Mamdouh, Alia 1944
Born 1944, in Baghdad, Iraq. Education: Mustansariya University, Baghdad, Iraq, B.A., 1971.
Writer, editor. Majallat Al Ulum ("Magazine of Sciences"), Beirut, Lebanon, editor, 1972-73; Majallat Al-Fikr al-Mu'asir ("Magazine of Modern Thought"), Beirut, editor, 1973-75; Al-Rasid ("The Register," a weekly newspaper), Baghdad, Iraq, editor-in-chief, 1970-1982; Majallat Shu'un Filastiniya ("Magazine of Palestinian Affairs"), Baghdad, editor, 1980-82; Al-Riyadh (daily Saudi newspaper), Rabat, Morocco, in charge of the cultural section, 1983-1990.
Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Arabic Literature, 2004.
Iftitahiyah lil-Dahk ("An Overture of Laughter"; short stories), Dar al-Awda (Beirut, Lebanon), 1973.
Hawamish Ila Al-Sayyidah "B" ("Margins for Mrs. B"; short stories), Dar al-Adab (Beirut, Lebanon), 1977.
Layla wa-l-Dhi'b ("Layla and the Wolf"; novel), Dar al-Hurriya (Baghdad, Iraq), 1981.
Habbat al-Naftaleen (novel), General Commission for Books (Dar Fasul, Egypt), 1986, 2nd edition, Dar al-Adab (Beirut, Lebanon), 2000, translation by Peter Theroux published as Mothballs, Garnet (Reading, England), 1996, also published as Naphtalene: A Novel of Baghdad, foreword by Hélène Cixous, afterword by F.A. Haidar, Feminist Press at the City University of New York (New York, NY), 2005.
Al-Walla ("The Passion"; novel), Dar al-Adab (Beirut, Lebanon), 1995.
Al-Ghulamah (novel), Dar al-Saqi (Beirut, Lebanon), 2000.
Al-Mahbubat (novel), Dar al-Saqi (Beirut, Lebanon), 2003, translation by Marilyn Booth published as The Loved Ones,, Feminist Press at the City University of New York (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor to Arab periodicals, including Mawaqif, At-Tariq, Al-Mawqif al-Adabi, Al-Karmal, An-Nahar, As-Safir, Al-Quds al-Arabi, Al-Anwar, Al-Arab, Al-Ayam, Al-'Alam (Morocco), Al-Hurriya, Al-Hadaf, Abwa, and Al-Hayat. Habbat al-Naftaleen has been translated into seven languages.
Writer and editor Alia Mamdouh was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1944. She attended the University of Mastansariya, graduating in 1971 with a degree in psychology, and went on to work for several Iraqi publications, including al-Rasid magazine (title means "The Register"), for which she served as editor-in-chief from 1970 to 1982, and al-Fikr al-Mu'asir (title means "Contemporary Thought"). She began writing fiction in the 1970s, starting out with short stories and then moving on to novels, always writing in her native Arabic, even after she left Iraq in 1982. Mamdouh continued to write after she moved first to Morocco and then to Europe. She eventually settled in Paris, producing additional novels and contributing to various Arabic-language periodicals back in her homeland. Her work has earned her a reputation as one of the preeminent Arab-language writers of her time, and she was the first female Iraqi writer to have her work published in the United States in English translation. In 2004, Mamdouh was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Arabic Literature.
Writing for the Al-Ahram Web site, Ferial J. Ghazoul discussed Mamdouh's writing style, calling it "unique." He went on to note that her work "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." Mamdouh also serves as a window into Iraq for many Westerners whose only other impressions of the country come from the evening news. Her work illustrates both the rich history of that part of the world, and the people behind the modern-day strife. Mothballs, Mamdouh's first novel, was initially published by a small house in Egypt, then later appeared in English translation—first in Reading, England, in 1996, and then ultimately in the United States under the title Naphtalene: A Novel of Baghdad. As Naphtalene, it was the first work by an Iraqi woman to be published in the United States. Over the course of the book, Mamdouh tells the story of Huda, a nine-year-old girl living in Baghdad during the 1940s. With her writing, Mamdouh evokes a simpler time in the city, when public baths and butchers and children playing innocent games in the streets were all common sights. However, the book is not a fairy tale, but one of the harsh dynamics that sometimes arise in families, and the fallout for children who are at the mercy of their parents. Huda's father is a tough man, a prison guard, and when his first wife—Huda's mother—falls ill, he throws her out of the house and family, replacing her with his second wife, who is pregnant. Huda must rely on her older brother, and her strong grandmother—the family matriarch—in the absence of her own mother. A reviewer on the Astrolabe Web site remarked: "With real perception the complex web of family relationships is illustrated by the tension between the fiery and feisty nature of Huda and her powerlessness as a child."
Much of the family dynamic also illustrates the cultural division between men and women, and the ways in which power is rarely balanced between the two. This is depicted in particular through the relationship of Huda's parents, and her Aunt Farida and Uncle Munir. Huda's mother has no say when her husband throws her out of the house, and likewise, Farida is meek and says nothing when Munir disappears without cause or explanation. Megan Marz, writing for the In These Times Web site, observed that "the most prominent pairings … are portrayed as brutal and oppressive to women." Gillian Engberg, in a review for Booklist, wrote of Mamdouh: "Her ferocious, visceral descriptions … give a powerful sense not only of Huda's world but also of the way we make and understand memories." In a review for Publishers Weekly, one writer opined that "Mamdouh's prose is at once lush and refreshingly earthy." A contributor for Kirkus Reviews concluded that Mamdouh's book is "a pungent, episodic glimpse of childhood in a patriarchal society: sometimes obscure but often intense and lyrical."
