Ruqaya Izzidien, author of the forthcoming novel The Watermelon Boys, chatted over email with ArabLit about the challenges and possibilities of writing historical fiction set in Iraq, growing up in rural Wales (which gave her lots of time to read), and research about Basra, the early 20th c. “Venice of Iraq”:
If (as Toni Morrison says), you should write the book you want to read, why this book? What absence does it fill?
Ruqaya Izzidien: For me this is certainly true. Before beginning writing The Watermelon Boys, I searched for months for fiction set in Mesopotamia around the First World War, but found just one series, that dealt overwhelmingly with the lives of soldiers – and when it did feature Arabs, they were the exotic context for the British protagonists. I knew through family stories that British forces had been in Basra during the war, but growing up through the British education system, I had not once been taught anything about it from an historical context. So, the idea for this book came from a fascination about this period that I felt had been censored out of the schooling system,
It also came from bookish desire to read characters that I could identify with. Growing up in rural Wales I read a lot to pass the time, and, when I reached my twenties, I realized that no matter how much I enjoyed reading Enid Blyton or Jane Austen, there was a nuance to my history and experience as a British, Arab Muslim that I simply wasn’t reading in literature. This story is set 100 years ago in Baghdad, about a Baghdadi family that is cast apart by war, and it is, importantly, their story. But it is also a British story; this is British history, told through the eyes of an Arab, which was an unusual, and satisfying, subversion to write.
How do you conceive your audience, or the audience you would like to read this book?
RI: First and foremost it’s a story about a family trying to do the right thing, so I think it’s accessible to anyone. Of course it deals with the British treatment and betrayal of Arabs, but through personal and – hopefully – nuanced fiction. So I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to know more about the influence of British colonial rule and suppression on today’s Arab political turmoil. The Watermelon Boys also features a Welsh soldier who struggles to reconcile his Welsh identity with a British war, which offers an insight to anyone interested in the complexity of Anglo-Welsh identity politics.
If you look at the number of books produced about Iraq in English, it’s quite high — most are written by journalists, soldiers, aid workers. What do you think is missing?
RI: It’s funny that you say this, because when I think about books written about Iraq, the kinds of books you mentioned never cross my mind, and for me that is poignant. These books address Iraq as a disaster to learn from, a war zone, and – significantly – from the outside. So the obvious answer is that I am an Iraqi writing about my own history, and reclaiming the dominant English narrative about Iraq at the time.
But just as importantly for me was that I wanted to write about an Iraq that is free of modern associations. Iraq has become a cautionary tale, a measure of how bad things could get. Growing up around this flippancy was actually quite a painful experience, and it seemed as though Iraq would never be free of these connotations. The worst-case scenario association with Iraq today is completely divergent from the perception of Iraq eighty, fifty, or even thirty years ago. In the eighties, Iraq conjured up images of date palms and rivers, coffeeshops, and historical ruins. In the early 20th Century, British tour agencies tried to promote Basra as the Venice of the East. So, as well as reclaiming the outside narrative of Iraq by foreigners, I also wanted to reclaim the narrative of Iraq as nothing more than a warzone.
How did you balance the interweaving of family, historical figures, and fictions? In interpreting history, what do you think must be left “true” for the integrity of events, vs. what can be fictionalized? Is there such a line?
RI: For a book that I wanted to be informative it was very important to me to ensure that any real-life figures were represented accurately. I’ve said that The Watermelon Boys is an attempt to reframe British chronicles of the war in Mesopotamia, so I think historical accuracy is fundamental to the integrity of this story. As a result, much of the details and plot are true to real events. From social aspects, such as dress, entertainment and infrastructure, to political events, such as the Tonypandy pit strike, the duplicity of British officials, and the collective punishment of Arabs.
Although some events in the book are inspired by family stories, I think it is essential to separate a series of anecdotes from their owner; it is important not to rewrite the histories of individuals.
However I do believe in creative licence and the importance of a good story told well. So aside from staying true to historical events and context, and avoiding hijacking the ownership of personal stories, I think most other areas are open to creative licence, for the sake of good literature. I believe it is possible to write well and to write honestly.
What was your research process in putting together this book?
RI: In a word, interminable. I spent around a year researching and plotting The Watermelon Boys before writing its first words. At that time I imagined that my research was, for the most part, over. But I think that particularly with historical novels, every detail needs to be verified. So as you go along, the research is continuous – did this plant exist in northern Mesopotamia in 1916? What were the armoured vehicles available in 1920? I definitely learnt a lot about specialist areas that I never imagined I would be researching.
But the basis for my research began with academic textbooks about the First World War, newspapers, war archives and diaries and ended (though really it’s always ongoing) with papers on colonial policing, internal War Office communications, and autobiographies from the 1920s.
Are there books that you looked to in creating this, or are in conversation with, in either a positive or a negative way?
RI: It is less of a response to existing books as it is a way of evening the playing field in light of the vast amount of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim literature and propaganda that existed both 100 years ago, and today. The parallels are unavoidable. During the height of the Iraqi rebellion against British rule in Iraq in 1920, The British newspaper The Baghdad Times completely ignored the uprising – opting instead to run social pages on the YMCA’s latest frolics. The British authorities of the time, for their part, referred to Arabs as semi-savage, disorganized, and in need of a strong hand to control them. So although it is a century-old story, it is definitely informed by modern misconceptions.
It did, however, also come from a place of frustration towards modern Western fiction set in Arab countries, which often struggles to avoid Orientalism. If I hear another description of veiled faces and intense eyes…
Lastly, I owe a huge debt to the historians who have chronicled the British colonial oppression of Iraq: Ian Rutledge, Peter Sluglett, Priya Satia, Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn Young, whose books were instrumental in writing the latter half of The Watermelon Boys.
Well, let me echo your “If I hear another description of veiled faces and intense eyes…” and add “then Ruqaya and I are going to pull over the car, and you’ll regret it!”
But meanwhile, both Arabic and English literary traditions are, in different and overlapping ways, male-framed and male-dominated. Certainly the contemporary Iraq-centered literature available in English — with so much soldier lit — has been heavily male, with few living Iraqi women writers translated or writing in English. How do you think about this in relation to your work, and in relation to your reading?
RI: During the writing process I didn’t pay much attention to my gender. I was much more aware of the contribution of my Iraqi voice in literature than I was of my voice as a woman. Retrospectively, there is a satisfaction in knowing I was able to disregard my gender, in a world where your status as a woman is constantly at the forefront of your identity, and your treatment.
Once I was through the one-track mentality that came with the first draft and I had more time to reflect on the place my book may have in the wider literary sphere, it was impossible to ignore the rarity and isolation of English-language voices like my own. That realization was daunting, lonely and demoralizing, not because women writers can only exist in the same sphere as with other women writers, but because there is a gendered reason behind our rarity. All the hundreds of stories that could have been if not for the gender imbalance in education, opportunity, and social pressure.
One might conclude, then, that I – a female – was fortunate to be afforded the privilege to escape – partially at least – these imbalances, in order to write. To which I would point out that we’d never tell a man how fortunate he is to be able to get the male voice out there.
And I look forward to the day when the English literature scene is filled with female Iraqi authors. Because we can speak – and write – for ourselves.