When I was asked to write about our Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Goodreads group for Rowayat, I felt lost…Where to begin? What to say? Our small group had turned into an international book club!
We started with a simple premise: We wanted to read what was written about us, and we also wanted others to read about us…compare how we see ourselves with how we are reflected in others’ eyes. That is what we thought would be interesting about our group; ordinary people from different cultures reading the same book, enjoying it, and discussing it. It was a simple idea and the Internet provided the circumstances to make it happen. Without that virtual space that we can all access, it would have been impossible for such a book club to exist. The outcome was splendid!
The first book we read was Orientalism by Edward Said, and we took off from there. Over the past four years, we’ve read different types of books: fiction, memoir, history, all sorts of books. Many topics have come up: Political issues took their fair share of discussion, of course, starting from the Arab- Israeli conflict to the Arab Spring; then historical meditation took its place—I believe reading about al-Andalus was a unique experiment. Many cultural and social topics raised interesting questions: women’s issues, minorities in the Middle East, the role of religion, the power of traditions, and many other subjects.
Our members read in Arabic, English, or any other translation, but the discussions are in English, so we always read books that are available in English.
Lately, we’ve read several Iraqi novels and I’d like to share some of our discussions with you.
The Long Way Back by Fuad Altakarli
This year we read The Long Way Back by Fuad Altakarli. Published in 1980 but banned for a long time in Iraq, it is considered one of the hundred best Arab novels as selected by the Arab Writers Union. It tells the intersecting tales of four generations of one family during an important time period in Iraq, 1962–1963, just after the military coup that ended the monarchy. At that time, many people in Iraq wanted a government more representative of popular Arab sentiment.
Melanie who is one of the group moderators and has a degree in literature led the discussion and made this note about the themes of the book:
“The novel connected to the theme of unity versus independence; this novel is all about interconnections of individual perspectives. It’s structured around a series of first-person narratives, following the consciousness to different characters. But the characters are not prototypes, and they are not absolutely independent agents. The characters are formed by their interactions with one another.”
“The readers noticed the importance of politics in this novel; even though the characters were not all caught up in the political transformation, their various concerns still overlapped with politics. A reader noted that perhaps it would have been better to read a little about the history of the period before reading the book. Others felt this was unnecessary as readers can easily get caught up in the plot. The female characters seemed the more active characters in this book and that was particularly interesting for our predominantly female readers.”
Fuad Altakarli, The Long Way Back (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2007). Group Discussion: https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1807299-iraq-the-long-way-back
The American Granddaughter by Inaam Kachachi
Another book we read this year was The American Granddaughter, written by Inaam Kachachi and translated by Nariman Youssef. It was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009. The novel tells the story of Zeina who returns to her war torn homeland Iraq after fifteen years. As an interpreter for the United States Army, she finds herself torn by conflicting allegiances. The discussion generated by the book proved it to be a controversial choice. Our readers enjoyed the writing style, the nice language, and the interesting story. They also felt that the feeling of being caught in the crossfire of opposing groups was definitely a story worth telling. However, many readers found Zeina’s situation to be an unbelievable one: as an Arab American who grew up immersed in Arab culture, how could Zeina be unaware of Arab-Iraqi feelings about the American occupation?
A reader hinted that, to her, the novel had the feel of a book written for an American audience even though it was originally written in Arabic. Another noted that she wished that the relationship between Zeina and her mother had had more depth. This comment was applied to all the other characters as well.
Inaam Kachachi, The American Granddaughter, trans. Nariman Youssef (Doha: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2010)
Group Discussion: https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1886671-iraq-the-americangranddaughter.
Naphtalene: A Novel of Baghdad by Alia Mamdouh
Naphtalene is written by Alia Mamdouh who received the Naguib Mahfouz Prize for Literature in 2004 for The Loved Ones. It is an emotional and nostalgic novel that tells the story of a strong-willed girl’s life and captures the cultural and political atmosphere of Baghdad in the 1940s and 1950s. We read this novel in 2012 when we were celebrating female authors. The novel generated some rich and positive discussion even though not all readers found the magical realism or stream-of-consciousness style to their liking. I quote the following about the style:
“The author avoids flowery language and languorous prose, giving her novel a strong atmosphere of nonfiction. The chapters read like a series of scenes from Huda’s life, rather than building on each other until the book reaches a natural peak.”
Anther quote by Kate (one of our active members who led the discussion herself):
“The book is almost exploding with different thoughts and observations, to me it seems very natural, and I don’t want to miss anything by reading it too fast.”
The way Alia painted life in Bagdad was vivid and caught the readers’ attention. The discussion moved slowly, and readers had different feelings and reactions as they progressed chapter by chapter.
Alia Mamdouh, Naphtalene: A Novel of Baghdad (New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2006).
Group Discussion: https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/943022-naphtalene-july-august
The Last of the Angels by Fadhil Alazzawi
The Last of the Angels is a story of old Kirkuk (northern Iraq) during the 1950s in the final years of Iraq’s monarchy and during the colonial and post-colonial periods. It tells the humorous tale of three different people in one neighborhood. The style is magical realism and mixes comedy with a portrayal of the serious side of life.
In the beginning, it was difficult to get into the book and to understand how the characters are linked because it has a non-traditional narrative structure but this became easier as we delved deeper.
There was a comparison with Cities of Salt by Abdul Rahman Munif because both deal with the impact of the oil industry on Arab societies. All liked the rich interplay of Kirkuk as a home to many different people: Muslims, Jews, Christians, Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen, as well as the African barber and of course the English colonial rulers. The cultural context and the position of women were two of the topics highlighted in the discussion. To the reader, it seems that magic and sorcery are the only way to overcome the evil rulers. By the end—and in spite of the blurring or confused messages—the author’s despair becomes obvious to the reader and explains the reason for his exile.
Fadhil Alazzawi, The Last of the Angels (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2007).
Group Discussion: https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/596236-the-last-of-the-angels-byazzawijuly september-2011
More about the group:
Five Questions About the Middle East/North Africa Goodreads Group