Two of the novels excerpted in Banipal 37: Iraqi Authors have not yet been published in Arabic (or Finnish, English, Urdu, Quechua).
Both are terrifying, and both show serious promise.
The first is an excerpt from Nazum al-Obeidi’s A Woman’s Ghost in the Neighborhood, as translated by Ghenwa Hayek. The second is a chapter from Nassif Falak’s The Worm, translated by Suneela Mubayi.
Some of the language in A Woman’s Ghost in the Neighborhood is a bit tangled, and whether we can lay this at al-Obeidi’s feet or Hayek’s—or both—I don’t know. I almost stopped after the first sentence: “The rat crawled out of the deep earth, where strange dying things live, filling up with blackness and forgetfulness; there was nothing there save for death and waiting.”
What exactly is filling up with blackness and forgetfulness? There was nothing where? Hunh?
Anyhow. I continued, and was glad I did. Once the reader marches through the somewhat tortured opening description, he reaches two brothers who are about to embroil themselves in horrible trouble. Some of what happens to Ibrahim and Sarmad seems overly familiar (does everyone get diarrhea the first time they commit a violent crime?) but much is vivid and difficult, like Sarmad’s struggle with his psychological weaknesses, an apparent echo of his father’s own struggles.
At the end of this excerpt, Sarmad is thinking that his brother will drag him down into the abyss, and the reader is thinking: Good God, how deep can this abyss be?
Nassif Falak’s The Worm is no less terrifying. When it opens, the narrator is bound and (partially) blindfolded; he is reflecting on his life as he watches as the men near him—also bound and blindfolded—have their heads cut off. This potentially unbearable situation is made bearable by the narrator’s reflections. He is sometimes an adult and sometimes returns to a helpless childhood:
I felt as if I were far removed and safe from what was going on around me, as if my mother had come out of my body and snatched my right hand—I , the terrified child—and escaped far away with me, outside Baghdad and outside the world so that I would not see what was happening to the others and what was going to happen to me.
We don’t know why the narrator is in this situation, but we do know other things he has done wrong in his life. For instance, he once left a newly homeless and terrified young boy alone in the Bab al-Sharqi tunnel.
Sometimes, The Worm seems to sweep back and forth too quickly—bringing up names and dropping them, reeling through different moments of the narrator’s life—but the plot is compelling (does he have his head chopped off or not?), as is the character’s child-like weakness combined with his very adult situation.