This week, our series on Iraq’s diverse literary scene — curated by Hend Saeed — focuses on Mortada Gzar’s 2009 novel Broom of Paradise:
By Hend Saeed
Historically, Black Iraqis have lived mainly in Basra and its surrounding areas. Many were originally descended from East African slaves who were kidnapped from Zanzibar and Tanzania (then called Zanj), while others are descended from immigrants—mostly sailors or traders—who came to live in Iraq.
Slavery ended in Iraq in the nineteenth century, after long years of rebellion, from 1869-1883. Yet Black Iraqis remained marginalized and discriminated against in Iraq, and this continued up through Saddam Hussein’s rule, as well as after his fall, when Jalal Thiyab founded The Free Iraqi movement to defend the rights of Black Iraqis. Thiyab was assassinated in Basra in April 2013.
Many Black Iraqis live in poverty. Most identify as Shia Muslim, although the community also maintains some African traditions and spiritual practices.
I had a brief conversation with author Mortada Gzar about his novel that foregrounds Black Iraqis, The Broom of Paradise.
What had inspired you to write this novel?
Mortada Gzar: The idea for the novel came from a street in Basra called Bashar Bin Burd Street. The street was unique, as it is the street of holiness and sins, where you can find sex workers and also a number of shrines that date back to ancient Basra — until Saddam Hussein ordered the execution of sex workers and closed the road.
Also, paintings of Saddam Hussein, which were everywhere in the streets, suddenly disappeared after the invasion in 2003.
Black Iraqis are a minority, living in the old Basra alleys in a closed community. There is a prejudicial stigma against them, and they don’t have the opportunity for good jobs; many work as singers for weddings or festivals.
There are many different intertwining stories in Broom of Paradise. Can you tell us about how you put together the novel, how you decided on its style?
MG: The narration style that I used in this novel comes in part from what is called Basra narrative school, or what is known as the Basra narrative workshop, which came out at the end of the twentieth century. The author creates layers, which what might be said to break the illusion, by using an agent or a character that tells the story as he heard it or lived it or saw it, making the story believable and creating an illusion that makes the reader believe it is a true story even when it is unbelievable, such as when they found twelve bodies in the mass graveyard, but Madeen counted them as thirteen.
Madeen plays a big role in this novel; you also brought him back in another novel. Why is that? What does Madeen represent?
MG: Madeen’s story is the story of many Iraqis who worked as interpreters after the fall of Saddam Hussein and then immigrated. Madeen’s character is inexhaustible, and I like to keep my characters alive, especially the ones I wrote in my early years; now I can add some reality to give them life again. Like a journalist or someone looking for the truth.
A Look at ‘The Broom of Paradise’
Mortada Gzar’s The Broom of Paradise was published in 2009, and it tells the intersecting stories of two Basran families and their descendants. The novel’s main events take place between 1936 – 2007, although it also stretches back to the early years of the twentieth century.
In the early nineteenth century, a man known as Gholi the slave died while hiding amongst a heap of the “the brooms of paradise,” and his unmarked grave turned into a shrine. Hayawi’s family lived in the alley that abutted this shrine, and their life crosses path with the other family in the novel — the Maktobli family — twice, through Ramzi the artist and Wedad Hayawi and his niece Nusrat, who tells the story of the two families through her art.
In this small alley, known as Slave Alley, the walls are covered with hair and that ends in al-Shoufan shrine, and it stands as a testament to the lives of Black Iraqis from the beginnings of the nineteenth century.
It was 1936 when Ramzi Jawdad Mazanzi Saeed Makatobli, the book’s narrator, was born. He was an artist who painted the president’s murals, which were everywhere on Basra’s streets. He was supposed to be killed at Saddam’s order, at the same time twelve other artists were assassinated. However, he evaded this fate, and Ramzi is now living in Glasgow.
Nusrat Rifat Saeed Maktobli, another of the book’s storytellers, shows up in al-Shoufan Alley in the 1980s, knocking on the door of a Black Iraqi family, the Hawayis. Nusrat, who is working on an art project, has come to the alley to collect the hair that was stuck on a nearby shrine’s walls. Later, Nusrat tells the matriarch of the family, Mulaya, that she is going to put Mulaya and her sons as characters in a book. Mulaya and her sons are happy to be part of the book and the project.
During the war, Nusrat continues to visit Mulaya and her sons as she collects the hair from the shrine. Between 1985 and 87 she disappears, returning with a bald head, covered with a scarf. She finally finishes her exhibition, which shows some events from old Basra with two families: the Maktoblis and the Hayawis.
The Hayawi family’s stories follow Hayawi, the father; Mulaya, the mother; and their sons, Wedad and Madeen. They live in an old Basran alley that ends at al-Shoufan shrine. The alley is so narrow that people have to walk sideways to reach the Shoufan shrine, the walls of which are covered with hair stuck on it by hennaed hands.
They live in a triangular neighborhood, bounded by a wedding shop in al-Semar, which is three kilometers from the Eighth of February School, which is, in turn, three kilometers away from a glass and mirror shop. The music shop where Wedad learns to play the violin is at the far side of the triangle, five kilometers away.
