Homecoming to Iraq
Buthaina Al-Nasiri, Final Night, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2002. pp124
This slim and handsome volume of short stories by the Iraqi author Buthaina Al-Nasiri, entitled Final Night, embodies the poetics of condensation and the power of evocation -- when less is more. In 16 stories dealing with widely different situations, Al-Nasiri probes into the dark and elusive spots of the human psyche. Her narrative technique is based on what might be called "literary snapshots", capturing the daily life of ordinary people. Yet her focus on particularly pregnant moments in their lives highlights the unfamiliar and the uncanny lurking behind the normal and the familiar.
Al-Nasiri's narrative lens lingers on concrete incidents, revealing human depths and uneven social fabric. Her spare style and economy expose deftly the incongruities of life and the irony of being. Without naming the context, she zooms in on a scene, presenting the details, frequently in neutral description or in dialogue. The reader, without the need for identifying a specific place or time, recognises unsettling aspects behind this common vista.
Two of the remarkable stories in this volume, "The Return of the Prisoner" and "Homecoming", take place in post-war Iraq and in occupied Palestine, respectively. Without allowing sentimentality to creep in, Al-Nasiri looks at the anatomy of returnees without blinking. The irony of homecoming manifests itself as the characters in her stories realise that they do not belong. Though the war and the country are left unnamed, it is very clear that the prisoner of war who comes back after 10 years of absence is an Iraqi soldier who fought in the Iraq-Iran War (1980-88), commonly known as the first Gulf War.
On returning, he finds a family that he can hardly recognise as his. His family equally finds it difficult to embrace him after presuming him dead for so long. The opening of the story projects the character's feelings of alienation: "Above all else the house he returned to was not his house, the woman was not his wife, and the children not his sons." His wife was pregnant when he left, and he is seeing his ten-year old son for the first time. His children "sat pinned with embarrassment . . . seemingly forced to keep silent and well-behaved, as though in the presence of a guest who would shortly be leaving."
As he lies in his bedroom gazing at the ceiling, he dreams of the prison camp where inmates dream of homecoming. This is not simply an anti-Ulysses plot, pointing to lack of fulfilment. It is downright subversive when contrasted to the official ideology trumpeting images of heroic soldiers fighting and their eventual reunion with their patiently awaiting families. In a country where a propaganda genre called "war narratives" thrived, this story reads like their "negative" -- to use the idiom of photography.
In the dialogue between the conjugal couple we gather that the prisoner is unhappy that his family did not follow up on his case. The wife justifies her abandonment by the absence of his name from Red Cross lists and by the difficult times. Towards the end of the story, the prisoner's youngest son reveals in his childlike innocence why the return of the father is disturbing. His peers look up to him because his father has been taken to be a martyr; now that he is back, he will be identified as some one who surrendered to the enemy rather than fought valiantly. In the final scene, the little son describes his father walking away, leaving the hearth he so much wanted to come back to, as "that thin man with the graying hair and bowed back who had come to us yesterday".
"Homecoming" is about a Jewish couple from Germany who come to historic Palestine to become Israeli citizens. They give up friends and familiar neighbourhoods in their country of origin, take up new Hebrew names to match their new identity, and occupy an Arab house. The ideology of the new state does not even allow them to feel alienated in their unfamiliar circumstances in a strange land, as they are expected to be happy having come at last to the promised land. Their repressed anxiety and their sense of being out of place eventually lead to their gradual breakdown. Al-Nasiri handles deftly and convincingly the mental deterioration of the couple, undermining the ideology of settler-colonialism and Zionist myths.
Mental perversion is a leitmotif in this collection. In "The Mansion", we encounter an ageing aristocratic woman who suffers from Alzheimer's, though the disease is never named. Unable to remember whether she has had her meal or not, she poses the question to her servant. The rest of the story is about how the servant and his family have taken over the basement and how their working-class needs and taste have marked the mansion. We encounter in this story the deterioration of a mind, of a fortune, and of a mansion, one echoing the other. It is a masterfully painted portrait of decline.
In the story "The Boat", there is literally a madman, but he is marginal to the scene of an illicit encounter between a young woman and a man in a boat. The madman charges in to denounce the "bitch", but the boatman explains to his companion laughingly that the man is deranged and harmless. He lost his mind when his wife ran away with another man, and thus he repeats his denunciations all the time. He is shooed away, and the young man tries to convince the woman to go further in their dalliance. Just as the reader is completely engrossed in this seduction scene, the madman arrives and actually stabs the woman. Retroactively, we read the double meaning of the ritual mentioned in the opening of the story about sacrificing for a new boat.
The tragic has always been a hallmark of Mesopotamian literature, and Al-Nasiri's writing is no exception. But her sense of the tragic is mixed with irony. In "The Boat", for instance, the boatman shrugs his shoulders as he says, "That's life" in a comment on an anecdote: "Look at the river: one time it's angry, another it's calm; one time it steals, another it gives. Last summer it swallowed up the son of Ali the fisherman, and he's not appeared since. He disappeared in the bellies of the fish. Do you see his father now, that old man bent over his boat over there? The river feeds him... Do you know what we say? They say that Ali the fisherman eats his son whenever he catches something." In "The Story of Samah", the four-year old daughter of an impoverished doorman, dirty and smeared, crosses the street only to be hit fatally by a car. As she is washed in the final ritual before burial, her family notice for the first time how beautiful she is.
In Al-Nasiri's fiction, there is room for children as well as for adults. The child in "The Return of the Prisoner", in "The Story of Samah", and in "Omar's Hen" reveals what remains unsaid and unexpected. Children figure in the brilliantly compact story "Why Don't We Go More to the Sea?" It is essentially the story of a stop-over by a mother with her four sons at the seaside. This scene is recalled years later by one of the sons during his interrogation in a Kafkaesque setting. We learn of the innocent horseplay of the four boys at the seaside and what each said and did as we come to know the sad fate of each: he who died in the battle field, he who disappeared after a drinking bout, and he who sought work in a Gulf country. As for the mother, we only know that this fun-loving and tolerant mother had one day committed suicide. Nothing is fully explained, but this family album is all the more intriguing because we can only glimpse it. The alternation between recalling the care-free moments at sea and those moments burdened with loss is very effective.
In this volume, the prolific translator Denys Johnson-Davies, who was the first to make the best of contemporary Arabic literature available in English, has done it again. Once again, he has uncovered talent and made it available to the English-speaking world. He has chosen these stories from five collections of Al-Nasiri's output, and the translated volume coheres aesthetically -- with its inclination towards a realism that encompasses the uncanny -- apart from the last story, "Death of the Sea God", which seems out of place in this collection with its allegorical and didactic impulse.
In his introduction, Johnson-Davies points out that even though Al-Nasiri has lived in Cairo for more than two decades, Iraq still dominates her heart and mind. Nothing encapsulates this longing for the homeland so much as her story Al- Tariq ila Baghdad ("The Road to Baghdad") -- unfortunately not included in this striking collection.
Reviewed by Ferial J Ghazoul