The American Granddaughter

Iraqi writer and journalist Inaam Kachachi’s novel Tashari was one of three novels by Iraqi writers which were included in the longlist for IPAF 2014, along with Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, and The Sad Night of Ali Baba by Abdel Khaliq al Rikabi. The shortlist will be announced tomorrow, 10th of February.

I have not yet read Tashari, but I did read Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter  (2008) recently. The novel tells the story of a young woman, Zeina Benham, who is born in Baghdad, grows up in Detroit, then returns to Iraq as a translator in 2003. The story begins at the end, when Zeina has returned and is attempting to write down her experience:

I see myself on the screen, a disillusioned saint carrying her belongings in a khaki backpack, wearing a hard helmet and dusty boots and walking behind soldiers who raise the victory sign despite their defeat. Where have I come across this scene before? Was it not also there in Iraq, in a past age, in another life? Are defeated armies bred on the fertile land between the two rivers?

In the first few chapters, Zeina describes her life in Detroit, and her thoughts after the government announces the need for Arab translators for the invasion of Iraq. Lured by the promise of financial security, she accepts this as “the price of [her] precious language, the price of [her] blood” and applies for the job. She then has to face the reactions of the Arab immigrant community, people who live in “the rotting wooden houses of Seven Miles”:

There were those who offered encouragement…and those who looked away, spitting warnings against the betrayals of the land from whose Tigris and Euphrates we had drunk, even if it was for the good of our new land that poured us Coca-Cola morning and night.

She goes on to relate her arrival in Iraq and describes meeting her grandmother Rahma again. Rahma’s story converges with that of Zeina, a story of an elderly woman who was left behind in Iraq when her children emigrated, saying her prayers for her dispersed children and to unknown grandchildren:

Virgin Mary, mother of beloved Jesus, preserve what’s left of my health and protect me from falling. You are my friend, Maryam, my kind ally and my companion in my loneliness…I ask you to include our dead in your mercy, O tender one, and to bless my children and my grandchildren and those still living of my loved ones: Kamel and Siham and their children in New Zealand, Jammuli and Sonson and Tamara and the little one whose name I cannot pronounce; Batoul and her husband in America, and their children Yazan and Zeina; the children of my late brother Dawood: Liqaa and Saad in Syria, Samer in Dubai, Youssef, Sabah and Ruwaida in Canada; and bless my sister Ghazala in Jordan and her children and grandchildren in Sweden, London and I don’t know where.

This scene reminded me of a scene in Michel Khleifi’s documentary The Fertile Memory (al-Dhakira al-khisba, 1980):

fertile memory – michel k’hleifi from Takriv Net on Vimeo.

Once Zeina returns to Baghdad, Rahma tries to convince her to say, unable to understand why her family would accept living under “foreign skies.”

After we had all left the country and flown away from under her wing, her saints were all that remained under her power. She told me once she was looking in her prayer booklets for the name of the patron saint of migrants and couldn’t find it.

“Do you want to ask him to take care of us?” I asked.

“No, I want to denounce you to him and implore him to remove his protective cloak and leave you all to stand exposed under foreign skies, for only then might reason return to your heads and return you to me.”

Rahma welcomes her granddaughter Zeina back, before she realizes that she has arrived “riding on the back of tanks.” Her grandmother then attempts to use the stories she heard growing up as a way to bring Zeina back to her:

I don’t know what gave her the idea that my family history would redeem me. She would use it to put me back on the righteous path and to correct the directions of my compass. The stories she told me mirror the history of the homeland.

Zeina listens to those stories but recognize that there is a “missing link,” that she is “a stranger even to my grandmother.”

I rested my head in her lap and let her tell me her stories that were steeped in the scent of Iraq. She delved deep into her memory for anecdotes and other means of explanation. She told me of my family’s history that was manifest everywhere around us…I drank her stories in but they didn’t quench my thirst. There was a missing link somewhere, and it wasn’t my grandmother’s job to find it, but mine.

Later on in the novel, she feels that she has to become the child of her own history, and to fully come to terms with that history:

It is my history, whether I like it or not. It was mine even before I was born. I am its legitimate child, no matter how foreign I may seem. How dare she, that gullible writer, think that I’ll just hand over my inheritance to her, even if that inheritance is nothing but a tattered piece of nationalism, good for nothing, a handful of coins in a currency that went out of circulations a long time ago?

“That gullible writer” is the figure who keeps intruding on Zeina’s narrative, attempting to turn her writing into a patriotic novel. There are only a few passing references to this figure however, as Sinan Antoon points out in an insightful review in Jadaliyya:

In a promising twist early on in the novel, Kachachi’s protagonist revolts against the author and takes over the narration in order to resist the author’s attempts to “write a patriotic novel.” (34) “I am stronger than her and I almost pity her naïveté and patriotism,” (36) she tells us. This fissure could have been far more productive for the narrative had Kachachi delved deeper into the tension between the two, but a few passing statements notwithstanding, she never does. The two remain neatly separated and stick to alternating narration, but at least the character is a bit more believable than the author who is too rigid and doesn’t evolve psychologically or politically despite the experience in Iraq.

