Multi-award-winning Iraqi author Maysaloon Hadi made the longlist for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction for her novel The Brotherhood of Mohammed:
In a talk with Hend Saeed last August, Hadi said that, “The novel is based in an alley in Baghdad, where all the men have the name of Mohammed, except for Maria’s husband Abdulmalak. I used Mohammed not because it’s related to Islam, but because it’s the most common name in the world.”
By Hend Saeed
Maysaloon Hadi is an Iraqi author who’s published 15 Novels and 10 collections of short stories, as well as books for young adults. She says that, from a young age, she loved reading and writing, and that she published a few articles while still an undergraduate. After that, she worked as editor in a number of Iraqi literary magazines, including Little Encyclopedia and Alf Ba’a.
Her books have been shortlisted for and have won a number of prizes: The Throne and the Creek (العرش والجدول) won the 2015 Katara prize for unpublished works; The Bride’s Tea (شاي العروس) was shortlisted for Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2011; and Prophecy of Pharaoh won a Bashraheel Award for the best Arabic novel in 2008.
Two of her books have been translated into English: Prophecy of Pharaoh (نبوءة فرعون) and The Throne and the Creek, which was published by Katara Publishing.
In her latest novel, The Brotherhood of Mohammed, Hadi, who lives in Baghdad, portrays the life of people in an ordinary Baghdad alley: their homes, their personalities, their beliefs, their dreams, and their hopes in times of international war, sanctions, and then sectarian war. Her characters show the diversity of the Iraqi community, where the characters lived in relative harmony until the recent sectarian war, during which some people lost their names, and therefore their identities.
The novel carries within it two stories. The frame — the first few chapters and the last one — is a conversation between a nameless author and Orshina, her new neighbor. In between is The Brotherhood of Mohammed, a novel that’s been written by Orshina and is presented to us by the writer, who also adds her own notes.
Hadi’s love of stories is clear in this novel, and she salts in a number of stories-within-stories to give advice or explain a situation. The use of the Iraqi dialect, and the differences in pronouncing some words, tells us more about her characters backgrounds and adds a feeling of authenticity.
The novel begins when author moves to a new home, in a new neighborhood, to avoid being drawn back into childhood memories. She lives alone, while her husband and children live abroad.
The writer describes herself as a woman with a wrinkled face and frizzy hair, who isn’t recognized by others in the street, and who’s surprised with the overwhelming welcome she receives from her new neighbor Orshina, who has read her books.
Orshina is a tiny unemployed woman in her thirties, who lost her right eye in an explosion and studied psychology. She lives with her mother and is delighted to discover that her favorite writer is going to be her neighbor.
Orshina tells the writer about the people on the street, adding that she’s written a novel called Mohammed’s Brothers, about how almost every one on the street is called Mohammed. The novel is autobiographical, and she tells the author that she’s trying to find an end for the story of the disappearance of Sufian and Abbas, as it’s left her and the people in the alley wondering and creating their own stories.
She asks the writer to read her novel and give her feedback, but the writer — who considers Orshina very chatty and invasive — says Orshina lacks knowledge of the craft, tries to challenge her with her complicated questions. But slowly she warms to her new neighbor and agrees to read the novel.
The inner story is about the lives of people in one Baghdad alley, and its main events are set post-2003, with flashbacks to the past. Every character has a story, and each story is important, as they all form the fabric of Iraqi society.
Maria remembers that, twenty years ago, she and her husband Abdulmalek moved to the street when there was only one other house. This was Abu Khaldoon’s, who passed away a few days before she tells her story. Today Maria, in her fifties, teaches at the university and lives with her son Youssef while her husband works in Cairo. Her next-door neighbor is the OCD Um Adham, whose husband was executed in the street after 2003 invasion because worked with Saddam’s government.
On the other side of the street is Mohamed Al Khurdi, who was deported to Iran during Iran-Iraq war and came back to claim his home. He got his home back, but lost his eldest daughter in an explosion. He lives with his wife and younger daughter, who changed her name from Niran to Iran. Then there’s Mohammed the painter and his friends, who spread joy in the street every morning, laughing and singing and making jokes about Sheikh Mohammed, who comments on their shorts and says men shouldn’t wear them.
Dr. Mohammed Abdul Kareem works at the morgue, and he’s changed his name many times: from Mohammed to Sabah to Falah to Abdul Kareem, and he’s also changed his appearance, depending on circumstances.
Others include Um Mohammed the pharmacist, Mohammed the math teacher, Mohammed the carpet-seller, and Alia, who lives with her brother and mother, who every evening runs out of the house screaming, followed by her brothers’ screams, a fact of life that everyone has accepted. There’s also Mohammed Abu Furat, the angry neighbor, who argues and fights with everyone.
The story of Abbas and Sufian
Abbas and Sufian are gardeners who don’t live in the alley, yet people of the alley consider them part of the community.
Sufian and Abbas met when they worked as street cleaners few years back. Sufian was ten and Abbas a few years older, and they saved money to buy gardening tools and bicycles. They work for almost everyone in the street.
Sufian’s father passed away and he has three brothers: one in prison, one who’s left the country, one who’s disabled. There’s also his younger sister, who irons shirts for the laundryman. Abbas’s family is better off: his father works guarding the house of a jeweler, and they live in a small hut in the garden. Abbas goes to school, while Sufian doesn’t. Like any young teen boys, they have crushes on girls: Sufian likes Anhaar — Maria’s niece — and Abbas likes the jeweler’s daughter. They both keep an item from their crushes: Sufian keeps an earring that Anhaar dropped in the street, and Abbas a doll his crush threw away.
One night, Abbas and Sufian ignore the curfew as they take photos with the camera the jeweler gave to Abbas. Everyone knows that no one is out in the street after 5 p.m., as they fear kidnapping or killing. But the boys decide to risk it. Before they leave, they agree that, if they’re asked for their names, they’ll say Mohammed, not Sufian or Abbas. That will guarantee their safety, or so they think.
As they ride their bikes in the empty street, they notice a security check that wasn’t there before. They have no choice but to approach.
A few days later, their bicycles are found in the street, but there’s no sign of them.
The boys were stopped at the fake security check and asked for their names; as agreed, both said their name was Mohammed, and that they were both Shia and Sunni, but the kidnappers didn’t believe them. The kidnappers found them unfit and passed them to other kidnappers, who locked them in a dark room.
The novel leaves us as Sufian and Abbas think of running away…or did they run away?
Twenty years later — today — the street has changed. Many people have left, and new people moved in. Bombing is still heard in the streets. An old man approaches Anhaar and gives her the earring that she’d lost. When she asks him if he’s Abbas or Sufian, he says his name is Sheikh Mohammed and walks away.
In the end, we return to the reality of Orshina and the writer, who discuss the book’s ending. Orshina tells the author that the story of Sufian and Abbas is true, and she thinks about them all the time, and she didn’t want to give them a sad or happy ending. The writer discusses technical requirements, while Orshina thinks with her heart.
Also read, interviews from the 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction longlist:
Reviews from the 2019 longlist:
And the 2019 longlist:
Hend Saeed loves books and has a special interest in Arabic literature. She’s published a collection of short stories and recently started “Arabic Literature in English – Australia.” She is also a translator, life consultant, book reviewer, and a consulting editor at ArabLit.