Baghdad" scolded Riverbend's mother for not preparing for Eid, the three-day festival at the end of Ramadan. "But isn't your freezer clean? Haven't you begun with the Eid cleaning?!" And Riverbend was put to work. It could be a scene from "Desperate Housewives."
By 2004, as the situation in Iraq worsened, Riverbend's mood darkened. Her cousin's husband was kidnapped and held for $15,000 ransom. After his release, she posted: "Everything has felt so trivial and ridiculous . . . the blog, the electrical situation, the elections, the fictional WMD . . . politics and politicians . . . I've been wondering about all those families who can't pay the ransoms or the ones whose sons and daughters come home on a stretcher instead of on foot or in a garbage bag, as we heard about one family . . . . . " (The ellipses are hers.)
The book ends in September with as much uncertainty as it began. "Everyone is simply tired in Baghdad. We've become one of those places you read about in the news and shake your head thinking, 'What's this world coming to?' " *
Theola S. Labbe is a staff writer for The Washington Post.