How to Create a Terrorist, Part I

The Sirens of Baghdad, by Yasmina Khadra

Yasmina Khadra, pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul
Yasmina Khadra, pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul

 

Note:  Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian writer  

Sirens of Baghdad
Sirens of Baghdad

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.

Stay tuned!

(The quotations come from the Anchor Books version published in 2007, translated from the French by John Cullen.)

 

National Blog Posting Month
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Check Out These North African Women Writers (Part I): Ahdaf Soueif

Ahdaf Soueif

photo from Soueif’s web page

Ahdaf Soueif is an Egyptian writer who has strong ties to England. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Lancaster, and her second husband was English. Her native language is Arabic, but most of her published writing is in English.

Her cross-cultural identity provides one of the recurring themes of her fiction. I have read two of her novels, The Eye of the Sun, and The Map of Love. Both of them are about women caught between (or perhaps within) two cultures, which leads them to grapple with cultural, sexual, political, and intellectual identities.

In the Eye of the Sun
In the Eye of the Sun

In the Eye of the Sun chronicles the coming-of-age story of a beautiful, upper-class Egyptian woman named Asya who tries to reconcile her intellectual, emotional, and sexual needs with the confines of Egyptian traditions. Like Soueif herself, Asya spends several years in a cold and lonely English university while pursuing her Ph.D.   Asya is married to an Egyptian man but is apart from him while pursuing her degree and ends up having an affair with an English man. In the Eye of the Sun has been compared to Victorian English novels such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch because of its style, scope and the exploration of the inner life of her main character. On the other hand, In the Eye of the Sun is more modern and daring (one might even say racy) in its unflinching exploration of the sexual desires and sexual politics of its characters as well as the sexism of both English and Egyptian cultures. In that sense, Soueif reminds me a little of feminist writers such as Doris Lessing and Sylvia Plath.

I would recommend this book for people who are interested in women’s issues, especially in Arab women’s issues. Don’t bother with this book if you like lots of action in a novel. It is much more about psychology and culture than action. Keep in mind that this is a hefty read—over 800 pages. I sometimes wished Soueif had not been quite so wordy. In this sense, her writing reminds me of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. (I have been told by Arab-American friends that Arabs like their words—that what Americans might call “wordy” or “flowery” prose are compliments, not critiques. ) I do think that the novel is worth the time it takes in getting through it.   I do not know of other Arab writers (in English, alas) who have explored the psyche of female characters with so much depth and insight. (If you know of others, please let me know!)

 

The Map of Love
The Map of Love

Soueif’s Map of Love is the most famous of her works because it was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize. It is a complex work that interweaves romance, history, and politics into a gorgeous Middle-Eastern tapestry. The plot is so complicated, in fact, it is rather difficult to convey briefly.

One thread of the narrative concerns Anna Winterbourne, a late 19th century English woman who travels to Egypt after the death of her husband. While there, she meets, falls in love with, and marries a dashing, upper-class English man (think Omar Sharif ). The 19th century plot is frankly romantic, complete with desert sojourns, kidnapping, and so forth. Normally that type of romance makes me nauseated, but for some reason it worked for me in this novel. Perhaps it worked for me because the romance was combined with a heavy dose of historically based portrayals of British colonialism and the horrors that ensued from it.

Another strand of the novel, however, is set in the present day (late 20th century). An American woman named Isabel Parkman finds some old papers of her mother that are written in Arabic. She meets an Arab man (think Omar Sharif meets Edward Said) who suggests she goes to Egypt to meet his sister Amal who can help her with the papers. (I told you it gets complicated). In any case, the novel intertwines the stories of the three women (Amal, Anna, and Isbael) and we find they are interconnected in unexpected ways despite being separated by time and geography.

Like In the Eye of the Sun, The Map of Love, also combines biting political critique with a sensitive exploration of women’s emotional terrains. The Map of Love, however, has a more complicated plot structure. On the one hand, this is good because it gives the novel a stronger scaffolding for the emotional exploration. On the other hand, juggling all the different characters, time periods, and historical references can be a challenge. Nonetheless, I loved this work. Again, I don’t know of anything else that combines the romantic with the political in such an intriguing style.

Soueif has written a number of other works, too, both fictional and nonfictional. Here is the link to her official webpage. Check her out!

Her official web page.