The Sirens of Baghdad, by Yasmina Khadra
Note: Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian writer
Yasmina Khadra, Sirens of Baghdad. Published in French in 2006.
The unnamed narrator of Yasmina Khadra’s Sirens of Baghdad lives most of his life as a peaceful, shy, naïve soul. He is a Bedouin from the small, backwater Iraqi village of Kafr Karam, which lay mostly isolated from the tumult of the modern world. The narrator notes that
“For generations beyond memory, we had lived shut up inside our walls of clay and straw, far from the world and its foul beasts, contenting ourselves with whatever God put on our plates and praising Him as devoutly for the newborn He confided to us as for the relative He called back to Himself. We were poor, common people, but we were at peace” (12).
This peaceful, if lethargic, existence careens to an abrupt halt, however, with the American invasion of Iraq. At first, the Kafr Karam inhabitants try to ignore the violence occurring in Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul, and other Iraqi cities. Soon, though, the ravages of war come to them.
At this point, Khadra’s narrator begins his transformation from a peaceful village boy to a resistance fighter who is about to embark on a mission that, if successful, will destroy millions of people. How can such a dramatic change occur? Three key events catapult our protagonist into his short career as a terrorist.
The first event concerns a developmentally disabled young man named Sulayman who lives in Kafr Karam. One of the symptoms of his disability was his habit of taking off running frantically until he passed out: “Sulayman didn’t talk, didn’t complain, was never aggressive; he lived entrenched in his world and ignored ours totally. Then, all at once, he’d give a cry—always the same cry—and take off across the desert without looking back” (29).
One day, Sulayman accidentally cut off two of his fingers, and he needed to be rushed to a clinic. The narrator accompanies Sulayman’s father on their trip to the next town, where the nearest clinic is found. Unfortunately, their trip is interrupted by a checkpoint that blocked their route. Two soldiers with automatic weapons stopped their car and started barking orders at them. The American GI, in particular, intimidated the passengers in the car with his gigantic body, his rage, and his shouts. Sulayman’s father pleaded with him, “I beg you, please don’t shout. My son is mentally ill, and you’re scaring him.” (55)
The black GI responded with even more rage, “Shut the fuck up or I’ll blow your brains out! Hands behind your head!” (56) The tensions of the exchange escalated, and eventually Sulayman became so scared that he bolted out of the car and started running away. The soldiers assumed the worst and immediately started shooting. They shot Sulayman so many times that his head “exploded like a melon; his unbridled run stopped all at once.”
Sulayman’s death left his family inconsolable and the narrator reeling with shock. The Americans eventually realized they had made a mistake, “but they weren’t going to make a big deal of it. Incidents of this kind were commonplace in Iraq. Amid the general confusion, everyone sought his own advantage. To err is human, and fate has broad shoulders” (59).
The killing of Sulayman was just the first event that shattered the protagonist’s outlook on the world. The second event involved the destruction of a Kafr Karam wedding party by American missiles. The Americans had mistaken the wedding party for a gathering of terrorists. The results were devastating:
“The force of the explosion had flung chairs and wedding guests thirty meters in all directions. Survivors staggered about, their clothes in rags, holding their hands out in front of them like blind people. Some mutilated, charred bodies were lined up along the edge of a path. Cars illuminated the slaughter with their headlights, while specters thrashed about in the midst of the rubble. Then there was the howling, drawn out, interminable; the air was full of pleas and cries and wails” (93).
This slaughter, not surprisingly, appalled the narrator: “I didn’t remember ever having borne a grudge against anybody, anybody at all, and yet there I was, ready to bite something, including the hand that tried to soothe me—except that I held myself back. I was outraged, sick, tormented by a thousand thorns…” (97). And yet, he still remained peaceful, reasoning that “I held a better grudge against the coalition forces, but I couldn’t see myself indiscriminately attacking everyone and everything in sight. War wasn’t my line. I wasn’t born to commit violence—I considered myself a thousand times likelier to suffer it than to practice it one day.”
This philosophy changes irrevocably one night when the narrator’s home was forcibly invaded by a squad of American soldiers looking for weapons. As usual, they used excessive force, shouting obscenities and destroying the few valuables owned by the family. Much more outrageous, though, was the way the GIs treated the family members, dragging everyone around and striking women into submission.
The way the Americans soldiers treated his father, however, was truly unimaginable to the narrator. His father was frail and elderly and was not dressed when the soldiers knocked down his bedroom door. He requested that the soldiers let him get properly dressed, but they would not allow it. The father could not permit himself to appear in front of his family members with nothing but underwear, so he turned back to the bedroom to get his clothes.
The soldiers responded by knocking the elderly man to the floor with a gun. When they did that, his abdomen and genitals were revealed to the entire family. This sight was an unspeakable sacrilege to the narrator.
“That sight was the edge of the abyss, and beyond it, there was nothing but the infinite void, an interminable fall, nothingness. . . A Westerner can’t understand, can’t suspect the dimensions of the disaster. For me, to see my father’s sex was to reduce my entire existence, my values and my scruples, my pride and my singularity, to a coarse, pornographic flash. The gates of hell would have seemed less catastrophic!” (102).
This outrage on the honor of his family was the final straw for our narrator. As a Bedouin, he had no choice but to “wash away this insult in blood, until the rivers and the oceans turned as read as the cut on Bahia’s neck, as my mother’s eyes, as the fire in my guts, which was already preparing me for the hell I knew was waiting….” (102)
From this point on, the narrator is bent on revenge. He travels to Baghdad, where he joins resistance forces and agrees to participate in whatever mission they assign him, including a suicide mission. He reasons that he is already dead, at least he can go down fighting.
Clearly, Khadra is suggesting in Sirens of Baghdad that the American invasion of Iraq contributed to the rise of terrorism in the region. Moreover, while our presence was inherently disruptive, many of the events that traumatized the narrator could have been avoided if soldiers had been more respectful of ordinary Iraqis and cracked down on the “shoot first, ask questions later” policy of so many soldiers.
Also noteworthy in this novel is that the reasons for the narrator’s turn to terrorism had nothing to do with the religious tenets of Islam, although it did have much to do with Eastern vs. Western values. I will discuss these values as they are portrayed in The Sirens of Baghdad in my next blog post.
(The quotations come from the Anchor Books version published in 2007, translated from the French by John Cullen.)