Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2018:2
Review Section: Fiction
Some twenty years ago, the Al-Khamisi family from Iraq arrived in Sweden. Presumably the rule of Saddam Hussein had become too dangerous; Duraid, who was eight at the time, seems unable to forget hating the President. He grew up to become a controversial journalist, often writing about the condition of the stranger in Sweden. His first book, which he describes as ‘documentary autobiography’, deals with the same topic.
Mellan floderna – Between the Rivers – is a powerful account of Middle Eastern current affairs, told in the language of an oriental storyteller. The rivers are the Tigris and Euphrates, the boundaries of ancient Mesopotamia. It was a beautiful and bountiful territory but has been ravaged again and again by local fanatics and foreigners, including Turks, Iranians and assorted western powers. Al-Khamisi reimagines the current degradation of its people in brief tales, some just a page or two, but all bursting with evil deeds.
Iraq has angered God, whose sleep has been disturbed by endless pleading from its desperate people. He orders the Archangel Gabriel to investigate the country: ‘… a place He had cursed for all eternity’. Besides, He feels that: ‘[The prayers] are encrypted. Corrupted. Sometimes truthful, sometimes manipulated. Even plain false. The prayers rise from cities in ruins, razed to the ground, from huge mass graves and mock executions, from women in difficult labour.’
Gabriel, commander-in-chief of God’s troops of six-winged seraphim and four-winged cherubim, and a hardened warrior, takes an interest in new approaches to warfare and is not averse to the tactical use of torture. But as the rule of the Dictator degenerates into outrageous oppression of the Marsh People and the Mountain People (the Kurds), even the Archangel is occasionally appalled. When, after the Superpower’s callous, botched invasion, the Bearded Ones conquer the City of the Mosques and elsewhere too, things get worse. Everyone is degraded by sheer suffering; we follow the torment of many, the homosexual lovers, for instance, or the communist (a woman whose fate in a prison dungeon is described in unbearable detail). As gut-churningly distressing events follow disgustingly sadistic ones, Gabriel begins to feel that mankind may be beyond rescue.
Eventually, though, there is a moment of peace. The Homecomer, a young man who has fled to a life abroad, feels he can return to his old country. He is wrong. ‘The Angel despises those who return once they have had the privilege to flee. They have chosen to desert their country. […] No matter how many anxious nights you have been through together with your friends and relations [in that other place].’ The Angel addresses him: ‘Weep if you must. But no shedding of tears can make time run backwards. The war will never belong to you.’
Sure enough, terror takes a new turn when the cannibalistic Barbarians arrive and start blowing up whatever has been built. Soon the Homecomer dies, eviscerated by shrapnel: ‘The Angel smiles inwardly. What will be, will be. Burn slowly, you falsifier of history.’
Al-Khamisi hopes to avoid Gabriel’s charge. The lives broken and destroyed in endless permutations of suffering make up the truth; the stories of senseless immolations of one subgroup of people by another are really pleas for compassion and peace. Still, after all these pages of sustained cruelty, the reader can’t help wondering whether the author might not share some of the Archangel’s ambivalence about war and terror.
Duraid Al-Khamisi has said about his book: ‘I would describe what I wrote as magic stories embroidered in gold thread and scented with jasmine.’ But his bitterness rather overwhelms the Scheherazade touch.