Friday, March 26, 2010

Asmer, Me, and Battaween

Samir Nakkash was born in 1938 in Baghdad/ Al Battaween – Iraq. Forced to leave Iraq in 1951 with his family while he was a teenager. Lived in Israel, India, Iran and the UK. During his journey in those places he learned many languages but he kept writing in Arabic.


The novel “Shlomo the Kurdish, Me and the Time” is about the life of a Kurdish Jew born in Sablakh (now called Mahabad) in Iran, and forced to leave it to Baghdad, India, then Israel. I failed to know who the “Me” in the title is. The story of Shlomo is told by his own as if talking to somebody, that somebody may be Sameer Naqqash, who referred to himself in the title of the novel by “Me”.

Well Shlomo is religious and this is so clear from the beginning. That was the first challenge to my love to this novel. The second challenge is that Shlomo is a merchant, and a successful one, the wealthiest in his poor village, still he is crying and waning… talking about that period while waning like a child… well the challenge is harder dear friend…

He is married to a loyal wife named Asmer. We know nothing about Asmer in the novel which didn’t describe her features. Shlomo loved a girl, a very young one. Asmer felt his passion. She went to that girl’s father and talked to the father who accepted to give is daughter as a second wife to Shlomo. Shlomo accepted the second wife happily like usual for a spoiled child... and please allow me to declare that I cannot love nor respect this man… well I will just try to respect…. Ok?

With pages passing by, the girl starts turning into a noisy annoying wife and a mother of a kid. While the second wife was giving birth to the second kid while explosions of the war between the Russians and the Othmans are taking place in Mahabad. You deserve it Shlomo, and Raja’a Nakkash, your novel is annoying… especially that it says nothing about the suffering of the new wife, old wife, and children.. the protagonist Shlomo is at the centre of your lights, is as obese as your 360 pages novel full of egocentricity and selfishness.

If I were you Raja’a Nakkash, I would have neglected Shlomo with his long beard thinking about money, sex and candies, that spoiled child, and told the story of his first wife, Asmer.
I would even chose a lover for Asmer, a secret lover, a young man full of charm and courage and life.

Once Shlomo started to talk about the growing up of his son and the waking up of his desires to play with….. I thought he would say to play with girls, philosophy, art, or something that we like to play with, but he said “moneys”….he even didn’t say money, he said moneys…
The idea of leaving Sablakh was a “sperm in the womb of unknown future” as the writer said. The pregnancy with it would take a road in which reality reached from its unbelievable news and weight of symbols what is equal to myths.

When the Russians invaded they tried to make good relations with the Christians, as brothers of the same religion. Then the Othmans and the Germans came and “liberated” it. The Othmans killed the Christians of Sablakh and ordered the Jews to bury the dead bodies. When the Russians regained the control on Sablakh, they killed the Muslims and ordered the Jews to bury the dead bodies.


Of the important chapters in the novel are the chapters dated to 1941, and to 1951. In 1941, the year of Farhood, in June the Baghdadis were talking about the rumor of Nazi forces entering Baghdad soon. The Iraqi Jews were afraid from this rumor due to the reputation of how the Nazis treat the Jews wherever they go. The non-Jewish Iraqis were “hoping” that the Nazis would come to “rescue” them from the British occupation. Rumors increased about the withdrawal of the British forces and about the entering of German forces. Suddenly new rumors said that the German had withdrawn and the British would come back. At that time, Iraqis attacked the Iraqi Jews and took their possessions from money and gold and other things, and killed a lot of them. Shlomo, during that time was away from his home in a house of a friend. His wife Asmer became afraid about him and wondered if he had been harmed by the terrorists. She went out running in the direction of the house of his friend. She saw men armed with knives. The knives men noticed that this lady is in terror, so she must have been a Jew. They threatened her, she cried “Shlomo!!” they hit her with their knives and she cried again while her holy blood was reaveled. With the third Shlomo cry she fell on the ground and emit no voice, no more.

Shlomo stayed in Baghdad and he started to be a famous merchant. In 1951 the police ordered the Jewish or Iranian origins to leave Baghdad. They didn’t accept that he took his money with him. He must leave at once. And he did.

Al Bataween, where Samir Naqqash the novelist had been born, Shlomo’s family, and the lady who take care of me when I was a child had lived, is nowadays a neglected area while the old houses are very sad in their loneliness and abuse. I hope that comes the day that Shlomo, his sons and daughters, or grandsons and daughters can come to regain their father’s possessions and to live a respectful life where they belong as I hope that I one day meet that lady who took care of me when I was a kid and told me about Jesus.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Patience of an Ordinary Iraqi

We went to the elections happily and voted with great joy and pride of ourselves believing that we are writing history. I was glad due to my belief that the Iraqis would chose the best, and that the Iraqi politicians are more experienced than before.

