by Muhsin Al-ramli
A Review by Harold Braswell
One of the strangest side effects of the current war in Iraq has been the creation of an international citizenry of backyard Middle East scholars, regular people apparently just as at ease discussing the complex interplay of Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds as they are explaining the relative palatability of the diverse meats spewing grease on their grill. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with a swell of international interest in Iraq. What troubles of the current discussion, though, are its pretensions to expertise, its assumption that a country can be immediately understood based solely on a distant understanding of its political system.
The Iraqi author Muhsin Al-Ramli is well aware of the limitations of the international dialogue on Iraq. In an article published on March 20, 2003, in El Cultural -- a Spanish weekly (he expatriated to Spain in 1995) -- Al-Ramli bemoaned that, internationally, Iraq was solely known as either a global geyser or a global threat. Of the country's rich cultural heritage nothing was ever said. Al-Ramli then set out to rectify this deficiency by writing about the role of poetry in Iraqi society as a force for gender equality, conflict resolution, and group identity. This subject might seem charmingly out-of-touch to a cynical American reader, especially considering that Al-Ramli's article was published on the very day the United States began bombing Baghdad. That such is the case gives a small indication of how out of touch we are with the reality of Iraqis.
A prolific translator, poet, dramatist, and novelist, Al-Ramli has dedicated himself to increasing cultural penetration between Iraq and his adopted home of Spain. His novel Scattered Crumbs -- a depiction of a family's existence under a dictator's rule -- will certainly add some much needed complexity to our politically suffocated image of the Iraqi people. Currently the co-editor of the Arabic-language cultural magazine Alwah (an Arabic word denoting the tables of Islamic law), Al-Ramli writes in both Arabic and Spanish and has translated various masterpieces of Spanish literature into Arabic, as well as several Arabic-language poems into Spanish. Scattered Crumbs -- which was initially published in Egypt in 2000 -- is the first of his works to be available to the English-speaking world. Translated by Yasmeen S. Hanoosh, it is an emotionally vibrant and thematically dense novel that, in spite of its occasionally stilted articulation, provides at least a first step towards a greater understanding of daily life in Iraq.
Scattered Crumbs's narrator is an unnamed Iraqi expatriate who, like the author himself, is currently living in Spain. He claims to have left his country to look for his lost cousin Mahmoud, who fled Iraq some time before. The focus of the novel is not this search, though, it is the story of the members of Mahmoud's immediate family. These characters -- a mother, a father, and eight children -- are generally well crafted and manage to be eccentric and diverse without lapsing into caricature. Ijayel, the patriarch, is possessed of a nationalism that is both comic and menacing. This nationalism is comic in his nostalgic rants about the time his father stabbed that "English officer sonofabitch" and his habit of referring to everything he likes as "nationan," his botched pronunciation of the English word "national." But his cultish reverence for the Leader (an obvious stand-in for Saddam Hussein), the violence-inflected official ceremonies and cowboy dramas that he watches on national television, and his tendency to value people only according to their capacity for honoring the country display his nationalism's more menacing side. The son who most satisfies his maniacal jingoism is Abdul-Wahid. This parental approval comes at a high cost, though -- Abdul-Wahid dies fighting in the war against Iran. Ijayel's other children survive the war and, as a result, must live on under the yoke of their father's disapproval. Qasim is a woeful artist whose lovingly conflictive relationship with his wife Hasiba provides the novel with its most tender and idyllic moments. The family's lone daughter, Warda, is ferociously independent, yet unquestionably loyal to her family, particularly her brother Qasim.
At the core of the novel is the relationship between Qasim and Ijayel. In a rare moment of affection towards his son, Ijayel asks Qasim to paint a portrait of the Leader on the wall of their house. Qasim, who nurses no illusions about the Leader's villainy, is repulsed by his father's request. Yet this repulsion is not untroubled. Qasim's love for his father stands against his hatred for the Leader and, in the end, he compromises. Instead of the Leader, he paints a portrait of Iraq itself -- a red map with two white rivers running through it, encased in a large green heart. The painting showcases Qasim's love for his country, not its head of state. It also reveals an appreciation for the tragic dimension of Iraqi life: The red of the country represents the country's blood, and the white Tigris and Euphrates are filled with the country's tears. Around them, the green heart rises as a symbol of transcendental love. Taken together, the colors are those of the Iraqi flag (with the exception of black, which Warda will add after Qasim's execution). When he sees the painting, Iyajel is moved and confused, wondering why the land is red, not green. Qasim, not wanting his symbolism to upset his father, attributes the color scheme to mere artistic taste. He curbs his desire to be his own man. Though the scene's sociopolitical context is unique, the father/son dynamic on display here is, in many ways, quite familiar. With gentle artistry, Al-Ramli manages to capture a beautiful, bashful moment that is unique in its setting but universal in its empathetic reach.
