According to an old proverb, there are three cities in the life of every man or woman: the city of birth, the city of residence, and the city of which one dreams. This trinity of real and imagined existence means that we are all exiles, driven from one city to another while dreaming of a third. Initially, of course, man had only a single abode: the celestial paradise where life had reached perfection. Then, came man’s loss of innocence and transgression, triggering the fall that made the earth a home in exile in a transient life.
Using the theme of fall and exile in filigree, Louay Abdulilah, an Iraqi writer so far known for his fast-paced and spruce short stories, narrates the story of several Iraqis who came of age in the 1950s, when that unhappy nation was sucked into a spiral of events one more tragic than the other.
For these characters, starting with the colorful Abdul, a rogue and a saint rolled into one, London is the city of residence while the dream city is Baghdad. This is a reversal of the story of the Fall in which man falls from the perfect to the imperfectible. Here, Abdul is in London, the image of paradise for millions in search of a good life throughout the world, but longs for Baghdad that resembled hell on earth under successive despots.
Right from the start, Abdul had somehow decided to surf above, and beyond, good and evil. His penchant for pilfering as a child persuades his father to change his name from Abdul-Wahhab (The Slave of the Bestower) to Abdul-Nahhab (The Slave of the Looter). In the end, however, his mother manages to negotiate a compromise with his outraged father: they would just call the boy Abdul. It is with this truncated identity that he flees to London, a paradise in material terms but a hell for someone constantly home- sick for Baghdad.
Abdul’s story is then woven into the stories of other characters.
In fact, we have four books here.
One is presented as an echo of Ibn Al-Arabi’s famous “Meccan Conquests” ( Al Fotuhatal-Makkiyyah) in which he speaks of the Possibilities of Being (Mumkenat al-Wojud), a symbolic tale in which the Andalusian philosopher offers a juxtaposition of Divine Names. Then we have the stories of Abdul, Shahrzad, Beida, Haya, Abdul-Raouf and Saleh, all exiles, each in his or her own particular way. The third book consists of a mysterious novel that Saleh is writing, but never managing to finish. Finally, we have the overall narrative that weaves all those strands together in a complex tapestry of love, betrayal, sex and death of a rich cast of characters.
These are characters whose lives are dramatically altered, or simply cut short, because they are too early or too late, in making the one move that could save them.
It seems that Abdulilah believes this to be the fate of all Iraqis, starting with a young King Faisal whose brutal murder continues to haunt Iraq to this day. The young king had had his suitcases packed, ready to fly to London for a longed-for reunion with his betrothed Fadila. However, he was delayed in Baghdad for a few days to sign a bill passed by the parliament. It was July 1958, and those few days meant that Faisal was never able to leave Baghdad.
Then we have Saleh who arrives a bit late, moments after the secret service goons have raided his home and kidnapped his new bride. He manages to flee with his life. However, the life he manages to flee with is nothing but the corpse of a lemon squeezed out of the last drop of its juice.
For the characters in this novel, Iraq, or at least the abstract idea of an idealized and stylized Iraq, is what keeps them alive while the reality of Iraq kills them, in both physical and spiritual terms.
They have all come out of Iraq. However, nothing can take Iraq out of them. Being Iraqi is both a blessing and a curse; it gives their life a meaning the intense beauty of which people from other countries with less tragic stories, could never appreciate. At the same time, however, being born Iraqi, at least for that generation, amounted to being born with a death sentence that even when not immediately executed would hang over one’s life like a thick cloud of foreboding.
All of Abdulilah’s characters are damaged goods, as many Iraqis were under the string of dictators who ruled over and ravaged that country. Many have passed through the horrific prisons of the Baathist regime, and some have been tortured and raped.
Being Iraqi means feeling and doing everything with more intensity than the run-of-the-mill humanity. You hate more intensely, love more madly, cheat more unscrupulously, have sex more violently, sacrifice yourself more totally, and betray more shamelessly. Not for them the kind of peace and stability that produces something like Switzerland: chocolates and the cuckoo clock.
Woven into the overall pattern of the story, thanks to the technique of stream of consciousness, are snippets from the history of the Middle East, specifically Iraq. There is the nephew of Saladin, the Kurdish warrior who has become an almost mythical hero for Arabs, laying siege to Damascus while Jerusalem, liberated a generation earlier, is about to be handed back to the Crusaders. Then there is Gertrude Bell, a British adventuress-cum-Orientalist, who has been dubbed “The Mother of Iraq” as a modern state. We see two faces of Baghdad, the traditional one steeped in a torpor that recalls the effects of narcotics, and the modern one plagued by political sado-masochism. One particular moment of madness comes when the Ba’athist security chief, Nazim Kizar, a sadistic lunatic, kidnaps several dignitaries of the regime, including the ministers of defense and foreign affairs, and tries to flee to Iran, then engaged in a low-intensity war against the regime in Baghdad.
The fact that London provides the narrative backdrop for all this, sharpens the contrast between the violent and unpredictable life of Baghdad and the bland and quotidian existence offered by the English megapolis.
Two features of Abdulilah’s new novel are especially interesting.
The first is the writer’s success in creating believable female characters, something that Arab novelists seldom achieve. Shahrzad, Haya and Beida are fully developed personages rather than mere types deployed to represent certain emotional strands. Haya is especially convincing, if only because of her exemplary self-reliance and shock absorption capacity.
The second interesting feature is the polyphonic approach, in the sense of developing several stories that touch one another at certain points but ultimately pursue different trajectories. In this , Abdulilah puts blue water between himself and most Arab novelists of his generation who opt for linear modal narratives. Abdulilah’s model is Shahrzad, the narrator of the One Thousand and One Nights, and her technique of a story within a story, resembling the Russian Matryushka dolls.
Ibn al-Arabi wondered if animals had a life in the hereafter. Beida has no doubt that they do. This is why she wants a dog for her dying son in the next world.
E.M. Forester once noted that starting a novel is easy while ending it is difficult. “The Comedy of Divine Love” endorses that view. We see Abdulilah wondering how to wrap things out, and, caught in a vortex of impossible dreams and intoxicated by irrational hope, fail to offer either the Hollywood happy-end or the devastating denouement of Greek tragedies.
Is this because he does not know? Or is it because he does not dare? The former may be closer to the truth. After all, we are dealing wit Iraq. And, with Iraq, one never knows.