Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book Review: The Sirens of Baghdad

Yasmina Khadra/ Mohammed Moulessehoul
Not in many best seller lists and not as sublime as Nadeem Aslams ‘The Wasted Vigil’, this book nevertheless does to Iraq what the other does to Afghanistan.
The protagonist is a young man in his early 20-s, a Bedouin who has left his village to study in Baghdad, become a doctor and make his family and village proud. He has already built a world of dreams when it comes crashes down. American GI-s take over the country and what follows is the continual denigration of a race too proud to sit and take it. He returns to his village where tragedy after tragedy strikes. Uncalled for killings of innocents by an over excitable marine troop, bombing of a marriage party mistaken to be an arms stronghold, and then a village torn apart by the military, young men taken away, old men insulted in front of their children. Blood will have to be spilled to avenge an insult. That is the Bedouin way.
The story starts in Beirut, where the protagonist is already a fedayeen, then moves to tell his history to Kafr Karam, his village, Baghdad and then moves back to the present. The changing mileu is so well presented. Proud of their bread earning status at one time, men now have become effeminate, reduced to arguing about who is to blame for their countries downfall. Saddam? The West? They themselves? And to taking money from their mothers and sisters. Sisters revolting against the tribe to go for higher education and become doctors. Sisters living “in sin” in the big city. Homosexuality. And of course, the growing “waiting list” of would be fedayeens.
This morning the newspaper talked about 2 car bombs going off in Baghdad killing 30 people. The book talks about groups who are actually responsible for this. Who think it is justified to kill children and innocents to avenge a wrong done to their country by the west. They are not warring against their own, but they end up doing just that. And some lose their minds in the process, like Hassan who is not quite there after he saw his best friend mowed down by police after a botched suicide bombing. Or the man who became stark mad after he blew up a school bus full of kids. He bound himself with bread loaves to look like a human bomb and walked into a checkpost.
Whats best about the book is that it supports no one and damns everyone. Humanity suffers in a war between two factions. It is the women and children who are left to pick up the pieces when the men are bombed away. It is the frail and old left to mourn their youngs’ passing. And it is a generation of machines moulded by a thought process which no one can justify. Be it the young marines killing civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan or they who blow themselves up for Paradise. Or for country.
The conscience of the book must be Dr Jamal, not a main character in the book but a professor who used to support the west at first, and then switched sides to support the Iraqi voice. And then realizes that every one is wrong in this war. And gets killed for it.
Of course the ending itself is a bit tame. I wont give it away but the weapon he is supposed to carry to end half of humanity is pretty clich├ęd and the way the book ends itself, unravels the tightness of the book and keeps it from raising itself from good to great. That of course would be a spoiler so I will refrain from telling. I wish it ended better. But a subject too relevant to ignore.