Book Review: Samir Naqqash’s ‘Tenants & Cobwebs’

A new English translation of Iraqi-Israeli writer Samir Naqqash’s complex novel can be a slog. The translator makes a number of questionable choices in bringing different Iraqi dialects into English. Nonetheless, the book rewards attention:

From a review in The National:

Samir Naqqash’s Tenants & Cobwebs spins its claustrophobic, multivocal narrative around the lives of Jewish and Muslim characters who live cheek-to-jowl in mid-20th century Baghdad.

The novel’s action unfolds in the shadow of the June 1941 “Farhud,” a pogrom carried out against Baghdad’s Jewish citizenry. Throughout the 1940s, the book’s many Jews are squeezed tighter and tighter until they press up against the choice, in 1950, of whether to stay in an increasingly intolerant Baghdad or tear apart families and communities as they give up their citizenship and move to Israel.

This novel – Naqqash’s first – was published in Arabic in 1986, and draws on the author’s own life experiences. His family fled Iraq in 1951 when he was just 13. Unlike most other writers who left Baghdad’s once-thriving Jewish community for Israel, Naqqash continued to write in Arabic until his death in 2004.

The book’s titular “tenants” live in a handful of buildings in the working-class district of Bani S’id. Its “cobwebs” might be the sticky traps that bind them ever-tighter in the years following the Farhud. Or they might be the cobwebs left behind in 1951, when the buildings are emptied of their long-time Jewish residents.

Keep reading in The National. 

You can also read a strong translation of Naqqash’s short story “Tantal” in the collection Contemporary Iraqi Fiction.

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4 comments

  1. The translation does justice to Iraqi Arabic inits various dialects. I grew up in Karada, and we had Jewish neighbors, and I also corresponded with Naqqash and language was one of the issues we discussed. Both Naqqash’s Arabic and Masliyah’s English bring to life the Baghdad of my childhood, which I knew first-hand as well as through my family’s memories. It’s not a perfect novel, but Tenants and Cobwebs has enough legitimacy artistically and otherwise to make reading it rewarding.

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    • Well, I’ll just suggest it’s possible Masliyah’s English works well for you exactly because you already hear and expect the underlying nuance of Arabic, and because you are so attuned to the shifts & know how it works.

      Otherwise I think several of the choices — like for instance changing the transliteration of Yacoub/Yagoub — are deployed in a way that make them effectively stumbling blocks for the English-language reader, rather than giving them the flavor of different patterns of speech.

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