The two “writers” battle between themselves, a reflection of Zeina’s divided loyalties:

“A dog with two homes” was how Tawoos described me when I returned from Detriot to Baghdad. I couldn’t get me old life back, and I couldn’t adapt to my life in the Zone. I was a dog with two homes but unable to feel at home in either.

Even before her arrival in Iraq, Zeina is always switching between languages and aware of her multiple identities, an important aspect of the novel as translation comes to be symbolic of her role as cultural mediator.

English remained the language of the street, work and the news. We would contort our jawbones and speak it the moment we stepped outside the house. Our cars took us and our English around from street to street and from mall to mall. Then they brought us back to the zinc-covered garages in front of the house, where changed language again and slipped indoors.

During the invasion of Iraq, this division between the American Zeina and the Arab Zeina collapses:

I collapsed into myself as I watched Baghdad being bombed and the columns of smoke rising after each American attack….I told that other who was also me that there were terrified children and innocent civilians dying…scenes of men running to escape death, and of boys yellow-faced with panic but waving victory signs to the cameras all the same.

Once she becomes an interpreter, this division becomes more heightened as Zeina feels herself becoming another person:

I put on the helmet with the patterned net and the mirror sunglasses and turned from a slightly built, dark-skinned woman into an alien from outer space. The aliens moved around in groups, rode in Hummers and carried the latest guns. Everything in the street made way, pedestrians and ambulances and horse-drawn carriages. People watering their gardens shrunk back into their houses. The scene froze while our convoy drove past, like someone had pressed the pause button. boys squeezed the brakes on their bicycles and stopped with one foot on the ground. Cars stuck to the dusty edge of the road. Pedestrians stood still. It was as if everyone was observing a minute’s silence. Who were they mourning?

The sense of distance is captured in a conversation Zeina has with a detainee:

One time when the officer went out and left me alone with an elderly detainee, he faked a gentlemanly smile and asked me, where is sister from?

I’m American.

But your accent is from Baghdad.

Right, I was born in Baghdad.

And why do you work with the occupiers of Baghdad?

I cut the conversation short. “You’re not allowed to speak when the officer is not present.”

Disturbed by the anonimity that the uniform gives her, Zeina attempts to “be both,” to switch between her identites as she had done in Detroit:

I tried to be both but failed. I took off the khaki and put on the abaya and went to the market in Karada…I talked to the shopkeeper and teased him in his own accent. He looked at me and smiled encouragingly, like I was some foreign orientalist.

Kachaci, herself an emigrant since the 1970s, is at her most eloquent when she speaks about migration and the life led by Arab refugees and exiles in the West:

I’d seen them at weddings in Detriot and Chicago and San Diego, the immigrants who still hung by an umbilical cord to their motherland, ready to sway their heads and shed a tear with the first tune of a patriotic song. If you lose a homeland, where will you find another? They seemed to secretly enjoy this heartache. Oh birds in the sky, fly to my people. Why had they come to America then? Why had they come with Iraq smuggled in their pockets like a drug that they couldn’t quit?

Zeina is sympathetic to this nostalgia but is unable to take on the nationalist fervour of “TV politicians and dinosaur nationalists,” the kind of loyalty Rahma wants her to feel, the “blind Bedouin patriotism that celebrated with gunshots when she saw me taking my brother’s side against my cousin, and my cousin’s side against a stranger.” Zeina tries to argue with her milk brother Muhaymen, who believes that “emigration was like captivity: both left you suspended between two lives, with no comfort in moving on or turning back”. She tries to convince him that “in this day and age, migration was a form of settling, that belonging didn’t necessarily come from staying in one’s birthplace,” that the “whole world can be your homeland. Haven’t you heard the expression citizen of the world?” But this affirmative sense of a positive cosmopolian identity cannot be sustained, it is instead a brief moment which is drowned out by the conflicts and tensions of life in Baghdad, where funerals have become “daily routine, no different from going to the cinema in happier lands”, with the list of the dead continously getting longer: “Talib Shannoun, Hassan Abdul-Amir,  Muzaffar Al-Shatry, Qais, Hatif, Raad and Abdul-hussein Al-Nadaf…Brian and Jessica and Michael.”

By the end, having returned to Detroit, Zeina can only think about preserving her grandmother Rahma’s memories:

How are we supposed to preserve the living memories of the dead? If we let their experiences go with them to the grave, they’re lost to us for good. And then we must go back to the start and get out fingers burned as we relearn everything. we crawl like infants and walk into things but insist that we know it all. We rely on mystics and novelists to tell us our own history. There’s no memory bank for this kind of data….In a science fiction version of my life, I’d plug a memory stick into my grandmother’s head, copy her memory onto it, then plug it into my own temple and click Copy and Paste. Within seconds her wisdom and experience would be transfered to my brain. What do we call this gadget in Arabic again? The keeper of memory?

The very last line extends the sentimentalism of this passage, with Zina writing “I will say, like my father, let my right hand forget me if I forget thee O Baghdad,” a line which echoes the verse from the Bible: “If I forget you O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget” (Psalms 137:5). The novel ends on this nostalgic line, a few passages after the recognition that all that Zeina can do is to write her story, her own way:

I arranged a roadside bomb for the writer. I killed her off before she could kill me. Now I’m sitting along, in front of my screen, finishing my story.

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