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.”
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.
“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.