Book Review

"A Sky So Close"

Iraqi-born author Betool Khedairi is living in Amman, Jordan. She grew up in Baghdad and wrote a coming-of-age novel drawing on her own experiences during the war against Iran. She claims not to be interested in politics. This is, of course, not entirely true.

By Brigitte Voykowitsch

Ask Betool Khedairi about her gut reaction to the US war against Iraq and you will be given haunting images: "I look from the window, brilliant white, it's snowing. I look at the TV, sand storms over Iraq; a mustard-coloured window with soldiers' ghosts moving around the screen. I've been floating around in my own mind. I am so distracted, as if I am not grounded. I tug hard on each side of my cloth belt, trying to feel my waist. Its like I can't feel my body. The horrific scenes of war are numbing me all over.
I walked down the street in Amman; to protect my head I grabbed yesterday's newspaper from my bag. What lay on the front page was a picture of a boy, his scalp was slashed with shrapnel, his eyes half closed just like when little boys start to fall asleep on the couch. This one was lying on the pavement, what was left of his head looked like a printed leather halloween mask; just moments ago, it had been a little boy's face. It got wet as the snow flakes melted onto the ink.
I couldn't sleep.
Three weeks have past since the attack on Iraq. More boys and girls have been killed. Homes have been blown up. Hospitals are full of blood. The city is being looted and burnt. When are the Allied troops going to stop this devastation? No one can sleep!"

Khedairi will not comment on just and unjust wars or the war against terrorism. Neither will she discuss Saddam Hussein or the question of regime change in Baghdad. The 37-year-old Iraqi-born author wrote her first book, a coming-of-age novel drawing on her own experiences and set against the background of the Iran/Iraq war as well as the first Gulf War, without mentioning Saddam even once. First published in Arabic in Lebanon in 1999, it became available in English under the title "A Sky So Close" in 2001. Amid the prospect of another US-led attack on Iraq, a paperback edition was brought out in 2002, the French publisher Gallimard is currently preparing a French version, and interest in the book has generally risen since the start of the new war.

In the novel, as in real life, Khedairi's concern lies with the human dimension, with people's lives, their relationships with each other, with their own cultures as well as with foreign cultures. "My late father made me promise him not to talk about politics. He was a man who believed in building countries, not destroying them. There are so many hidden truths that we will never know. The politics I understand are those of charity. What can we do on the back lines after the decisions that are being taken on the front lines? How can we help re-build?", says Khedairi and adds: "The Iraq in my work is the human Iraq, not only the one of the headlines. World politics are taking over with no regard to the voices on the streets, the International Resolutions or the pain of humans under attack. My country is bleeding. I will not make negative statements just to prove that I am a liberal intellectual. I search for fairness amidst this chaos."

If Khedairi claims to steer clear of politics, this is, of course, not entirely true. Politics is very much there in "A Sky So Close". What is left out, are the names of political actors and regimes as well as their reasons and justifications for launching the two major wars that disrupt the lives of the protagonist, her family, friends and countrymen and sow destruction, death and chaos. While the first part of the book deals with the childhood of the main character, a girl born, like Khedairi, of an Iraqi father and a British mother, the second and third parts focus on how people live through, and try to cope with, the upheavals and miseries caused first by the Iran-Iraq conflict and then the Gulf War.

Again, like Khedairi herself, her protagonist-cum-narrator leaves Baghdad at the onset of the first Gulf War. Her father has recently died, and she decides to move to London with her mother who is suffering from breast cancer and requires further treatment after having undergone surgery in Iraq. BBC reports and letters from Madame, her former ballet teacher, are the unnamed protagonist's two sources of information on the ongoing war in her home country. As she takes care of her terminally ill mother, the news from Baghdad is about "an unending chaos of fear, terror, and darkness. It is raining bombs. You can't imagine what we're going through. A black rain covers the gardens, the streets, and the rooftops, resembling black decomposing remains; it makes the days uglier than the nights." Meanwhile, an allied pilot is quoted as saying: "The first attack was like a game of football. At first a player hesitates because he's afraid and hasn't got any self-confidence, but after you press the button for the first time, you get into the game and start attacking." Death assumes a new dimension for the narrator. Once a Frenchman jokingly kneels in front of her table in the foreign students' hangout where she likes to sit and write. "Oh, pretty Mademoiselle, I beg, forget your sadness. I would die for you", he says. "Then I will buy you a ticket to the Gulf", she replies.