After the elections, and day by day I was nauseated by the performance of the politicians’ emotional shouting on each other having no Iraq in their mind, giving the impression that what they fear about is their chairs, their pockets, and their narrow belongings.
Last Friday I went to central Baghdad and sat next to Dijla:

Sabreen (still, we have patience)
Ya weali (oh my suffering)
Ya 7baibiti Sabreen (my love, we still have endurance)
Ya wleifiti Sabreen (my companion, we still have patience)
Sabr el ashjar 3la sheta (the endurance of trees in the face of winter)
Sabr el ghareeb ib wa7shita (the patience of the stranger in his loneliness)
Belchi Allah yin6i mrad lil sabreen
(hoping that God will give the patient what he wants)

I joined a symposium run by Al Mada and Naseer Al Jaderchi, who failed to get enough voices to have a chair in the parliament till now, was giving a short speech about Mustafa Al Barzani, the Kurdish leader. I went to a restaurant and ate rice and spinach sauce with a glass of yogurt.
Would the nowadays Iraqi politicians put Iraq into their eyes? would they hear Fuad Salim and join us in a simple lunch next to Dijla?

The singer, Fuad Salim, was a know member of the Iraqi Communist Party since long time and the previous regime had ban his songs.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Psychiatrist in "A House Near Tigris River"

Chapter Five

“This doctor you send is to is a mad man! He needs somebody to treat him!” p. 33

Sahera’s evidence for the madness of the psychiatrist was his habit of holding that unlit cigarette and acting as if it is lit, i.e. taking a breath in, and acting as if getting rid of the tobacco ash in an ashtray. She also seemed annoyed because he didn’t let her speak. He just put her out, then blame her for the fire that Saeed had caused, then asking her why she is acting as if she is Saeed’s mother. All the interview had raised some annoying feelings inside Sahera… but that was important… isn’t it?

The writer had wrote the scene of the fire set by Saeed in the psychiatrist’s desk in a caricature way by exaggeration to prove, or provide, the “funny” character of psychiatrists and the fate they deserve: “setting fire in their papers, i.e., in their theories, in their pseudoscience” as may the writer wanted to say as I think.

Chapter 6

“from among the dark shadows that are stuck to the room’s ceiling, the mad doctor’s face reared to her, with his shining bald, his glasses, and his unlit cigarette.” P.41

When he appeared to her while she was sleeping at her bed at night, he offered her more time to speak and to lie on the couch… so he used the couch, with some more time, and that was Saheera’s dream. So the writers said indirectly that people dream that their psychiatrists are giving more time and using the couch… i.e. being more psychologically oriented than biologically…

The psychiatrist unlit cigarette might be a symbol to an ineffective tool (cigarette that gives no smoke= ineffective cigarette)… and more worse, even if that tool (cigarette= drug=pharmacology) would work, it will do bad things more than good (cigarette smoke—cancer//// pharmacology--- dependence or dulling of the mind)… so that’s maybe how the psychiatric “biological” tools is seen in this novel.

In Chapter 20, and the novel was about to end the psychiatrist had lied on his couch and talked to the new patient about his worries, then he brought all the patient’s files and pissed on them, then set fire on them… that was little na├»ve from the writer but still the symbol is shouting that the psychiatrist, in the writer’s mind, is not respecting the patients, is helpless, and nihilistic.

The psychiatrist in the Mahdi Esa Alsaqr novel is only a secondary character to help the main characters Saeed and Sahera to tell their complicated story with the Iraq-Iran eight years war, cadavers, poverty, and inhumanity. I wondered how psychiatry in such a circumstances be practiced. Insomnia can be attributed to the hot weather and lack of electricity leading to no air cooling and darkness. No enough food would lead to weight loss, and hence fatigability, headache, and poor concentration. War is not interesting off course, so loss of interest in life (=war)…. And many deaths in family and neighborhoods and friends… so could one diagnose depression? Especially when not psychotic? The DSM-IV had regarded bereavement as an exclusion from the diagnosis of depression… but what about war and its consequences?

The novel is written in Baghdad from 7th May 1991 to 5th January 1992…. Such times… Yeah … Such times… I got empathetic with the writer and his protagonists in spite of everything… the novel end and “…. and the lights of fires are illuminating the skies of the city!”…
Now that the fires are getting weaker and weaker, what would be the role of mental health in this city, and how would it be perceived by Saheera, Saeed, and Alsqr?

