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Yasmina Khadra
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The Sirens of Baghdad
paperback
307 pages
Tale about a young man of about 20 who comes from a small, sheltered Iraqi village. He left this place, Kafr Karam, to begin his university education in Baghdad, but then was sent back home because of the American invasion.

As the novel begins he is in Beirut, for reasons that will take a while to explain. First, this book must flash back to describe the wartime deterioration of life in Kafr Karam, step by step and outrage by outrage. Though the narrator is a trusting, open-minded soul, he absorbs the village venting, which is bitter but not unexpected. “He was a monster, yes, but he was our monster,” one speaker says of Saddam Hussein. “Look what they’ve made of our country: hell on earth,” he adds.

A philosophy professor, also party to this discussion at the local barbershop, adds that “the world is run by the forces of international finance, for which peace is equivalent to layoffs,” and that “bringing Iraq to its knees would make it possible for Israel to dominate the Middle East.” As for hope in this bleak region, “dreams serve no purpose when all horizons are bare.”

“The Sirens of Baghdad,” with its double-edged title referring to both Baghdad’s allure and its state of crisis, then provides stark illustrations of its ideological arguments. The village’s simple-minded boy, “a pure and innocent creature closer to the Lord than the saints,” is mowed down by goonlike American soldiers, one of them literally foaming at the mouth. A joyous local wedding (“at last we could look forward to a happy event that would compensate for the chronic emptiness of our daily lives!”) becomes a bloodbath when it is hit by a missile.

“And then one night, the sky fell in on me again,” the young man tells the reader. In the most monstrous outrage of all, he is forced to see his father left helpless and half-naked after a raid by “those bleating, dim-witted cowboys,” a group of thuggish G.I.’s. “That sight was the edge of an abyss,” he writes of being forced to gaze upon his father’s genitals. “And beyond it, there was nothing but the infinite void, an interminable fall, nothingness.” As a result, “I was swept up in a tornado and tossed from one tumult to another, caught in a waking nightmare like a sleepwalker assailed by poltergeists.” And: “I opened my mouth, but all that came out was something that sounded like a wild beast’s death rattle.”

The cumulative effect of these events turns the narrator into a numb yet still melodramatic automaton, ready to be used by the forces of terrorism and vengeance. “Such a smooth transition!” he says. “I had gone to bed a docile, courteous boy, and I’d awakened with an inextinguishable rage lodged in my very flesh.” That anger becomes “all that remained to me in this false, unjust, arid and cruel life.” He come to think that “men are pathetic, narrow creatures, blood brothers of Sisyphus, built for suffering; their vocation is to undergo life until death ensues.” That last outburst offers at least some idea of why this author is sometimes compared to Camus.

As the rest of the novel propels its protagonist toward becoming a “Manchurian Candidate”-style pawn in the terrorists’ game, it remains heavy-handed. “Goodbye, Maarwan! We’ll meet again in heaven” is not considered a self-explanatory farewell. The narrator must spell out the fact that Maarwan is a suicide bomber.

It's also rather predictable, and I found it rather stereotypical in it's portrayal of characters where it suited, Americans as mindless brutes, hotheaded youth as terrorists, older professor as thoughtfull intermediate, etc..

I wouldn't bother therefor..
5/10
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