Tuesday, January 24, 2006

samira al-mana's novel in english

Deeply Attached

The title of Iraqi writer Samira Al-Mana’s novel “The Umbilical Cord” reflects the deep attachment Iraqis in exile have to their mother country. Al-Mana has first-hand experience of the life of Iraqi exiles, having lived in Britain since 1965. She is married to another Iraqi writer, the poet and translator Salah Niazy, with whom she founded and produced the literary journal Alightrab al-Adabi (Literature of the Exiled).

“The Umbilical Cord” is one of five novels by Al-Mana, who has also written two collections of short stories. Her play “Only a Half” was read on stage in 1990 under the sponsorship of the International Women Playwrights’ Center and Buffalo State University, New York.

The Arabic original of “The Umbilical Cord” was published in 1990, and the English translation has now been published by Central Publishing Services of West Yorkshire, England. The translation was undertaken in conjunction with the late Charles M Lewis, to whose memory it is dedicated.

The novel takes the form of 14 interrelated stories revolving around two middle-aged Iraq exiles, divorced Afaf and diplomat’s widow Madeha, who is a fiction writer. Al-Mana depicts the society of Iraqi expatriates in London with skill and humour. She captures their suspicions and longings, and the corrosive effects of the appalling situation back in their homeland.

Characters recur in the stories. In the opening story “All That Jazz” Madeha encounters an acquaintance in an underground train. He shows her a teapot in the form of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and says: “That’s democracy, whatever they say! Mrs Thatcher sold in London’s department stores as a teapot! Her opponents laugh at her and take revenge.”

Madeha suspects he may be an informant, but when she gets off the train and remembers his old and torn collar is she convinced he is “one of the innocent” who had seen her by chance and wanted to share his grief and his loneliness. In a later story he asks Madeha why she had been suspicious of him.

In the title story, Afaf is assailed by memories of Iraq and its people while waiting on the platform of Gloucester Road tube station. On a visit from Iraq her uncle tells her tales of his dissolute past in Basra and the pain caused to his mother when his father took a second wife

When she looks at her sleeping uncle, Afaf thinks how he resembles many of the functionaries in Iraq and neighbouring countries. “They’re all cast in the same mould, fighting for party slogans, nationality, religion. How oppressed they are, and how much they have oppressed others, inflicting cruelty, and in turn suffered from cruelty.”

Afaf observes the ageing of her generation in the story “The Turquoise Ring”, in which a group of Iraqis who had studied in Moscow more than 20 years previously meets up at a party thrown by Madeha. After the 1958 revolution young Iraqis were very keen to study in Moscow, and Afaf met her husband Jalal there. Several stories in “The Umbilical Cord” describe how the marriage declines, alongside the disappointments of post-revolutionary Iraq.

Al-Mana’s satirical eye brings us memorable characters such as Munir Abu Seifen (“Shining Father of the Two Swords”) who is boss at an Arab publishing house and young female literary star Gazal Hamid around whom there has been much scandal and gossip.

The main flaw in “The Umbilical Cord” is not in its contents but in the typographical errors that mar the text. These will presumably be corrected in future editions.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 24 January 2006

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