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Mothers and Candles

The 8th of March is the International Women's Day. I saw that activity in Al Sayd Club in Baghdad in T.V. in advance for that coming day. All those ladies singing and dancing and playing music. I would vote for her, she is stronge, clever, and beautiful. I took a novel and started to read.

It was 1991 and there was no electricity in Baghdad. The psychiatric clinic was lit with candles. Sahera and Saeed were waiting for their turn to the doctor when a woman came and talked to Sahera (Sahera is a common female name which means: a woman who stay awake at night) asking her about Saeed and whether he is her husband or brother .. or what?

Sahera annoyed from that woman questions decided to attack her with a question: “how many children do you have?” and as the woman told her frightened that she got four children, Sahera held her from her arms so that she didn’t escape and said: “I advise you to put them back to inside your womb urgently, and that you seal your womb with red wax, so that they don’t take them from you. And do not let anyone form them to go out, not now!”. She let go of the woman’s arm who escaped away from Sahera who’s turn to enter to the psychiatrist had come.
Mehdi Esa Alsaqr novel “A House Near Tigris River” had drowned me in its charm. I put the novel away and took Kaplan’s and Sadock’s text and searched for Otto Rank and read under his name:
“He developed a new theory which he called Birth Trauma. Anxiety is correlated with separation from the mother- specifically, with separation from the womb, the source of effortless gratification. This painful experience results in primal anxiety. Sleep and dreams symbolize the return to the womb”.
In the psychiatrists room, lit by three candles, all the three talked at the same time, Saheera was asked to go outside to leave Saeed alone with the psychiatrist. Saeed refused to talk. The eight pages describing the interview were so clever in describing the internal world of Saeed who was going away in memories then coming back to the psychiatrist who asks him to talk about what is bothering him. Saeed noticed the huge amount of papers on the table between him and that psychiatrist with that unlit cigarette in his hands. Saeed (a common Arabic name means: Happy) asked the psychiatrist to give him matches. Some few pages of the novel went in Saeed’s memories and the psychiatrist’s insistence. Finally Saeed got the matches; he lit a stick and set fire in the papers. The psychiatrist started shouting while trying to control the fire with his hands.
As he controlled the fire, Sahera and the psychiatrist assistant entered the room, the psychiatrist blamed Sahera for the fire that had burned part of his white shirt. Sahera complained: “But you didn’t let me speak!!! “. The psychiatrist saw Saheera now alone while Saeed waits outside. He blamed her for acting as if Saeed’s mom saying: “you are not old, so why do you make yourself a mother for a man you did not give birth to?”
The psychiatrist prescribed drugs and asked them to come later. That was it. The novel leaves you, at page 40 in this 200 pages novel, not knowing what is the relation between Sahera and Saeed and why is Saeed is trying to set fire in everything he see, and why is Sahera is married to a man since one week and she is still a virgin as Saeed said to the psychiatrist?
Forty pages of clever narration that leaves you thirsty for more and you have no choice but to continue.

Monday, March 01, 2010

So That I Can Smell Baghdad

Some researchers wrote books of history about Baghdad. Why doesn’t my curiosity get satisfied from what they wrote? What am I searching for in novels about Baghdad history? Why novels?
Historians write their books about incidents and dates. Their trial to be “objective” as opposed to the “subjective” had made their writings important, of high scientific value, but tasteless and without smell. Smell?

Smell is one of the most primitive senses. Physiologically, smell has a more direct route to the brain than any other senses since its receptors in the nasal cavity connect to the brain directly without synapses, in the contrary to the other senses. Of interest, is the direct connection between the olfactory bulb (part of brain responsible for smell) and the cortex known to be involved in the formation of long term memories.

If only Patrick Suskind had written his novel “Perfume” without those murders then it would have been one of my best novels, and films.

I cannot remember many things from my early life, I mean when I was a child, but I can remember some smells from that period, and some few other things. Why am I introducing myself to my Baghdad history via novels is that maybe I am trying to smell Baghdad well and keep it in my memory.

Smell of the 8 Years War

Khidr, believed at some lapses of the mind and time that there are cameras watching him. He also believed that he is looking like Marlon Brando especially in the film “Last Tango in Paris”. He headed to Baghdad T.V. managers and offered that he help them!

