Two-time International Prize for Arabic Fiction shortlistee Inaam Kachachi (The American Granddaughter, tr. Nariman Youssef, and Tashari) put out a new novel this winter: The Outcast. Reviewer Mahmoud Hosny enjoyed the language and the emotional landscapes of this “beautiful and intimate novel,” while also feeling it was sometimes overwhelmed by historical detail:
By Mahmoud Hosny
In the military hospital in Paris where Taj-Almelouk Abd-Elhamid is staying while ill, she—Taji—notices a policeman is guarding a specific room. When she asks him who is staying in this room, the policeman says, Ahmed Bin Bella, the former Algerian president. From this moment, the memories flow through Taji’s tired mind, and we return to old times!
This single question explodes into a fountain of far-off memories in The Outcast النبيذة, Inaam Kachachi’s new novel (Dar al-Jadid, winter 2017). The past comes as an urgent visitor, with all of its power, to the journalist Taji who is of Iranian descent and established the first magazine in Baghdad with help from the Iraqi Royal Palace in the 1940s.
Throughout her eighty years, we see a life full of political events, emotional adventures, and movement between capital cities. We read modern Iraqi history mixed with Taji’s autobiography, as when Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Said paid attention to her during the launch Rehab Magazine in 1946.
Things changed after a treaty was signed with Britain. Then, protests and crowds fill the streets, and in that moment someone advised Taji to leave the country, lest she be arrested as having been in a charge of riot.
The solution appears when she gets a work offer in a Karachi radio station. From there, she will announce the news of the execution of the Iraqi communist Salman Youssef. And there she will meet the young Palestinian Mansour Albadi, whose love will be with her until her last days, yet without its consummation.
He will migrate to Venezuela and become adviser to President Hugo Chávez, and she will marry a French officer who will lead her to work with the French intelligence agency, and she will be assigned to help in killing Ahmed Bin Bella during the Algerian revolution, but she will step back in the end.
A long life is behind Taji now. After changing her name many times, and moving between the places, she has nothing left except boxes of messages and papers about Iraq which don’t look like the Iraq of today, as Wedian Al-Mallah says, the Iraqi young woman who will meet in Paris. The two of them will develop a relationship that looks like that of mother and daughter.
Wedian, a violinist in the Iraqi Orchestra, lives through tough times emotionally, without a love in her life. Her disappointments come one by one, until we find her attending religious lessons, and asking if music is halal or haram! And feeling jealous when she reads a message full of love from Mansour to Taji after all of these years, even though it’s Wedian herself who tried to get them to meet again.
In her new novel, through a warm narration, Kachachi gives us the chance to see real characters and real events through her imagination without the need for great attention to which details are real and which are fiction.
In the end, I particularly recommend this novel to those who love the historical-novel genre.