The Loved Ones, originally published in Arabic as Al-Mahbubat, loses a little something in translation to the less precise English, as the Arabic title lets readers know that the "loved ones" in question are female. In this book, Mamdouh writes about female bonding, and how those bonds can offer particular support in times of strife or trouble. The Loved Ones tells the story of Suhaila Ahmad, who has left Iraq for Paris, where she now lives a life of exile. When she suffers from a stroke that leaves her in a coma, friends and family members hurry to her bedside, both men and women. Pivotal figures include her son, Nadir, who has traveled from his home in Canada upon news of his mother's illness, and the man with whom Suhaila dances on stage, Fao. It becomes clear that Nadir and Suhaila have a turbulent relationship, and that Nadir must come to terms with his own feelings about his mother. Both present and past are revealed in fits and starts, primarily through Nadir's narration in the first half of the book. During the second half of the story, the reader gets Suhaila's point of view, resulting in a tale that reaches farther into the past and her own memories of life in Iraq and the meaning of her friendships. Ultimately, it is the closeness and bonding of Suhaila's friends that enable her to finally recover her strength. Ghazoul remarked: "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." In a review for Booklist, Hazel Rochman remarked that "what is dynamic here is Suhaila's loving community of women friends from everywhere." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote that the vivid relationships and thoughts that Mamdouh portrays are "as colorful as Suhaila's dancing and as enigmatic as her silent, sleeping body."
Mamdouh told CA: "Perhaps the main function of writing for me is to lift my own morale, especially in a time when my identity as an Iraqi is threatened to be vanquished each day just like my homeland Iraq is. Since the first day of the American occupation, I realized what I had to do as an Iraqi writer was to deal with my own ancient national culture—not for nationalist reasons, but to present it to the world as the basis for tolerance and mutual understanding. In this sense my writing on Iraq in all my novels has the aim of protecting me in the first place.
"A thing that keeps amazing me during the process of writing and even after finishing is that writing offers me a vivid and unique opportunity of opposing, confronting, and learning to resist ugliness, crime, injustice and genocide. Writing for me means existence and freedom, even though despair has destroyed the lives of my characters in my works, as if despair were the only thing that makes us worth existing and living. Writing is one possibility among others to invent or create an endurable universe in which it is worthwhile to live.
"The kind of feeling that writing grants me moves between the shores of pain and joy. I feel pain because I have to leave the characters behind after creating them and I feel joy hoping that they will succeed. Writing is always a dilemma and never a salvation. Watching my characters, I learned how to be more modest in front of them. Even though the characters appear to be weak, they resist and are always willing to pay the highest price for their choices. Now as I am writing these lines, I discover that all those characters in my novels, despite being oppressed and harassed, eventually manage to reach their goals and are capable of bearing even more pain in their souls. Therefore I can say that The Passion, even though not yet translated into English, is my favorite book among my novels. It is about love—simple human love with no reference to major or global issues but after all. Is there something more important than love? I still believe that writing a novel dealing with real love is the highest peak of human and existential struggle. It is a legitimate infiltration into the bodies of a state beginning from the marriage-bed and ending at the ruler's chair."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Arab News, March 8, 2007, Lisa Kaaki, review of Al-Mahbubat.
Booklist, May 15, 2005, Gillian Engberg, review of Naphtalene: A Novel of Baghdad, p. 1637; December 1, 2007, Hazel Rochman, review of The Loved Ones, p. 23.
Book World, August 7, 2005, "Young and Restless in Baghdad," p. 6.
Jordan Times, January 21, 2008, review of The Loved Ones, p. 279.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2005, review of Naphtalene, p. 441.
Library Journal, December 1, 2007, Alicia Korenman, review of The Loved Ones, p. 101.
Middle East Journal, summer, 2006, Eve Aronson, review of Naphtalene, p. 617.
Ms. Magazine, summer, 2005, "Fever Dream," p. 89.
Publishers Weekly, May 23, 2005, review of Naphtalene, p. 57; October 8, 2007, review of The Loved Ones, p. 38.
World Literature Today, March 1, 2006, Issa J. Boullata, review of Naphtalene, p. 54.
Al-Ahram,http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/ (September 2, 2004), Ferial J. Ghazoul, "Survival and Bonding," review of The Loved Ones.
Astrolabe,http://www.astrolabe.com/ (March 17, 2008), review of Mothballs.
ForeWord Online,http://www.forewordmagazine.com/ (March 17, 2008), Amy Brozio-Andrews, review of Naphtalene.
In These Times,http://www.inthesetimes.com/ (October 4, 2005), Megan Marz, "Echoes of Baghdad," review of Naphtalene.
IPM/AUC Web site,http://www.internationalpubmarket.com/ (March 17, 2008), author profile.
[Sketch reviewed by Iqbal Al-Qazwini.]
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