Hayawi works as a fisherman, and sometimes a wedding and festival singer, before he joins the army during the Iran-Iraq War in 1980. He is imprisoned during the war, for not being sufficiently quick to kill the enemy. On August 8, 1988 – the last day of the war – his body is found floating in the river.
Mulaya reads people’s fortunes by scanning pages from the Quran and interpreting them. She also works different jobs, often selling items in the market, and she and other women collect and sell bullet shrapnel left behind after the Iran-Iraq War.
The two families come together when Wedad meets Ramzi Jawdad Makanzi when Wedad is sixteen years old, working at a restaurant. Ramzi works alongside Wedad, who was already at work on painting the president’s murals and posters, and this leads to sexual relationship between the older man and boy that lasts for several years. During these years, Wedad also starts teaching painting to other artists. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, when there was no need for these sorts of paintings, he works in different jobs, including selling items from the Dutch army that his brother Madeen brings to him. He also works with his mother, collecting and selling bullet shrapnel.
Wedad seems to be the most lost character of them all. Struggling with his sexuality, he later decides to go to an Islamic school in Najaf to become a religious man, wearing all white and praying. But this doesn’t last long. Afterwards, he stays at home, fragile and sick, and indulges in books.
Madeen, the younger brother, works with the Dutch army in Basra as a translator after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and he helps the army find the mass graveyard of the twelve artists who painted Saddam Hussein’s posters and murals and who were all executed in 2000 on Saddam’s orders. Wedad had found the order in the rubbish of the Security Intelligence building, after it was demolished, and he gave it to Madeen, who later insisted they were thirteen not twelve — referring to Ramzi Jawdad Makanzi, who he later meets in exile. This is after Madeen leaves Iraq as a refugee, like many Iraqis who worked as translators, whose lives became too dangerous in Iraq.
The Hayawi family lives in poverty, even though they are educated, and the only time Madeen can get a decent job is working as a translator with the Dutch army. Meanwhile, Wedad and his mother go on working odd jobs.
Mulaya remembers how, once, her husband came back from the front during the war with twenty dinars, which was a lot of money at the time. He spent it quickly and unthinkingly, buying things they didn’t need. But what she didn’t know was that the large amount her husband wasted had been given to him for collecting the helmets of the dead Iranian soldiers, later was gathered and made into a memorial of the war.
The stories of the two families intersect and separate throughout the novel.
What follows is a short excerpt.
The Myth of Al-Shoufan Shrine
Gholi the Slave was educated and spoke seven languages. He moved to Moscow and volunteered to work as a translator for the British Army in World War I. Later, when he came back to Basra, he wanted to work at Zakia’s Public Baths.
Gholi’s father, Abu Gholi the barber, feared for Gholi’s life, as in those days people were killing anyone who had supported the British army. So his father hid him in the storage room at the baths, where they stored all the plants and branches that were used to relax the visitors to the bathhouse. The storage was in a hidden alley, and he kept Gholi there, dressed in old clothes, so that he wouldn’t appear to be a highly educated person.
Then a large shipment of kochi branches, “the broom of paradise,” arrived at the baths. The storage room was so small that Gholi had to sit on the branches, and his father gave him the job of cutting them down and braiding them. From this, he began making new broom shapes that attracted the attention of both Zakia and the bath-goers. He shaped them like thrones, mixing them with saltwater.
Suddenly Gholi disappeared, and his father thought that he had set out for Moscow once again. But after a while, they found his body under the kochi branches, which had covered the smell of the corpse with its pleasant odor.
His father told no one. Instead, he created a grave for his son on the spot, which he visited even after the bath was demolished. The Black community started gathering there for their song nights until people thought it was a sacred place. Later, it became a shrine. Although, by the 1980s, people stopped visiting the place and its memories.
Even though Maden and Ramzi had left Iraq, both were still living in Basra’s alleys. Maden, who lived in Copenhagen, had built a small Shoufan shrine in his living room, while Ramzi, who lived in Glasgow, painted the face of the president on small plates and sold them. Meanwhile Wedad, who ended up in the small alley near the forgotten al-Shoufan shrine, was still trying to find his way by reading books.
Mortada Gzar Iraqi novelist, filmmaker and visual artist. He has written, directed and produced several films that have screened at international festivals. He is the author of Broom of Paradise (2008), Sayyid Asghar Akbar (2013), and My Beautiful Cult (2016). Has been a resident at the Iowa International Writers workshop. His I’m in Seattle, Where Are You? A Memoir is forthcoming, in William Hutchins translation, in April 2021. He grow up in Basra, Iraq and now lives in Seattle, Washington.
Gzar’s “Don’t Put Your Elephant In Your Luggage,” tr. Katharine Halls
Gzar’s “The Helmet House,” tr. Yasmeen Hanoosh
Excerpts from Gaza’s al-Sayyid Asghar Akbar, tr. Hanoosh
Forthcoming: I’m in Seattle, Where Are You? tr. William Hutchins