By Yasmina Khadra

Book Review


A trail of destruction left behind when American soldiers invade a village in Iraq turns an innocent young man into a ticking time bomb waiting to erupt. His journey for vengeance takes him to Baghdad where his rage transforms into an unexpected weapon to wreak havoc on the enemy.

A small glimpse into the reality of what is happening in the Arab and Muslim regions, the third and final novel in Yasmina Khadra’s trilogy, – the first entitled, The Swallows of Kabul, which takes place in Afghanistan and the second, The Attack, on the topic of Palestine – The Sirens of Baghdad is a tale about occupied Iraq.

Written under a female alias name Yasmina Khadra, Mohammed Moulessehoul is a former Algerian army officer and now a rare and celebrated writer in Algeria. He used to write clandestinely when in the army and is now writing in his new exiled home in France. Khadra is all but too familiar with “fundamentalism” and terrorism during his time in Algeria and he is fully equipped when writing the mentioned novels.

Told through the eyes and minds of Iraqis, more specifically, a nameless young Bedouin from a small village lost in the desert of Iraq, Kafr Karam, the novel starts with a scene in Beirut where the narrator speaks of the city in a sardonic manner. The story then goes back in time relating the circumstances that led the young man to be miles away from home. 

Wanting to make a life for himself and to make his family proud, the young Bedouin enrols at a University in Baghdad before the American invasion of Iraq. His dream is short-lived forcing him to return to his birthplace, after the university he attends closes its doors due to the invasion. Ultimately, war hits the narrator’s hometown where three incidents occur leaving a path of degradation forcing the young man to be a part of a war he tried so hard to avoid.

The first of the incidents to take place before the narrator’s eyes is the pointless killing of a young man with mental-health issues, at a checkpoint, the narrator was driving to the hospital. The second, only a few days later, he witnesses the aftermath of a missile attack on a wedding taking the lives of women and children. The final incident, American soldiers invade the narrator’s home in search for weapons, his family humiliated, and his father subjected to mortification.

Witnessing his father belittled in front of his very own eyes, the narrator seeks to avenge his father’s dishonour, as is the customs in Bedouin culture (to reclaim the family’s honour),

…to wash away this insult in blood. (102)

Thus, his journey to Baghdad begins,

…to spread my venom there. I didn’t know how to go about it, but I was certain I’d strike some nasty blow…For Bedouin, no matter how impoverished they may be, honour is no joking matter. An offence must be washed away in blood, which is the sole authorised detergent when it’s a question of keeping one’s self-respect. (133)

He goes on to explain his situation,

I had gone to bed a docile, courteous boy, and I’d awakened with an inextinguishable rage lodged in my very flesh. I carried my hatred like a second nature; it was my armour and my shirt of Nessus, my pedestal and my stake; it was all that remained to me in this false, unjust, arid, and cruel life. (134)

The narrator’s fury, groomed by a group of dissidents he joins to annihilate the “West”, gets him sent off to Lebanon before flying to London for his final act of retribution on the people who caused Iraqis harm and dishonoured his family.

Khadra’s choice for the third incident (father’s dishonour) to be the one for punishing the “West” seems rather weak and trivial in comparison to the other two disheartening events. However, this is one of the major differences between the “Eastern” and “Western” regions. Honour is a justifiable motive for vengeance and it is the way of the culture of villagers in many Arab and Muslim-populated countries, even if the reason for revenge may not strike readers in the “Occident” as a good one.

This marvellous writing rings true and John Cullen’s impeccable translation does the book justice (as well as The Swallows of Kabul and The Attack).

This book is for readers who want to comprehend the mindset of those willing to die and to understand better Arab nations, those deeply entwined in culture and tradition, even if just a little bit. It is a tale depicting the other side of the story with Khadra illuminating another facet of some Arab nations and the “Western conflict”.

From Khadra’s poetic wordings,

…a village lost in the sands of the Iraqi desert, a place so discreet that it often dissolves in mirages, only to emerge at sunset… (2)

to his daring touch of masterful storytelling of human suffering, the novel will fill the reader with mixed emotions: anger, hate, joy, pain, pity – the list is long.

He has touched on many hot issues; one cannot but empathise, if not sympathise, with the main character.

It is an edifying and essential reading for our time.

For readers who are interested in current affairs and appreciate high-quality and conscientious writing, this book is the way to go.

But a word of warning, it is not one for the fainthearted.

Genre:Fictional Literature
Translator:John Cullen
Publisher:Anchor Books
Publication Year:2007

March 2009

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