Qasim is soon drafted, but his understandable hesitancy to die for a war he does not believe in leads him to abandon the army. For Ijayel, this is unforgivable. He renounces Qasim, who is subsequently sentenced to death for desertion. Qasim's final request that his father witness his execution is described with great sympathy and emotional power:
Qasim wanted to clarify many matters to his father, or to cast a final look at his dear glasses and ask his forgiveness for a flood of coming sorrows, or to hint that there was no difference between his own death and Abdul-Wahid's, for the killer was one and the motive was one, and the police chief who bestowed upon him Abdul-Wahid's badge of honor would also take from him the cost of the bullets used to execute Qasim and write on Qasim's coffin, 'Traitor.'
Here, Qasim's yearning for forgiveness combines with a desire to criticize his father's faith in the country's political class. The emotional and intellectual timbre of the scene is raised even higher when Ijayel then denies his son's request. Even though the father is stoic and unforgiving as his son is killed, it is this execution that ultimately extinguishes his unquestioning allegiance to the Leader. By the end of the book, even Ijayel has concluded that "both [Abdul-Wahid and Qasim] were blood of his blood."
It will be obvious to even the most obtuse reader that Al-Ramli is a ferocious critic of Saddam Hussein. The Leader is portrayed as a conniving and distant tormentor. His destruction of Mahmoud's family is relentless and complete; the "scattered crumbs" of the title are, in the end, those citizens who have been pulverized by the Leader's regime. The final scene in the novel is Warda's wedding. Left with a hatred for the execution of her brother, Warda marries Ismael, a town recluse who only attracts her because of their shared loathing for the dictator. The contrast between their hate-fused courtship at the end of the novel and Qasim and Hasiba's at the start could not be starker. While Qasim and Hasiba's marriage is essentially an apolitical affair, forged along lines of mutual attraction and familial customs, Warda's marriage to Ismael at the end of the book is entirely grounded in politics. It signals the exchange of interpersonal connections for political ones and portrays a society in which even the bedroom is imprisoned by the same power structures at work in the country at large. In their final appearance, Warda and Ismael fantasize about revenge against the Leader even as they make love.
The major weakness in Scattered Crumbs is the narrator's search for his cousin Mahmoud. The narrator never fully explains why he is looking for Mahmoud, nor what role Mahmoud plays in the family's story. As a result, there is nothing compelling about the quest and Mahmoud comes off as not so much a character as the outline of one, defined by his absence of recognizable features. The narrator describes him alternatively as "nothing," "the shadow of a person," and someone whose "presence had not meant anything." Even the narrator himself admits that he "cannot come up with a genuine motive for undertaking this quest to find him in a foreign land." Consequently, the sections of the novel dealing with Mahmoud, particularly the beginning, seem poorly polished and I suspect that they will turn many readers away. This would be hasty and unfortunate because the majority of the book actually deals with the story of Mahmoud's family during the Iran-Iraq war. It is here that Scattered Crumbs distinguishes itself as something more than a political statement or a cultural curiosity.
If the current discourse about Iraq is completely dominated by politics, there is a possibility that a work as politically inflected as Scattered Crumbs will only be read and evaluated politically, as a condemnation of Saddam Hussein. Certainly, the horrific nature of Saddam's rule is made clear in the novel. But everyone already knows of this, and if Scattered Crumbs did nothing more than confirm it, then it would not be much of a novel at all. Fortunately the book does more, adding significant characterological flesh to our rather skeletal understanding of the Iraqi people. Scattered Crumbs portrays a dictator, but its real focus is the complexities of a family suffering through his rule.