This fine, complex novel from one of Iraq’s most accomplished and subtle writers was first published in Arabic in 1980 and its publication in an English translation could not be more timely. The book is set in the 1960s and tells the story of four generations of one family living in a rambling old house in the Bab al-Shaykh quarter of Baghdad. The opening pages plunge the reader into the initially confusing tangle of – mostly female – inter-relationships in this
close-knit but troubled household. The aged patriarch is ill and his three sons are, to varying degrees, damaged and unable to control events. Hussayn is an unstable drunkard who is seen by his wife and his six-year-old daughter only intermittently. Mihdat is a suicidal loser and the third brother ’Abd al-Karim has been driven mad by witnessing the death of his closest friend in a car accident.
The apolitical and enclosed existence of the household is tragically invaded by the dangers of the outside world when Mihdat is killed in street fighting as militants of the Ba’ath Socialist party of Saddam Hussein launch their coup against Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim.
This book speaks eloquently of an Iraq which Bush and Blair would have us forget in their focus on the tyrant Saddam Hussein; an Iraq inhabited by living, breathing, suffering individuals and families, much like ourselves but with their own unique stories to tell. These are voices that we urgently need to hear and this important and humane book is an excellent place to begin to listen.