The Loved Ones
Translated by Marilyn Booth
The American University in Cairo Press, 2006
In this novel, Alia Mamdouh jumps out of her native Iraq, where her earlier novel “Mothballs” was set, into the Iraqi diaspora which grew from Europe to North America as a result of repression, sanctions and wars, causing separation not only from country but from family and friends as well.
A strong sense of transition and uprootedness is conveyed by the book’s opening sentence: “In airports we are born and to airports we return.” (p. 1)
Yet the distance between the protagonists, Suhaila and Nader - mother and son - is not only geographical, but personal as well, resulting from unspoken emotions and frustrations that evolved in their shared past.
“The Loved Ones” is an orchestra of multi-toned soliloquies on motherhood, womanhood, manhood, pain, culture and, above all, the power of love.
Suhaila, a middle-aged Iraqi woman, lies in a coma in a Paris hospital, surrounded by “the loved ones” - a group of mostly women and mostly Iraqis, but also other Arabs, a lone Swede and a French Jew of Algerian origin.
Suhaila’s son, Nader, is summoned from Canada, and breaks down under the expectations he feels her friends have of him. The assumption seems to be that her illness stems from feeling abandoned and that his presence can restore her health. Nader fears he won’t be able to do this, for despite or perhaps because of the boundless love Suhaila has for him, his relationship to her is complicated, and her personality is complex and changeable.
Suhaila has many sides. Sometimes, she appears as the archetypal, self-sacrificing mother and housewife, depriving herself in order to send money for Nader’s education, happily cooking for her loved ones and scrubbing away her frustrations on the bathroom sink. But creativity is also in her blood.
Her father was a renowned theatre director, and she an outstanding stage performer, but this only aggravated her husband, a regime loyalist and military man. Daily, he beat her without mercy, eventually driving her from the theatre and plunging Nader into deep confusion and sadness over the war being waged at home.
Nader also suffered from the authoritarianism of his father who saw his youthful cultural interests as unpatriotic. Finally, with the aid of her brother who was already in exile after pursuing his career as a lawyer all too well, Suhaila scraped together the needed hard currency to take Nader abroad to study - and thus began their exile and separation. Back in Iraq, her father stopped producing significant plays and resorted to trivia.
The whole trajectory leading up to Suhaila’s coma seems symbolic of what has befallen Iraq and its people: the steady degradation of their high state of culture, first by internal repression and dogmatism, and later by war, sanctions and foreign intervention.
Perhaps it was the beatings and her withdrawal from the theatre, not Nader’s presumed abandonment that began the build-up to Suhaila’s illness. As she says: “Once I was convinced that my talent would be converted into mere scrap iron.” (p. 106)
In a story that emerges in retrospect, in pieces, from present tense stream of consciousness, from memory, letters and different voices, cause and effect is never clearly established, leaving the reader to ponder the complex interplay of personal and political factors that shaped the characters’ lives.
About halfway through the novel, Suhaila responds to Nader’s presence and begins to return to consciousness, enabling the rebonding of mother and son, but this is just the start of new episodes.
Nader is charged with going through the multitude of papers and files in Suhaila’s apartment in order to continue the work she and her friends have been doing to locate Iraqi prisoners and help the children of Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. In the process, he finds her diaries and letters from friends that reveal many new secrets, including how Suhaila rediscovered herself, body and soul, through dance and the help of a woman and a man who made her feel whole, attractive and talented again.
Though this novel is per definition based on words, it extols the healing and creative powers of other forms of human interaction - theatre, music, dance and not least, sharing food.
As Nader remembers Suhaila saying, “Food is the language of sympathy. If mutual understanding or communication between human beings is hard because of language, maybe food offers some merciful solutions to us, we children of this earth.” (p. 27)
21 January 2008
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