In the last week of our series on Iraq’s diverse literary scene — curated by Hend Saeed — we focus on Diaa Jubaili’s The Lion of Basra, a 2016 novel set amongst the fragmentation of Iraq’s different religious communities:
By Hend Saeed
The same love between faiths that brought two people together in marriage also left their son torn between three religions and three names. Although it’s a love that overcame the differences between customs and beliefs, it also left a son traumatized by the people who held on to their beliefs.
It is the story of Amal, Moshi, and Khajek.
The novel is set in Basra, between the 1950s and 2003. It begins when Jewish Iraqis were stripped of their citizenship in 1950s, continues through the Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s and the Gulf War in the early ‘90s, ending with the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, when Armenians were targeted and killed.
The boy with three names: Amal, Moshi, Khajek
It’s the early 1960s when Meyer (a Jewish translator) and Nofa (an Armenian cook) meet at the British Council in Basra, where they both work. They fall in love and have a civil marriage in Cyprus because neither of their families would agree to the marriage.
A few months later, in 1963, Meyer is detained by the Iraqi National Guard for being a member in the Communist Party. Later, a pregnant Nofa is detained as well. They are both disappeared, leaving a baby at the hospital.
Thus, Nofa’s sister Mesak and Meyer’s sister Hella find themselves with a baby that was born of a Jewish father and an Armenian mother. Both women live alone; Mesak is unmarried, has work weaving carpets, and is committed to her church. Mesak, who opposed her sister’s marriage, fears that raising her sister’s son could isolate her from her church.
Hella, who was engaged when her family left Basra in 1950s, lost her fiancée in an accident in 1956. She later married a Muslim man, but she kept her religious traditions in secret. Hella believed that she couldn’t raise a child in the Jewish faith in a county that was stripping Jews of their citizenship. Both women decided to find a family that would adopt him, with the condition that they would stay in his life.
Enter Hanan and Jamal. They are a Muslim couple who have lost three baby boys, and they adopt the baby and name him Amal (Hope). The two are both actors, and they welcome Nofa and Mesak’s condition of being part of Amal’s life, thinking they will help with raising the boy.
Hella and Mesak do take part in caring for him. And because they are both committed to their religions, they want him to learn about their religion and be a part of it.
Hella calls the boy “Moshi” and teaches him Jewish prayers and customs, and Mesak calls him “Khajek” and teaches him the Armenian prayers and customs. Meanwhile, Hanan (who is Shia) and her husband (who is Sunni) are busy with their work and don’t give much time or thought to teaching him Islamic prayers or customs until much later, when they find he is skipping his Islamic religion class, as encouraged by his two aunties.
Five years after the boy’s adoption, Hanan has a baby girl, Nisreen. Amal—who had thus far grown up spoiled by three women—is unable to accept the newcomer. From that time, an unusual and complicated relationship grows between them. This is when his inner conflict and troubles begin.
Becoming a lion
Young Amal becomes fascinated with the lion statue in the middle of one of the roundabouts in Basra, and he announces to his family that he wants to be a lion. Each auntie then tells him different stories about the lion, and he finds, in these stories, a refuge from his reality.
He continues to grow up in a home where his adopted parents are busy with long working hours, and his aunties bombard him with different information. Also, in his home, the photos of the three lost babies are hung on the wall, reminding him that he is the replacement. And at Hella’s home, she has hung the photos of her fiancé and her family, while at Mesak’s home, Amal finds the photos of his parents and photos of Armenians who were deported in 1915.
Through all this, the lion becomes Amal’s mascot and focal point. At five, he wants to be a lion; in his teen years, he attacks his sister, thinking himself a lion while under the influence of alcohol. Then, as she gets older, the two of them grow physically intimate. One day, when Hana comes home, she finds them together. Then she kicks Amal out of the house.
Amal feels suffocated by the three women, each of them pulling him toward her own religion. He starts questioning his beliefs and loses faith in everything, indulging his vices and going through a suicidal period.
‘War is a world’
War is a world—a person is thrown into it and surrenders to death.
So Amal thinks about war. He first joins the Iraqi Army in the 1980s, after graduation, and he joins a second time in 1991. He is wounded twice; first during the Iran–Iraq War and again in 1991.
During the 1991 conflict, he was assigned to the missile launch center then transferred to another center. The whole time, he wonders: What if he were to send a missile to Israel and that missile hit his father and his father’s family—as he had believed the story of Mesak told him, about how his father had left his mother and went to Israel, and his mother had thrown herself in the river .
After this, he works as teacher and spends most of his time between the houses of his parents’ sisters. Each woman wants him to migrate with him. Hella want him to travel with her to Israel, while Mesak wants him to take her to Armenia. But all he wants is to meet the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas LIosa, who was visiting Baghdad, and ask him to write his story.
Diaa Jubaili born in Basra in 1977. He is the author of a number of novels and short-story collections, such as The Curse of the Marquis (2017),which won the Dubai Magazine Award, The Ugly Face of Vincent (2009), The Bizarre (2011), General Stanley Maude’s Souvenir (2014), The Lion of Basra (2016) and the short-story collection There Are No Windmills in Basra, which won the 2018 Almultaqa Prize for the Arabic Short Story.