Scattered Crumbs, A Novel, by MUHSIN AL-RAMLI,
translated by YASMEEN S. HANOOSH.
Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003.
126 pages US$ 1695 (paper) ISBN 1-55728-750-3
The Title of Mushin Al Ramli’s Scattered Crumbs refers as much to an allegorical element within his novel as it references the narrative technique employed within it. Perhaps the only work by an Iraqi author set in that country during the Saddam Hussein era available in English translation (with the possible exeption of Dayzi al-Amir’s collection, The Waiting List and passages from Muhammad Khudayyir’s Basriyatha published in Edebiyat 13.1 (May, 2002), Scattered Crumbs keeps social and political themes of an explicit nature in abeyance. Instead, it foregrounds interrelated stories centered around family interactions between a wide cast of characters. These stories are rendered through disparate strands of narrative, and are spun together to approximate the ebb and flow of a family’s oral history. Yet, the apparent innocence of this technique barely masks the humor and sophistication of the text’s attempt to reconsider the nationalist histories of post-colonial Iraq. Centered in a rural village, Scattered Crumbs seems intent of taking on the nationalist imagination in its most potent setting: where the Arabic novel, following a tendency in many post-colonial literatures once was marked for appropriating the rural setting as the locus of the national spirit, Scattered Crumbs represents this same imaginative space as one where nationalism is contested, conflicted and most often irrelevant to the quotidian needs of the local society. Through satirical, humorous, even absurdist narrative formulations, Al Ramli imagines the village as a setting where the exigencies of the nationalist state intrude in a garish and inorganic manner- often with violent and tragic consequences.
These consequences are well exemplified in the story of Qasim, which occupies a somewhat central role within the threads of narratives within the novel. The cousin of the narrator, Qasim gains estimation within the village as a painter and calligrapher, and eventually is called upon by his nationalist father to create a portrait of the “the Leader.” Qasim’s political sympathies differ from those of his father who has come to address through a neologism anything that is sufficiently evocative of nationalist sentiments as “national.” After struggling to decide what paint, the result is no portrait m but a geographical representation of the country, in red, surrounded by a green heart. This is the only way he can reconcile his father’s desires for a sufficiently ”national” work, while not compromising his own antipathy for “the Leader.” Initially his father is disappointed: “you should have made the homeland green and the heart red, as they are in truth and reality.” Qasim can only answer ,”Pardon me Father, but I found that if I had painted this picture in any other way, its balance would have been wrecked.” After a moment of sension between them, his father “patted his shoulder and said “ what matters is that it’s the homeland’s picture.” So Qasim repeated after him in a low voice, “yes, it is the homeland’s picture”(p.79). In this simple exchange, the multiple significances of the nation are evoked, and a tenuous compromise between two interpretations of it (generated by the generational as well as ideological differences) settles on one primary issue: that the nation is still the subject of both.
The novel makes no reference to specific dates, political figures or events, and thus relates its narrative within a fairly universal, even generic imagination-but for the names, at times the stories could be set anywhere in a small village in the third world. Yet, any reader will quickly recognize references to “the Leader” as an evocation of the previous Iraqi dictator, and the war that takes away (and sometimes kills) the young men of the village is quite reminiscent of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. Al-Ramli, who serves as an editor for the journal Alwah and who composed this book while in exile in Spain, uses this non-specific temporal and historical detail as an enabling aspect of the text, allowing for more nuanced explorations of social themes that will resonate within a wide rage of social contexts.
If there is any disappointment about this text, it may be most apparent in the treatment of the sexuality of Saadi, who is Qasim’s brother. His homosexuality initially sets him outside their father’s nationalist ideals-he, like his brother, deserts the army during the war, and lives a liminal existence in the village. Yet eventually Saadi resorts to joining the League of the Leader’s Beloved, becoming a party functionary and thug. While not explicitly so, the text presents his sexuality as part of the logiv of his eventual recruitment into the government’s ideological apparatus. At one point, a character terms the post-war period as “the era of Saddi’s friends and the hookers”(p.122). yet, it should be said that Saadi is nonetheless as complex a character as any in the book- the treatment of his sexuality will rightfully be an important issue within any critical engagement within this text.
Educators of contemporary Arabic fiction will no doubt find this a worthy and compelling text for consideration in their courses, although for reasons outlined above, the text may be of lesser use within the courses specifically designed around modern Iraqi or regional history or politics. For those students of literature weary of the tendency to appropriate literary work as simple political or historical allegory, this will likely seem a benefit of this work. Also, this translation retains a coherence and clarity that is commendable-it is not surprising that the translator Yasmeen Hanoosh has been awarded the University or Arkansas’ Arabic Translation Award for her work rendering the novel into English. One may hope that publication will fide a wide enough audience to encourage further translations of the rich heritage of modern Iraqi literature into English, and not simply as an incidental consequence of continuing hegemony over the country by Anglophone occupiers.
*published in (Middle East Studies Association), Bulletin, Volume 38-Number 2/December 2004.U.S.A.