Inside view of slippery slope that can lead to terrorism
Reviewed by Tess Taylor
The Sirens of Baghdad
By Yasmina Khadra, translated by John Cullen
NAN A. TALESE/DOUBLEDAY; 307 PAGES; $19.95
Yasmina Khadra's searing new novel, the third in his haunting trilogy about Islamic fundamentalism, is the first to enter Iraq. Coming after the much-lauded "The Swallows of Kabul" and "The Attack," "The Sirens of Baghdad" tells the story of a Bedouin boy, the son of a well digger in the sandy village of Kafr Karam. He remembers his village as peaceful and tradition-bound, a place he describes as "so discreet it often dissolves in mirages, only to emerge at sunset." He's suspicious of big cities, respects his father and has just begun studying at the fixed-asset perfectPixelWide noGen: item_perfectpixelwide 19 e fixed-asset perfectPixelWide University of Baghdad. When bombs drop, he's forced to leave school and the girl he's just begun to eye.
The novel follows the nameless young man on a tumultuous journey from ex-student to terrorist. As war begins, Khadra (the nom de plume for Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former Algerian army officer) depicts the rising pressure, the straws that break the camel's back. For a generation of men, manageable anger -- first of living under sanctions, then of having no work then of losing loved ones because of no health care -- spills over in the face of seemingly small yet resonant insults.
After one or a collection of these affronts become too much, we follow the boy into the tangled back alleys of Baghdad. There, he aligns himself with one of the squads who not only resist the Americans, but also act as local thugs, brutalizing one another with varied and grotesque forms of mob-style violence.
Weirdly, his own stay among his gang is mostly boring, as he gets bossed around, does mundane errands and sweeps the front of a repair shop whose back area is devoted to making bombs. This also is a truth (reminiscent, in its way of Orwell in the midst of the Spanish revolution): that sometimes in the middle of the action one feels the doldrums.
What is interesting, in this time of extreme cultural misunderstanding, is the opportunity Khadra offers us by allowing us to inhabit his narrator's mind.
Through him we can see how the faceless, muscular Americans arriving in Iraq can appear hideous. It isn't merely that they are trigger-happy -- shooting to a pulp a mentally-deranged boy who doesn't understand them -- but they're blissfully ignorant of the traditions they violate as they go about their business. They humiliate revered old men and, at one point in the novel, shatter a delicate, centuries-old lute.
In this climate, the young man's anger is stirred up by the rhetoric around him, which begins swirling like desert sand.
He meets people such as Dr. Jalal, a formerly moderate Muslim who has come home from the West and begun to use his considerable rhetorical power to provoke outrage. Khadra gives a remarkably nuanced account of how this anger works. Hearing a terrorist speech, the narrator says, "I was completely bamboozled. I felt as though I were in the thick of a farce, in the midst of a play rehearsal, surrounded by mediocre actors who had learned their roles but didn't have the talent the text deserved, and yet -- and yet -- and yet, it seemed to me that this was exactly what I wanted to hear, that their words were the words I was missing."
Indeed, part of this novel is about how and where to search for a new voice. One of the book's most memorable moments comes when a pacifist Muslim author arrives in Beirut from France and challenges Jalal, his old friend.
The debate between the two is haunting, a heartfelt battle of ideals between two Muslim intellectuals confused about how to face the world's varied and multiple springs of hatred. Both men are victims of racism: The novelist is devoted to continuing to press for dialogue and peace, while Jalal asserts that talks are no longer worthwhile. The French novelist claims the war is not between Aryans and non-Aryans, but between Muslim intellectuals and their visions of what Islam should now be. Muslims need, he says, "someone capable of representing them, of expressing them in their complexity, of defending them in some way. Whether it's with pens or bombs makes no difference to them. And it's up to us to choose our weapons, Jalal. Us. You and me."
Jalal disagrees. "True racism has always been intellectual," he cries. "The West is nothing but an acidic lie, an insidious perversity, a siren song for people shipwrecked on their identity quest."
Nevertheless, the novel argues that the tragedy is that though the West may be a siren, so is Iraq. The country terrorists purport to be fighting for already seems unattainable, broken and peopled with ghosts. The narrator longs for his former world: "For generations beyond memory," he writes, "we had lived shut up inside our walls of clay and straw, far from the world and its foul beasts." That world, however, is gone. And the sirens of the book's title refer not only to the wailing noises of a city beset by bombs, or to the urban pleasures that lure pious young men to sin, but also to the siren of a violence whose maelstrom is impossible to resist.
Meanwhile, the terrorists decide to infect a traveling jihadist with a virus, giving disturbing meaning to the words "foreign body." In their minds, the West is not only attacking them, but also infecting their region. They want to infect the West back.
Khadra's work has been compared to that of his Algerian compatriot Albert Camus, and "The Sirens of Baghdad" has a similar blaze of heat, the same heavy, insoluble questions and the same need to face them down, even to one's death. As the young boy from Kafr Karam decides whether to accept his jihadi mission, the novel builds to a startling and wrenching finish.