"A Sky So Close" was not originally conceived of as the novel it eventually turned into, Khedairi explains. Rather, she began to write in order to cope and to make sense of it all, without any immediate desire to get published. "This story was not planned, meaning that the novel was not written for publishing. I was writing for myself, not for others, and had no audience in mind. In Baghdad, in 1990, I started jotting down various ideas, sketches of childhood, imaginary dialogues, and characters inspired by real individuals. I used to feel that writing was my only outlet so I continued putting scenes on paper until I realized a novel was beginning to take shape. It took its time over a span of ten years. I left Iraq to be with my ill mother, my father had just died in a car crash, the first Gulf war had started and I found myself in total alienation. I wrote to keep my balance... Between my father discouraging my literary tendencies (he wanted me to become an accountant), my mother's encouragement that I should try my best (she used to be a librarian in Edinburgh), and some people who thought that the short stories I wrote in university were not even fit for a cook book, I really had no expectations. It was a bumpy journey. So being published was a pleasant surprise", Khedairi says.

Having grown up with parents from two different cultures, Khedairi "found the different views about my book interesting. The comments I received regarding the death scenes and love scenes in my novel illustrate the variety of opinions. An Arab reader, while praising these scenes for their artistic form, thought that the content was too liberal: It is an issue not spoken of when a woman cheats on her husband. It is not proper to have a physical relationship before marriage, let alone face pregnancy from a boyfriend and go through an abortion. On the other hand, a western reader could not understand why some of these sketches were ‚flowery' descriptions and not direct sex scenes. It was also suggested that the novel would be welcomed by teenagers in the west. But in the Middle East, it was considered too controversial for this age group.

A western reader thought that the description of the mother and other characters dying of cancer was very harsh and inhumane. The same reader did not acknowledge the inhumanity of wars that claimed so many lives in the rest of the novel.

But I must say that there is nothing to misunderstand in the book. Every individual will see it from his or her own perspective; literature is, after all, as relative as life."

This relativity of values, of ways of seeing and living informs the first part of the novel which deals with the protagonist's childhood first in a village by the name of Zafraniya (Land of Saffron) and later in Baghdad. There is no way to put this relativity into a nutshell. "You are asking me to condense the sea into one droplet of water", is the way Khedairi puts it and refers back to her book: "The novel is about these differences." They are there in every aspect of life, in the narrator's parents' understanding of traditions and freedoms, their definitions of civilization, their notions of filth and disease, their particularities with regard to eating habits and sleeping preferences. "My mother can't understand why I insist on sleeping on the rooftop. How can I explain to her that the vastness of the velvety sky overhead, with the scattered diamonds, takes me closer to Khaddouja [a childhood friend lost to a fatal illness]?", the narrator tells us. "I know longer sleep on the roof, and I no longer hear the little birds singing at dawn", she comments several months into the Iran/Iraq war. Long gone are the days when she would go up in the swing set up between two palm trees on the village farm: "I rise higher toward the heavens... I breathe in the horizon ... then a sky so close!"

In the novel, the narrator's parents never succeed in reconciling their differences. Khedairi herself says, she "find[s] it fascinating to be able to trip in and out of cultures to explore one's own dimensions: ambitions and limitations at the same time. Positives and negatives from both worlds mesh into one open tolerant mentality that is accepting and forgiving. This is what I learnt through my writing, working as a translator to both cultures in my own words. If we could only build bridges between East and West instead of fighting the differences, then maybe we would come one step closer to a peaceful planet."

Peace. Freedom. In the world. In Iraq. What could a peaceful and free Iraq look like? Would Khedairi return to Iraq, if the present regime was ousted? More questions that the author, now settled in Amman, Jordan, will not answer.

"I left Baghdad," she says, "but it never left me. I carry it in me like a compass. It is my place of birth, my childhood, my education. Every time I sit down to write, I have an enchanting dialogue with my ancient civilization. It is around six thousand or more years old, and still inspires me. I am so sad to see it go through three wars in the past twenty-five years. My best memories of it are memories of the city in times of peace. Baghdad for me is the focal point. I concentrate on this wonderful feeling of going back there one day, and that helps me through the days I spend away from it."

In mid-March she sent the manuscript of her second book to her agent in London. The book deals with the effect of the United Nations sanctions on Iraq since the Gulf War. Khedairi says, she wants to wait for her agent's "evaluation. Once publishing and dates are determined, I will finalize the title."

Betool Khedairi, A Sky So Close
Anchor Books, New York 2002
US $ 13

10. Mai 2003


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