As the U.S. Defense Secretary gave the war story a happily-ever-after and waved good-bye to Iraq, I remained dismayed at how little Iraqi narratives have been heard by Anglo readers.
One of the few (well, two that I can think of) novels that address post-2003 Iraq that’s been published in English is The Tobacco Keeper, by Ali Bader.
ArabLit: Did the novel begin from your reading of the poem “The Tobacco Kiosk” by Fernando Pessoa? Or where did it begin?
Ali Bader: It’s very difficult to say where it began. There are many points of beginning: There was my work as correspondent with many pseudonyms, the sectarian conflict in Iraq which depends on the false feeling of identities, and my questions about the case of minorities in Iraq and the Arabic-Islamic world. So the Pessoa’s heteronyms come as a solution, for all theses cross-cutting issues, since, he dubbed them as different identities rather than heteronyms. They were not false names but “other names”; they thought differently, they had different religious and political views, different aesthetic sensibilities, different social temperaments. But finally they are one, like me, like you, like the protagonist of the novel.
AL: Can you say more about the attraction of Pessoa’s poetry?
AB: I ran across Fernando Pessoa’s work no less than 15 years ago. His poetry, his thoughts, and his life drew me deeply in. But it wasn’t the right time to write the novel till the sectarian war in Iraq was declared; at that time his conception of the heteronym was rising up strongly in my thoughts. This unique aspect of writing made me explore myself, and think of my many false identities, and then when I started writing I felt like everything was coming out of nowhere. For that, I consider him immanent in the whole work.
AL: What’s your relationship to the violin, and to classical (Western) music? Do you liken Yousef/Haidar/Kamal’s relationship to this music (trying to compose within the genre, while still expressing Iraq) to what you are doing with novels?
AB: Actually, my passion through most of my life has been music. I remember well that, during my childhood, my uncle’s wife, who was Russian, played her treasured recordings almost constantly, so at a very early age I was well-versed in the first movement of Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony,” Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Handel’s music, and others. Otherwise, the violin played a big role in my life, since my first girlfriend was a competent violinist, and I attended with her many concerts, and learnt a lot about this amazing instrument.
About the genre, yes I believe that the novel plays essential role in nation-building, and I would that my novels to play a role in Iraq, like the role which was played by French novel and English novel in nation-building during twentieth century.
AL: How much research was involved in writing حارس التبغ? What sorts of research? How did you smooth together the edges between fiction, reportage, and history?
AB: I spent three years in researching and writing, and I have traveled to Baghdad, Tehran, Istanbul and Damascus, funded by a small program for research and documents in Middle East. I read hundreds of documents, and met tens of persons, not about the tumult and disorder in Baghdad only, but about the crisis of Middle East in general : the coups, the conflicts in identity and the Arabs’ predicaments.But you have to know that all my novels depending on researching, and my belief is the novel becomes the alternative of human sciences.
AL: Let’s say dozens (maybe even hundreds) of novels, poems, & memoirs have been written about Iraq by Americans in the last decade. Why this intense desire to narrativize vs. listening to Iraqi voices? In حارس التبغ, the desire to narrativize from one point of view seems directly linked to violence.
AB: Unfortunately yes, the American discourse comes from the western logo-centrism, and it is pivoting on itself. There is the Iraqi victim, but it is silent. So I tried to tell the story from the silent spots in American corpus, which is a tale of a gifted person find him self on the fringe of modern Arab history, a man whose life dramatizes the ordeal of his country by cultural requiem.
It is different from the American story, but it is also different from Arab and Iraqi story, which always blames the West, imperialism, Israel, etc. It is at once about the history of the Middle East, the debates of its people, the fate of its hopes, and a personal inquiry into the world of my generation, as Arabs, liberal, Muslims, those influenced by Western culture.
AL: What would (the character) Yousef/Haidar/Kamal say about the 2011 uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria?
AB: I don’t know. He was a victim of sectarianism; however, his struggle was to confirm his individuality. Under despotism, the individual was not recognized ever, but it was smashed under the militaries’ shoes. In the Middle East till today, the tribes or ethnic groups are recognized but not the individual.
Furthermore, in Iraq, all the despotisms exploited the conflict between ethnic groups and played one off another in order to erase the individuality . But now Arab revolts have been driven by individuals’ urgency for change. The concept of the ‘individual’ has been born during these revolts. At the same time, the ethnic structures and confessional traditions will arise strongly; it has not simply disappeared. All would have to enter into a modern combination, that is very important and difficult, but what is clear is the individualism is here to stay. And this is what Yousef staked his life on.
Why Americans Should (or Shouldn’t?) Read Ali Bader’s ‘The Tobacco Keeper’
The Best of Iraqi Lit That Is (and Isn’t) in Translation
5 Questions with Amira Nowaira, Translator of ‘The Tobacco Keeper’
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