Yasmina Khadra, The Sirens of Baghdad, Part II.
Spoiler Alert! I discuss the ending of the novel in this post.
This post is a continuation of yesterday’s discussion of Yasmina Khadra’s book The Sirens of Baghdad. This novel traces the journey of a young Iraqi Bedouin man from a sensitive, peaceful person to someone determined to destroy as much of the world as possible through violent means.
As I mentioned earlier, the narrator turns to violence after the Americans and their allies inflict a series of outrages on people close to him. After the third outrage, the protagonist believes he has no choice but to seek revenge. This need for vengeance comes not from his religion, but from his Bedouin heritage’s emphasis on honor. The unnamed narrator points out that, “For Bedouin, no matter how impoverished they may be, honor is no joking matter. An offense must be washed away in blood, which is the sole authorized detergent when it’s a question of keeping one’s self-respect. . . Dignity can’t be negotiated. Should we lose it, all the shrouds in the world won’t suffice to veil our faces, and no tomb will receive our carcasses without cracking.” (133)
Most of the characters in Khadra’s novel who voice disgust over their treatment by the West are outraged by the indignities they believe they have suffered from the West. Some of these abuses are specific instances of violence and mal-treatment like those suffered by the narrator (discussed previously.)
Other examples are less physical, but are nonetheless stinging. One taxi-driver in Sirens says, for example, that “I was an interpreter with the American troops. . . ‘Sand niggers’—that’s the name they give their Iraqi collaborators” (126) Iraqi characters in the novel also voice disbelief at the way Americans treat their parents and the elderly: “But the GI has no clue. He can’t measure the extent of the sacrilege. He doesn’t even know what a sacrilege is. In his world, a man sticks his parents in an old folks’ home and forgets them. They’re the least of his worries. He calls his mother an “old bag” and his father “an asshole.” What can you expect of such a person?” (173)
Still others are appalled at the general disdain they think Westerners have towards Arab culture, which has a much longer and more distinguished history than does Western culture. As one character observes, “They think all Arabs are retarded,” he muttered. “Imagine: Arabs, the most fabulous creatures on earth. We taught the world table manners; we taught the world hygiene and cooking and mathematics and medicine. Ad what do these degenerates of modernity remember of all that? A camel caravan crossing the dunes at sunset? Some fat guy in a white robe and a keffiyeh flashing his millions in a gambling casino on the Cote d’Azur? Cliches, caricatures..,” (128).
In this novel, Khadra is emphasizing that the reason some Arabs and Muslims hate the West is not because of their religion (which is what right wing media pundits would have us believe) but because they are not treated with respect and dignity. Another reason, Khadra suggests, is that Westerners seem to value money and material progress above else. We see an example of this sort of thinking when the American military offers money to the father of Sulayman just a few days after they shot him to death. The father is appalled that Americans would stoop so low as to try to “buy him off” in the midst of his grief.
I need to emphasize, however, that despite the many critiques of the West contained in The Sirens of Baghdad, Khadra is by no means promoting terrorism. On the contrary. He portrays the resistance fighters with whom the narrator gets involved as wrong-headed at best. Just as he gives voice to characters who hate the West, he also gives voice to characters who are horrified at the Fedayeen (resistance fighters.) One character says, “The actions of the Fedayeen are lowering us in the eyes of the world. We’re Iraqis, cousin. We have eleven thousand years of history behind us. We’re the ones who taught men to dream.” (161)
Another tells the narrator, “If you insist on fighting, do it properly. Fight for your country, not against the whole world. Keep things in perspective; don’t mistake wrong for right. Don’t kill just for killing’s sake. Don’t fire blindly—we’re losing more innocent people than bastards who deserve to die.”
Others try to dissuade the narrator from his terrorist mission by telling him this:
“You’re already on the wrong track. The world isn’t our enemy. Remember all the people who protested the invasion all over the world, millions of them marching in Madrid, Rome, Paris, Tokyo, South America, Asia. All of them were on our side, and they still are. We got more support from them than we got from the other Arab countries. Don’t forget that. All nations are victims of the avarice of a handful of multinational companies. It would be terrible to lump them all together. Kidnapping NGO workers who are here only to help us—those kinds of things are alien to our customs. If you want to avenge an offense, don’t commit one. If you think your honor must be saved, don’t dishonor your people. Don’t give way to madness.” (183)
In the end, the narrator almost gives way to madness. He is about to embark on a mission to infect millions of people with a deadly virus that spreads easily and rapidly. As he is about to get on the plane to start his mission, however, he falters.
Looking around the airport at all of the people doing ordinary things, like kissing each other, waiting hopefully to be reunited with their families, etc., he realizes how wrong he has been. He realized “they deserved to live for a thousand years. I have no right to challenge their kisses, scuttle their dreams, dash their hopes. What have I done with my own destiny? I’m only twenty-one years old, and all I have is the certainty that I’ve wrecked my life twenty-one times over.” (306)
It seems to me that the narrator realizes there is a big difference between hating The West (an abstract concept) and hating all of the individual people that make up the West, most of whom have little to do with the outrages that have been inflicted upon him. By the time he comes to this realization, unfortunately, he has already shot himself up with the deadly virus and can do nothing more but wait to die.
As he waits, he “concentrates on the light of the city, which [he] was never able to perceive through the anger of men.” (307)
Quotations used are from the 2007 Anchor Books publication, translated by John Cullen.
***Stay tuned for future installments of “How to Create a Terrorist,” in which I discuss The Yacoubian Building and The Reluctant Fundamentalist.**