That was what I read from the novel before I bought it. The library man told me that the novelist, Nasef Falak is his friend and had told him that this novel is about his life in the Iraq-Iran war. The novel title was little strange and long: “Khidr Qad and the Olive Green Era”. Olive Green is referring to the color of the uniform of Iraqi army before 2003. Khidr is an Arabic male name. Qad in Arabic means “maybe” in English but in the novel Khidr is called Khidr Qad because one day, when interrogated by a member of the security men in the eighties, he kept answering: Qad… Qad… (means Maybe… maybe) to all the questions. They thought he had a mental illness. Since then and he is called as Khidr Qad.

Khidr’s brother “Abboudi” tried to be excused from the military service. He went to the secret handicap atelier in Souq Mraidi and asked them to break his arm for him to be faced by that question: a fracture by a bullet, or normal fracture?
Abboudi ended in a military unit of the physically handicapped and mentally ill.

“All the soldier are unified by one expression in the faces, an expression at the extreme of the dissension and obscurity. Their eyes are gloomy black holes, they are black hollows that drink all the darkness. With a unifying smile, stuck on the jaws from ear to another, not a smile but a neutral grimace. Took place between the sea of the horrible and the desert of the absentmindedness, one grimace copied over the soldiers’ faces, compelled to do so like a destiny that must happen like the birth cry.”
p. 66

Nsaif Falak, born in Baghdad/ Karradat Mariam in 1954, graduated from the college of Beaux Art 1980, went to Iran in 1983 to spend 6 years there, came back to Iraq to be impresent in Abu Ghraib prison for 4 years then released.

Smell of Candles

Adieu Babel—Naim Kattan

Remember the Ruins of Um Kalthum? Remember Farida and that novel about Saleema Murad? He is the same writer, Naim Kattan. Born in Iraq in 1928, and living in Canada since 1954.

P 48-50:

“we were Jewish, we knew that, and everybody did. But we were also sons of this land. Sons of this home. And we had to declare this every moment. To scream it continuously fearing that it might be forgotten. Fearing that we would be deprived from our right in the fortune that God had given to this kingdom, his kingdom.

“Isn’t it right that we were the best Arabic grammar scientists? We were delighted every time we mention the quotations of linguists: Father Krimli, Jewish teacher. Very ordinary thing. There were no conflict nor any consideration in the love that we hold for this language that we were speaking since birth, and it was ours to the same degree that it was to desert Bedouins.

“The names the Jewish used to call their children with were evidence to their big talent in adaptation to the changing reality, without meaning that they were sacrificing their old loyalties or abandoning their fidelity to their roots.

“In this land that knew havoc after havoc, in this land of immigrants, they were always the example of stability and continuity. They endured in the face of the most tyrannical invaders coming from the most omnipotent and savage empires. They had to show every new master, more of their new assurances. To pay heavy prices so that to protect their heritage and to defeat extinction. All over centuries they were the witnesses on victories and defeats, on fervor and anger. And they had, times and times again, extracted their rights from this land. They are the sons of this land in a double way. Isn’t every one of them got two names at least? One is Jewish remembering us of the old ancestors: Ezekiel, Abraham, Naseem, Ezra, or Elyahoo, Lea, Rifka, Samha, or Raheel.

“And with every new era, new names were added to this stable eternal list, another list of names that changes with the situations, remembering of the presence of the outside world while it change place with the eternity world. In this way the Persian named like Khatoon, had leaft the place to Turkish ones, like Geourji. Then it was time for the western world to introduce its special names to the families, and we were suddenly in front of Flora, Regina, Rene, Albert, Edward, and Morris. New masters, new names. And the mother, with their inherited wisdom, were reading in the future the wave of nationalisim that would go high and unstable, so they put vague names to their sons that could be read with multiple meaning and references, putting some important bit of suspicion wandering around their real belonging at the crucial moments, when it is time to join an institute or office. This didn’t reach the degree of capturing the names of Muslim imams & holy martyrs. No family thought of naming their son Mohammed, or their daughter Fatima. But, there was a plentiful portion of shared neutral names, like Subhi and Akram and Zaki and Jameel, with the addition of the easiness of changing Joseph to Yousuf, and Abraham to Ibraheem. There is no religious suggestion in these names. All that is there are that these names were a bet on characters of children and to let them have some qualities of “generosity” or “beauty”. “

The last page of the novel says:

“These faces that are looking at me, these faces that are going away, these faces that I look at from behind the buss glass, these faces will be Iraq. These faces will be all that is left for me from Iraq. I hope that I will carry their reflection forever. That must happen sp that I keep my childhood. That must happen so that I can enter the new world without being cut from this essential part of me. Without scattering frivolously this raceme of dream and memories.”

