NAPHTALENE ... A Novel of Baghdad

by Alia Mamdouh, translated by Peter Theroux

A strong-willed girl’s life in 1950s Baghdad, depicted by an award-winning Iraqi writer. Mamdouh, winner of the 2004 Naguib Mahfouz Prize for Literature, employs shifts of narrative perspective and a sophisticated technique in this affectionate but critical dissection of her culture. Huda, at age nine, can play with boys and attend a mixed school. But the story evokes a society where the women cluster together indoors and are often subjected to cruelty and abuse by their menfolk. With the exception of her sensitive brother Adil, Huda lives her life almost exclusively among females: her mother Iqbal, her aunts and her grandmother. Her father, Jamil, a police officer, has been known to kick and slap her. He treats her mother, who suffers from tuberculosis, harshly too, eventually revealing he has married a younger woman who can give him more sons. Heartbroken and ill, Iqbal leaves the family home, to die elsewhere. Huda’s grandmother, the long-suffering heart of the tale, supports her grandchildren through their father’s neglect and mother’s death. But Huda’s resilient spirit is far from extinguished. Her rite of passage—she commences puberty during the course of the novel—is revealed in a sequence of elliptical scenes in which detailed reality alternates with a more heightened and imagistic prose. Politics remain in the background, with hints of demonstrations against the British. Meanwhile, Huda and Adil continue in their grandmother’s care, visiting the cemetery, traveling to Karbala to see their father where he works in the prison. Huda’s skepticism toward men is intensified by her aunt Farida’s callous treatment at the hands of her unpleasant new husband Munir. Farida, maddened, attacks and humiliates Munir. Jamil, however, has become increasingly subdued. Despite his happy involvement with his new family, his career is failing and the story ends in flames and disruption, with Huda and her relatives uprooted to a new home.

A pungent, episodic glimpse of childhood in a patriarchal society: sometimes obscure but often intense and lyrical. (Naphtalene is the author’s second novel, originally published in 1986 by an Egyptian press. It is also the first by an Iraqi woman to appear in the U.S.)