Alia Mamdouh. Naphtalene: A Novel of Baghdad. Peter Theroux, tr. Helene Cixous, foreword. F. A. Haidar, afterword. New York. Feminist Press at CUNY. 2005. viii + 214 pages. $23.95. ISBN 1-55861-492-3
THERE ARE AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ELEMENTS in Naphtalene, which relates the story of a nine-year-old girl named Huda growing into early adolescence in Baghdad during the 1950s. The author, Alia Mamdouh, was herself born in Baghdad in 1944 and witnessed as a girl many of the public events and scenes described in the novel, but she left her country in 1982 to escape the intellectual restrictions imposed on her by Iraqi authorities after publishing her first novel in 1981. She lived in Morocco, Lebanon, and England by turns and currently resides in Paris, where she continues to write and publish short stories and novels.
Autobiography aside, this novel is about Huda, her family, and their neighborhood in Baghdad under the pro-British Hashemite monarchy of Iraq in the 1950s. Arab nationalism was growing at the time, fanned from Egypt by Nasser's Voice of the Arabs radio and, in Iraq, by opposition parties and leaflets secretly distributed to foment hostility to the monarchy and its pro-British policy. Huda was too young to understand politics yet perceptive enough to feel fear while reading a secret leaflet. Her personal hostility was, rather, to the patriarchal social milieu in which she was growing.
The novel's setting is Baghdad's A'dhamiyya quarter, a crowded, poor area on the east bank of the Tigris, with many alleyways and dirt roads, mainly inhabited by Sunni Muslims. It is the quarter in which the author herself grew up. The focus is on Huda's family living in a traditional home in the vicinity of the quarter's beautiful and centuries-old Abu Hanifa mosque.
Huda's father is a policeman who works as a prison guard in faraway Karbala. He comes back home to see his family occasionally, and when he does, everyone is subjected to his violent temper and authoritarian behavior. He does not permit Huda to play with the boys in the street, and when he sees her playing with them once, he tramples their toys and they take shelter. He makes her wear the traditional black cloak in public in a bid to repress her and prepare her to grow up to be an obedient wife. His wife is devastated when he announces to her that he wants to leave her and that he has married another wife in Karbala, who is expecting his child. Her health deteriorates and she subsequently dies, leaving Huda and her younger brother Adil to be cared for by their grandmother.
Huda remains a free spirit despite restrictions. She moves to her mother's empty room and takes a radio with her. She does not like school and often skips classes. She is full of mischief and annoys the women in the public bath. Conversely, Adil is gentle and docile, and Huda's boyfriend, Mahmoud, wants her to remain a girl when she tells him she can be like a boy. Even her father admits she is not afraid of him. The novel ends when Huda is twelve, when her father is dismissed from his job due to drunkenness, and the family is forced to leave their home because of government plans for the area's development.
The English translation reads well, but the words Qur'an and Qur'anic are consistently yet wrongly spelled Qu'ran and Qu'ranic dozens of times throughout the book.
Issa J. Boullata
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