“The buss went in an unpaved road. I hoped helplessly that these faces stay alive forever. Sand started to go up drawing a curtain between us and the city which started to disappear a little by little in a dense dark miserable mist. Stones started to scatter under the grinding sound of the tires. Through the tears that flew slowly on my cheeks I saw dogs barking and running behind us. I am no more in need of throwing a stone on them so that they go away. I don’t need to throw to protect myself from them".

So he left, like others did, with a bitter feeling, leaving their country of origin, were their roots are deeper than any others. If one day my soul would be free, I would send her to Meskinta church in Al Meedan, lit a candle, put the chain around my neck and make a wish that you all return in a welcoming warm country, filled with love and respect, and I would leave my soul there praying till the iron chain would unlock automatically no matter how long it may take.

Smell of Dijla

Da’abool… Amal Porter

Starts by that Baghdadi evening where Da’abool is left alone in the carpentry atelier he works in next to Dijla. He took one of the boats he made by his own hands, put his Arak bottle in it, and went into the river heading for the source of that song he was hearing, a song of Iraqi maqam. On his way he started to take sips of Arak and soon he started to sing with the song. A wave of memory took him to his childhood back when his family had died in a big fire that spread to their house from the neighboring buildings that belong to the British army. Da’aboul doesn’t know how old he was at the time of that fire that caused big fear to enter his little heart. He went running escaping the fire. His mother and his sister Badriya must had died, he said to his self. He went running in that Baghdadi night worried that a bad spirit (Al Khannaq) may harm him as his mother always had warned him from. She did not warn his sister. Little Da’aboul had concluded that Al Khannaq hurt only boys, not girls. So when he was found the second day by that man who thought Da’aoul was a girl, Da’aboul lied and said that he is a girl and his name is Badriya, same of his sister’s name. That man took him (her) to his house to live and work as a servant for them. Azzouri and his wife Rihlo treated “her” like their daughter. But one day Rihlo insisted that she takes “her” to the public bath. Da’aboul, being afraid that his male identity would be exposed in the bath went running from Azzouri and Rihlo to a new family house, to Hafeetha. Haffethat got a son and a daughter and Da’aboul, also known as Badria and treated as a girl, had to care for the children and for the household. He remembers how he helped the Hafeetha in the bath while she was naked. After some time his male identity was discovered and he was expelled from the house with threats of harming him. He went running to another family’s house, a couple of Syrians who lives in Baghdad for a while. The man taught him to make Auds in his carpenter atelier and also how to play it. In the atelier Da’aboul also met some few people with special taste to music and art including Ali. The woman taught him about Islam religion. When they left to Syria some time after, tears filled the scene with rain of nostalgia and gratitude.
A novel written by the color of old Baghdadi mud bricks, by the smell of Iraqi Arak Mistiki, by the time of Qushla, next to Dijla.

Da’aboul, left alone, went to Ali who took him to a big carpenter atelier of making wooden boats next to Dijla. Usta Hoobi the boss of the atelier was happy that he got such a punctual and artistic carpenter and he let Da’aboul to live in the atelier. Da’aboul would spend the nights after the morning working hours alone next to Dijla with his Aud, sometimes with the accompany of Ali.

Ali who is from a wealthy family closed to spend his time working in that “Usta Hoobi” carpenter atelier. He chose Da’aboul, that silent man, to tell him about his change of religion and about his love to Iraqi Maqam. Da’aboul told Ali about his love to Saleema the baker. When Ali suddenly died Da’aboul refused to join the traditional way of saying farewell to Ali, after all Da’aboul was the only one who knew about Ali’s change of religion in India next to that holy river. Da’abould said farwell to Ali in his own special way.

During my life, I was asked many times why do I read novels, and don’t I have something better to do with my time? The worst times when a bunch of people ask me and laugh on me. I was shocked many times how I get speechless. It seemed that I don’t know why I do read those novels. If I am looking for history then there are hundreds if not thousands, if not millions, of professional history books. If I am searching for psychology then read academic texts. But books are books after all, and the more academic they are, the more soulless, the more odorless. I read novels about Baghdad so that I can feel the pain of Khidr Qad and his brother Abboudi, so that I feel the identity crises our land is suffering from while its most strong deep roots are being pulled out, so that I can smell the candles St Meskinta and her children had lit one day before their martyrdom, so that I join Da’aboul in that farewell ritual next to Dijla. So that I love more my Baghdad and keep her perfume deep in my mind. So that I never forget.