Sunday, May 09, 2010
rodaan al galidi's 'thirsty river'
Rodaan Al Galidi
translated by Luzette Strauss
Aflame Books, UK; 2009, pbk, 323 pp
edited version appears in Banipal 37
by Susannah Tarbush
In this satirical epic, published in translation from Dutch, the Iraqi-born novelist Rodaan Al Galidi gives a sweeping view of Iraqi politics and society through the experiences of four generations of one family.
Al Galidi’s inventive and entertaining prose interweaves the action of the novel with folk tales, myths, secrets, prophecies and dreams, in language ranging from the scatological to the lyrical. Tragedy and horror are juxtaposed with black comedy as the author explores the corrupting effects of dictatorship. Thirsty River has much heart and humanity and makes a powerful emotional impact, while revealing a great deal about Iraq.
The Bird family lives in the town of Boran on the banks of the Thirsty River in southern Iraq, and long ago “lost its reputation and its glory”. The family name had originally been Star, but was changed after family member Dime, a girl living under the strict control of her ten brothers, was driven crazy by frustrated desire and raging hormones. She ran naked through the streets of Boran, screaming to a hunter that her genitals had become a bird, and drowned herself in Thirsty River. From then on the family was known as Bird. Dime’s remains were found by one of her brothers when Thirsty River ran dry, as it does every winter, and he took her bones and hair home in a sack.
The discovery of Dime’s bones has resonances many years later when a member of the Bird family, ex-military man Rizen, devotes himself after the 2003 invasion to excavating mass graves, putting bones and documents in bags to be identified by families.
The family is headed by tough old matriarch Simahen, who never forgave her brother for marrying her off to the “filthy weaver” Nadus. She asserted her dominance from the start, beating her husband on their wedding night rather than sleeping with him. Simahen is a survivor, and in the last year of her life she tells her great grandson that she is “eight wars old.”
Kosjer, the youngest child of Simahen and Nadus, marries Wasile. Every time Wasile gives birth to one of their six children (except for the one daughter) there is a change of power in Baghdad. This is the case on the day in 1979 that Saddam comes to power, and Kosjer and Wasile’s youngest, Adam, is born. But the day proves disastrous for the Birds after Kosjer ties a newly-bought ram to the TV aerial outside a teahouse where the customers are watching Saddam on the small screen. The ram charges at the aerial, disrupting the transmission of Saddam. The secret police detain Kosher and all the men of the family, and they are never seen alive again.
From then on Simahen goes daily to the Ba’ath Party offices to inquire after the family’s menfolk. Among the myriad of characters created by Al Galidi is the local Ba’ath Party bigwig, Hadi the Rocket, who takes full advantage of his position to enrich himself, and take multiple wives.
Adam was born sleeping and remains apparently asleep throughout Saddam’s rule. He is neglected by the family, save for his devoted sister Mira, and is left to sleep in the stable. He is the family scapegoat; Wasile has him brutally castrated, and Simahen deploys him as a human scarecrow in the vegetable garden. But the otherworldly Adam has been absorbing all the family’s secrets and conversations, as his young nephew Rasjad finds when he takes the time to communicate with him. After the overthrow of Saddam Adam wakes up properly and says he has “missed four peaces”.
The members of the Bird family, including Rizen’s brothers Sjahid, Joesr and Djazil, live through a gamut of experiences. Sjahid wants to be an artist and works for a time with Naji, a humorous artist who studied in Catalonia but who now spends his time repainting the ubiquitous public murals of Saddam Hussein. He warns Sjahid that his job is very dangerous, and that any mistake in painting Saddam could result in execution.
Images of Saddam in his different guises dominate TV screens and walls during his rule. Saddam regularly appears to the women of the Bird family in their dreams, listening to their complaints and sometimes seeming to foretell the future.
Djazil is a thief and a chaser of girls. One of his ears is cut off by an irate father whose daughter he has been pursuing, and Hadi the Rocket severs the other for the same reason although Joesr sews it back on.
When a local girl Baan is deflowered and impregnated by Djazil, her mother takes her to the Bird family to complain. Djazil evades all responsibility, and although Joesr pledges to marry the girl if Djazil will not, he is too slow to act and her uncle shoots her dead and hangs her severed right hand from a door.
Consumed by guilt, Joesr burns all his possessions, smashes up his room and takes refuge in the cellar until he is found by the secret police, tortured and sent to the army. He manages to get himself smuggled out of the country and trains in Afghanistan. After the 2003 invasion he turns the cellar into a workshop making bombs which he sells to suicide bombers until he can no longer live with himself.
Djazil and his men set up a feared militia, the Army of God militia. Rizen’s brutal son Saddam, who had been a member of Saddam’s commandos before the invasion, also joins and is transformed into Abdullah the Pious. When Djazil is captured by the Americans and photographed in a pyramid of naked bodies in Abu Ghraib, the family recognise him from the eagle tattoo on his buttock. As Rizen’s daughter Shibe puts it: “The arse of my uncle Djazil is now famous all over the world, just like Elvis Presley! We have a world famous member of our family!”
Various members of the family meet a grisly end over the years. One of Rizen’s sons, Edjnaad, is captured by soldiers and buried alive after he comes across them with trucks at night dumping live captives in pits and covering them with earth. Rasjad, pays a people smuggler to get him to Amman in order to follow a girl he has fallen in love with, only to fall victim to a broker of human organs. His heart is transplanted into a woman in Germany.
The novel ends on a few notes of hope. Rizen’s youngest son Tali strikes up an e-mail friendship with an American soldier who has deserted. The Bird family finds that the soil in which the bodies of so many murdered Iraqis lie is ideal for growing sunflowers. The family moves into sunflower farming and the production of sunflower oil.
As highlighted in the special feature ‘Writing in Dutch’ in Banipal 35, Al Galidi is one of an increasing number of writers of Arab origin who live in the Netherlands and are gaining prominence as writers in Dutch.
Al Galidi grew up in a village in southern Iraq and wrote from an early age, although his training was as a civil engineer. After leaving Iraq in the mid-1990s he arrived in 1998 in the Netherlands where he claimed political asylum. He spent eight years in the asylum detention system, and although his asylum application was finally refused he benefited in 2007 from the general pardon given to asylum seekers who had arrived before 2001.
Al Galidi has made his mark on the Dutch literary scene with impressive speed. He started teaching himself Dutch from a dictionary while held in asylum detention, and before long he was writing poetry and had columns published in newspapers. In 2002 he won both the El Hizjra Literature prize and the Phoenix Essay Prize; two years later he was shortlisted for the J C Bloemprijs and the Debut Prize. His poetry collection De herfst van Zorro (The Autumn of Zorro) was shortlisted in 2007 for the prestigious VSB Prize.
Thirsty River was first published in Dutch as Dorstige Rivier by Meulenhoff/Manteau in 2008, to much acclaim. It was in 2009 runner-up for the BNG New Literature Prize, and was also nominated for the Gerard Walschap Prize for Literature.
Thirsty River is Galidi’s third published novel, and last September Meulenhoff/Manteau published the fourth: De Autist en de Postduif (The Autist and the Homing Pigeon).