Why Americans Should (or Shouldn’t?) Read Ali Bader’s ‘The Tobacco Keeper’

Recently, a U.S.-based professor and I were discussing the possibility of teaching Ali Bader’s The Tobacco Keeper (in translation) to undergraduates. Or rather, I suggested the novel, and she – after flipping through the book – said she’d want to read the book, but probably wouldn’t teach it.

One reason not to teach the book was its complex and somewhat long-winded frame story. Fine. But another, more interesting objection to teaching The Tobacco Keeper to U.S. undergrads was the way in which it locates the origins of Iraqi violence. Somewhat uncommonly among Iraqi narratives, The Tobacco Keeper explicitly suggests the nation’s current violence could have its origins in the attacks on the nation’s Jews in 1941.

This is not to say that Bader in any way exculpates American power. He does not; indeed, he has vivid things to say about American companies and interests. But does it play too easily into the American idée fixe about Arabs? Bader certainly was conscious of his multiple audiences when he wrote the book. He said, in a yet unpublished interview:

I tried to tell the story from the silent spots in American corpus. This is a tale of a gifted person who finds himself on the fringe of modern Arab history, a man dramatizing the ordeal of his country by cultural requiem. It is different from American story, and it is also different from Arabic and Iraqi story which always blames the West, imperialism, Israel, etc…

I suppose it’s possible to read The Tobacco Keeper and come away with the notion that “those Iraqis were all sectarian anyway; it’s their own blessed fault.” It’s a lazy reading, but a possible one.

In the end, though, I (ever the optimist) have to think it’s a good idea that your literate American uncle and American niece read The Tobacco Keeper. I wouldn’t, like Steven Pinker, ask it to improve them. But it complicates contemporary Iraq in a way I don’t think has been done in English/translation (yet), and besides, it’s a good yarn.

Anyhow, from my review in Al Masry Al Youm English, which was to have run in the Egypt Independent:

Ali Bader’s “The Tobacco Keeper” is a complex, emotionally charged novel of masks and shifting identities. It encompasses eighty years, and an overwhelming range of characters and landscapes, but always has one question pulsing beneath the text: How did the violent, terrifying Baghdad of 2006 come to be?

The novel, published in Arabic in 2008 and long-listed for the Arabic Booker prize in 2009, is set in Damascus, Tehran, Baghdad and beyond. It addresses universal questions of artistic production, dispossession, and identity. But, wherever it goes, it never forgets Baghdad. As the book comes to a close, the nameless narrator wonders, “How could we define the identity of the [city’s] enemy? Sectarianism? Imperialism? Foreign Intervention? Was it the desperate defense of private wealth, the class system, international law, or the conflicts of the governments? How could one label what was happening?”

The narrator muddles toward an answer, but, to his credit, never settles on just one.

The nameless, questioning Iraqi journalist opens and closes the novel. Within, he is writing a biography of the fictional violinist Kamel Medhat, who was assassinated in Baghdad at the age of 80.

In trying to explain the life and death of Medhat, the narrator is also trying to tell the story of his native Baghdad. Who was to blame for the Baghdad of 2006? We are not given a single culprit. The best we have is a starting point for the current violence. This is “the Farhoud incident,” which followed the May 1941 revolution.

The Farhoud incident — a wave of attacks on Jews, who were then a third of Baghdad’s residents — deeply affected the Sunni Muslim Kamel Medhat. This was because Medhat was born, and spent his first twenty-seven years, as the Jew Yousef Sami Saleh. Go on; keep reading.

Also, somewhat related:

Syracuse University Press just dropped me a note to say that Mahmoud Saeed’s The World Through the Eyes of Angels is now out in translation. The novel tells the story of a boy, and, “Closest to his heart are three girls, encountered by chance: a Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew. After enriching the boy’s life immensely, all three meet tragic fates, leaving a wound in his heart that will not heal.”