Friday, September 10, 2010

Bringing History Alive

I remember that Algerian woman in one of Rachid Boudjidra's novels who asks the Communist Algerian elder who used to tell her about the liberation revolution in precise dates. He remembers the days. But she used to have a strange kind of lust to know more about the personal characters of the men of history. She would ask: what he was like, how he was dressing, does he have some habits? What kind of sport he liked?

Shua'ayb was the boy who shared me my desk in the 3rd grade in secondary school. And our desk was full of dates. Dates we used to write down before the history lesson starts so that we remember the dates of our different revolutions. Dates and numbers and wars. That was our history lesson given to us by that angry teacher who didn't like us. We weren't parrots and hence we were hated and rejected by her. It was then when I started to learn to smoke more cigarettes and to hate being polite.

Ali Bader's novel title "the naked feast" is about that day in 1917, that day in the life of the guardian of Al Qushla, Mahmood Baig. A day before the UK forces enter Baghdad and defeat the Ottoman empire army. The language of the government by then was Turkish. Mahmood Baig still remembers that day when he wanted to play with Ara, the Christian child, Ara said: "go wash your face you dirty". Mahmood kept washing his face but he didn't become white like Ara. His inferiority complex was clear in front of Beatrice the Armenian who smells like soap. His inferiority complex was evident in front of every Christian.

Mahmood was fearful from whiteness and cleanness. Whiteness and cleanness was united in the body of each Armenian woman. In all chrestian women bodies. The body that smells like soap, the smell that he likes, desire, and fear.

In that contest, Ali Bader, started telling us history. He gave us a lesson of history in his novel. He gave life to Baghdad of 1917 when Al Zahawi who believed with all of his emotions in Darwin's origin of species and started talking about it in Al Shabender café surrounded by his audience. The Imam who declare Al Zahawi as an atheist and the problems thereafter.
The Ottoman empire as representatives of Islam, and the UK as representative of Christianity, and how the Germans stood with the side of the Ottomans, hence made the people awaken from their naivety and making fun of how the king of Germany declared his Islam and Abbas Merza volunteered to circumscribe him for free!!
Told us about the government when don't give the salaries to the soldiers and how they would break into the market and steal from the merchandise. How the Ottoman Empire used to take Baghdadis for wars in Russia in the name of Jihad for Islam. About how the Ottoman army used to steal from the people's houses in those horrible "Farhoods".

When we love, we exaggerate. That was obvious in the way I see Baghdad. As a reaction to its current ugliness, I tended to search in its past for spots of beauty and exaggerated them, so as to say, that I got a country that worth my living in it. A living that carries its risks of death daily. But the real Baghdad is not that beautiful, nor that special. Take this trial of translation by me for one of the pages of Ali Bader's novel as an example:

"No doubt that the real Baghdad was not to Maud, Thompson and to Hooker nor to any other English soldier the golden dust described by Richard Burton's translation of The Thousand Nights and a Night, and it was not to the Indian Muslims who came with the occupation army the capital of the Muslims, which had long dreamed of seeing through the writings of Sayyid Ahmad Khan in his book (The Surprise of People in Knowledge of Baghdad), which was printed in Calcutta in the eighteenth century, but it was another city, a city ravaged by gendarmerie's mules, and cannons of the occupiers, and epidemics, wars, floods, it must be that they recognized how lucky this city which built its legends, a city manufactured by delusions, dreams and myths, its image is closer to myth than its reality, the reality of its water turbidity, and poor populations, and poisoned air, scanty food, and filth, and dirtiness, and blackness, and decay…." P.282