Monday, May 12, 2008
khalid kishtainy's new novel: 'by the rivers of babylon'
In the opening scene of “By the Rivers of Babylon”, the latest novel by the Iraqi author, satirist and columnist Khalid Kishtainy, the aunts, nieces and cousins of a family are gathered in the central courtyard (haush) of a Baghdad house. The year is 1948. The womenfolk plead with the patriarch of the house, Haj Nufal Abu Mamduh, to show mercy and forgiveness towards his unmarried 17-year-old daughter Samira, who is suspected of having fallen pregnant.
But Haj Nufal refuses to be swayed. He tells his two sons, who are armed with pistols, to take their sister to a doctor to establish whether she is pregnant. “If she has disgraced our name by becoming a plaything for some lecherous young man, she will deserve what she gets.”
The brothers take Samira to Dr Abdul Salam Sassoon, a Jewish gynecologist. They tell him that if their sister is pregnant he must cut her open, remove the fetus and show it to them. After that, “we want you to kill her and dispose of her body in your own professional way...We want no trace left of her real identity. We are a respectable family.” When he turns down their financial inducements, they threaten him with their guns. The sons might claim their family is respectable – but their father has made his money from trading in women in India.
Dr Sassoon vanishes from his home and clinic, returning after a week in a fragile emotional state. A young man, Hassun Abd al-Ali turns up at his clinic and tearfully tells him he was Samira’s lover, but Sassoon claims not to know what happened to her after he confirmed she was pregnant. The distraught Hassun goes on the run, fearing that Samira’s family will try to kill him.
Kishtainy’s novel, published by Quartet Books, traces the subsequent fates of Dr Sassoon and Hassun. Their personal stories are intertwined with the upheavals of the time, especially the creation of Israel in 1948 and the ensuing Arab-Israeli war. Such is Kishtainy’s economy of style that the novel has the feeling of an epic work, moving between Iraq, Iran and Israel and conveying a wealth of insights and incidents, and yet it is relatively short at just over 200 small pages. Kishtainy’s descriptions of places and people are highly evocative, and he has a gift for irony. He gives a rich portrait of life in Iraq, complete with the inventive, often bawdy, vernacular language.
Sassoon is driven to mental breakdown by his trauma over Samira, and spends time confined in mental hospitals. When Israel is established in May 1948 anti-Jewish feeling in Iraq rises, and Sassoon comes under suspicion from fellow patients who think he is an Israeli spy. He and Hassun both eventually end up in Israel, Sassoon as a reluctant migrant and Hassun as a prisoner of war. The novel leaves the reader guessing until its last paragraph.
At the launch of the novel last week at a reception in the Ark Gallery, West London, Kishtainy revealed that the opening chapter is based on a painful incident in his own family’s history. When he was four or five years old, his 15-year-old brother seduced and impregnated a girl. Kishtainy’s mother hid the girl in the family home, but when her husband discovered this he insisted that the girl leave the house at once. The women of the family beseeched him to save the girl’s life and to give them time to spirit her away to safety, but he refused to change his mind.
“I remember my brother leading this wretched girl, all in black, to the door,” Kishtainy said. “The door slammed behind them, a few seconds passed, the house was absolutely silent and then shots were heard from the street.” The girl’s family had killed her. Kishtainy’s brother ran away and for months the family did not know where he was. “The memory remained with me all my life, and eventually I had to download that incident into this novel.”
Some 60 years after this incident occurred, honor killings are still occurring in Iraq (where they are reportedly on the rise) and in other parts of the Middle East. Kishtainy said: “When you read this first chapter don’t think of it as fiction... it is a reality.“
The scandal over the pregnancy forced the Kishtainy family to move to another area of Baghdad. “Our house was adjacent to a cemetery and as a child I used to go there and watch the burials and lamentation, the crying and dramas. These scenes of death influenced my life and my psychology.” The young Kishtainy got to know the gravediggers, and in blackly humorous scenes in the novel Hassun takes refuge in a graveyard and works with the gravediggers, until his father recognizes him at a funeral and has him conscripted into the army.
“By the Rivers of Babylon” was also shaped by Kishtainy’s many encounters and friendships over the years with Iraqi Jews, some of whom were present at the launch. The novel gives a picture of the Iraqi Jewish community in 1940s Iraq, and of its role in professional, political and cultural life, and the pressures it came under as a result of anger over Zionism and events in Palestine.
Kishtainy describes his novel as “a homage to a wonderful community I have always treasured in my life. I wrote many years ago about them, and said I have met so many communities and minorities in the world but I found the Iraqi Jewish community the most lovable of the whole lot.”
Iraqi Jews often encountered problems when they emigrated to Israel and were for example unable to find jobs commensurate with their high level of education and qualifications. Sassoon is homesick for Iraq and tells his wife one of things he most misses is “the sight of storks on minarets.” A turning point comes when he strikes up a friendship with an American Palestinian who was born in the house in which Sassoon and his wife are living.
Kishtainy was born in Baghdad and moved to live in England after graduating from Baghdad University’s Faculty of Law and the Academy of Fine Arts. He has lived in London for many years, and has for the past 18 years been a columnist on Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. He is the author of many books in Arabic and English. “The New Statesman and the Middle East (Palestine essays)” was published in 1972 by the Palestine Research Center, and “Arab Political Humour” by Quartet in 1986.
It is only in the past decade that Kishtainy has started to write fiction. “Tales from Old Baghdad: Grandmother and I” was published in 1997 by Kegan Paul International. “Tomorrow is Another Day: A Tale of Getting By in Baghdad”, a picaresque novel set in Saddam’s Iraq, was published five years ago by Elliot and Thompson.
“By the Rivers of Babylon” is likely to find an audience not only among fiction readers, but also among historians and other scholars with an interest in Iraq. Kishtainy has a vivid recall of his childhood and youth, and has also carried out many interviews with Israelis of Iraqi origin. His novel provides much intriguing information on Iraqi society and culture.
Saudi Gazette, 12th May 2008