Survival and bonding

By Ferial J Ghazoul

Al-Mahboubat (The Loved Ones), Alia Mamdouh, London and Beirut: Dar Al-Saqi, 2003. pp285

The most recent novel by the well-known Iraqi novelist and short story writer, Alia Mamdouh, is entitled Al-Mahboubat, which can be translated as "The Loved Ones" even though the Arabic is more specific and gives away the female gender of the loved ones. The novel is essentially about female bonding and its role in the survival

of the central figure, Suhaila Ahmad, an Iraqi exile in Paris, suffering from a coma caused by a brain stroke. There are, of course, men as well as women in Mamdouh's fiction, and they are of crucial significance in the unfolding of the narrative, most notably Nadir, the son of Suhaila, and Fao, her dance partner on stage. However, the novel teems particularly with female voices and presence.

Mamdouh's first novel, Habbat Al-Naftalin (translated to seven languages, including English by Peter Theroux, entitled Mothballs ) is a bildungsroman, a novel about the coming of age of an Iraqi heroine in the 1950s and 1960s. Al- Mahboubat revolves around a middle-aged Iraqi woman in her 50s living in Paris. At the opening of the novel, she is lying in a hospital in a state between life and death, surrounded by a dizzying galaxy of Arab and European friends. Scenes of Suhaila in her sick bed and her entourage are reported by her son, the narrator, who resides in Canada and has come rushing to Paris to attend to his hospitalized mother. Mamdouh chose a very dramatic moment in life to recount the present (1990s) while recalling the past in bits and pieces as memory does at such critical junctures.

The narrative plot recedes in the work of Alia Mamdouh in general, and in this novel in particular, creating what amounts to juxtaposed tableaux through which glimpses of present life and friendships are exposed, intertwined with remembrance of times past. All of these strata of events and sensations create a vivid view of Iraqi society at home and abroad with emphasis on the Iraqi diaspora in the last decade of the millennium. If Mothballs represented the progressive stages of growing up in a politicised, taboo-ridden, Iraqi society, Al- Mahboubat deftly presents the cultural dimension of a scattered Iraqi society. In it the political is subsumed rather than highlighted. Alia Mamdouh succeeds brilliantly in evoking Iraqi ways in such a concrete and sensual manner, we can almost feel, hear, see, smell, and taste that very special Iraqiness, this je-ne-sais-quoi that makes Iraqis stand out (for better or worse). In conversation and in the protagonist's reminiscences, various Iraqi dialects and regional colloquialisms, culinary traditions, folk music, modes of dressing and make up are beautifully integrated in scenes of a woman on the verge of death, with her friends hovering around her.

In Mothballs, the setting was made up of Iraqis struggling on their own grounds against British hegemony; in Al-Mahboubat, the Iraqis are dispersed to the four corners of the world, trying to make sense of their tragic history. But the novel includes much more than Iraqis. Suhaila's friends are from all over the world: Lebanese, Sudanese, French, Swedes, etc. The French feminist critic and playwright named Tessa Hayden in the novel seems patterned after Hélène Cixous, the French- Algerian scholar and creative writer, to whom the novel is dedicated. There are dozens of characters: Blanche, Asmaa, Layal, Nirjis, Sarah, Wajd, Sonia, Ahmad, Ferial, Rabab, Hatim -- seeming like an endless list, who at times confuse the inattentive reader. It is their mode of articulating and their way of behaving that identifies them as we get to distinguish the specificity of each while we go on reading snippets of their conversations.

The first part of the novel, made up of 20 short chapters, presents the encounter of Nadir with his mother's friends at the hospital where they gather during visiting hours. Having received an e-mail message from his mother's friend Caroline, he arrives anxious, jet-lagged, and distraught. We perceive of the rest of the characters through the eyes of Nadir intertwined with his memories of his childhood, adolescence, parents, and his own wife and son. The second part of the novel is narrated by Suhaila and comes chronologically before the first part. Thus the novel unfolds with two points of view, that of the son and that of the mother. However, most of the other characters overlap; they are represented by both -- mother and son -- albeit somewhat differently. The part narrated by Suhaila is subdivided in turn into two sections, as her diaries in Paris are followed by her diaries in Canada where she went to visit her son and be present for the birth of her grandson. Suhaila's diaries introduce the varied characters one by one as she inscribes her thoughts on paper. It would have been easier for the reader to enter into the fictional world of the novel if the author had started with the diaries that expose characters more neatly, and then moved to Nadir's visit with the dynamics of group conversations and interactions. Alia Mamdouh seems to have opted for reversing the order of time to enmesh the reader in the complex scene first before moving to unravel the ambiguities.

There is a closure of sorts in the novel that takes place at the end of Nadir's narration. Surrounded by genuine friends who care, this bonding seems to help Suhaila to recover little by little and to overcome her death-in-life state. She opens her eyes and regains consciousness slowly but surely. Her women friends celebrate this recovery by dying her hair and applying make up in steps that are depicted in minute detail. Unlike Gustave Aschenbach's grooming in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, which disguises old age in a pathetic way, here the grooming is a celebration of survival, more reminiscent of collective rites to cleanse and get rid of bad spirits as we see, for example, at the finale of Toni Morrison's Beloved.

Since the novel presents a multitude of figures often encountered in a group setting, Alia Mamdouh uses stylistic registers to differentiate them. Not only dialects are used, but also ideological orientations and life styles are contrasted and juxtaposed through dialogue or correspondence. Different confessional and linguistic affiliations do not prevent the group from converging. In many ways, and oddly enough, Mamdouh does not celebrate the commonly accepted concept of friendship, as defined by the Arab medieval writer, Abu Hayyan Al- Tawhidi, who defined it as "the self reflected in the other". Rather, for Mamdouh, a friend is a friend because he/she is the one who complements oneself, and precisely through his/her difference from the self. Rarely has heterogeneity been so beautifully portrayed in a novel, presenting it like a dazzling kaleidoscope to enjoy and cherish.

It is tempting to see in Suhaila a metaphor for Iraq. Her survival, as suggested in the novel, is not a matter of medical treatment or a surgical operation, but a question of collective bonding. But the novel, in my reading, is not just about Iraq, though Iraq is ever present in it. It is more about survival in a horrific world; it is about light at the end of a tunnel, about the possibility of overcoming the most harrowing of experiences, and about the significance of humane bonding and moral support.

The style of Alia Mamdouh is unique and does not belong to any school of feminist or non- feminist writing. It belongs to her and is hers alone. She moves from depicting crisp details -- that only an observant eye can detect -- to lyrical flares with an incredible ease and aesthetic coherence. In doing so, she reveals the inner core of being and writes de profundis. Suhaila is, herself, an actress and ironically finds her true self when she is on stage. This has created problems for her in a patriarchal society but also offered her moments of bliss, as when she performed with Fao, a male dancer younger than her, whom she describes as having "the crudeness of Enkidu and the divinity of Gilgamesh". She admits her need for love: "I love to be loved. I love to be loved and be a beloved. I love that hand that moves on my body without order or goal, with the excess that does not overflow." Her own son says of her: "She was excessive in her love." She admits to her friend Blanche that the seven-minute dance with Fao in the Théâtre du Soleil, directed by Tessa Hayden and her colleague Maria, was worth her entire life. Passion, pain, fear, failure, and excess are the motivating forces in Suhaila's psyche; the prime mover of her creator, Alia Mamdouh, is a certain joie de vivre and joie d'écrire, a zest for life and a zest for writing. She captivates the readers with her exuberance, making us tolerant of her unstructured plot. Hers is a text that disarms our habitual resistance to complex works and opens up rich interior landscapes to ponder and explore.