The ambiguities of Iraqi identity
Nazek Fahmy, Friday 2 Aug 2019

Published in 2018, Al-Nabiza (The Outcast) is Iraqi novelist and journalist Inaam Kachachi’s fourth novel.

Three of Kachachi’s four novels — this one included — were shortlisted for the Arabic Booker. Despite having lived and worked in France for decades, Kachachi has made her native Iraq her subject matter, her passion and her cause.

An octogenarian with a frail body but a robust memory, Taj Al-Moulouk Abdel-Majid is in a military hospital in Paris. In a nearby room is the dying Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria, who, having fallen on hard times, is now being treated by his former enemies, the French. Unbeknown to himself, Ben Bella owes his life to Abdel-Majid, his hospital inmate but at one time an imposing spy, with the authentic French name of Martine Champion, for the French government.

Holding the threads of the Algerian freedom fighter’s life in her hands, she claims to have saved him from an assassination attempt in Cairo, many years before. This event, along with similar surprises, expressed through ironic and bizarre twists and turns, historical and geographic, are the hallmarks of this novel.

Abdel-Majid is an enchantress, a woman who could easily ensnare men, and just as easily reinvent herself. Teasingly identifying herself as “an Iranian from Baghdad” and being the daughter of a Quran chanter, Abdel-Majid is humble in her origins, but in the course of her rise to dreamlike levels of power, she picks up many languages, language being a forceful signifier of identity. To her robust Arabic, peppered with the Iraqi vernacular, she adds Persian, Assyrian, Kurdish, Turkish, a little Armenian and eventually perfect French. Thus her clashing loyalties are sounded early on.

Wryly described as a “demonic saint”, she is daughter, step-daughter, wife, mother and grandmother, but also nude model, journalist, radio announcer, consort and spy. To the power of a beautiful face, she adds a slick tongue and an eloquent pen. Courting danger at every turn, she treats life as an exciting death ride, playing many roles but succumbing to none.

The shifting and ever-changing political scene of Iraq is her launch pad. Kachachi tries to shed light on many of the historical characters and events that eventually become totally eclipsed by the turbulent times of the Saddam Hussein years and their aftermath.

From the forgotten annals of Iraqi history, she resurrects unpopular treaties inflaming the masses, royals butchered in cold blood, communists imprisoned or executed amidst a seemingly endless succession of coups. With a life lived parallel to that of 20-century Iraq, Abdel-Majid comes of age during the monarchical phase.

Familiar with several members of the 20th Hashemite dynasty, she is bewitched by Prince Regent Abdullah, and in turn becomes the protégée of prime minister and notorious ally of the British Nouri Al-Said, nicknamed Al-Pasha, who eventually becomes her guru. Raw politics sweep the country like wildfire: court life is succeeded by revolutions and bloody coups and thereupon wars and party politics, arrests and assassinations, public hangings and brutal executions become everyday facts.

Ambiguous and overlapping identities define this narrative, and the life of Abdel-Majid is entangled with that of Wedyan Al-Malaah, 40 years her junior. A tenuous and at times conflicting mother-daughter surrogate relationship binds them.

Unlike Abdel-Majid, Al-Malaah is a jilted, hard of hearing Iraqi musician who leads a life of emotional dearth; hers is a twisted psyche, stained by jealousy and subtle rivalries. If Abdel-Majid represents the exotic but slippery history of Iraq, Al-Malaah, made half deaf by torture at the hands of security forces, represents the anxiety and defeatism of the Saddam years.

In turn, this female dichotomy spins out into the fortunes of a Palestinian man, Mansour Al-Badi, who weaves in the frustrations and many woes of the Arab world at large, at the forefront of which is naturally the Nakba.

But even the Arab world is eventually transcended. Pakistan to the east and Venezuela to the west, representatives of nations, sarcastically referred to as countries blissfully happy with the repertoire of military coups, widen the circle of public actions set off by futile private quests.

This racy narrative confuses time and transcends the boundaries of space. With many shifting scenes and entangled loyalties, it walks us through the history of Iraq, the Arab world and even the world at large. Beyond Nasser and Bourguiba, the arm of history reaches as far afield as World War II, Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt, even Mohamed Ali Jinnah, Simon Bolivar and Hugo Chavez.

Politics may be the primary focus but vibrant culture, in all its manifestations, is also in high relief. The list is inexhaustible: music, popular and classical, painters and painting and other visual arts, sports, even film and movie stars.

As always, the cherry on the pie is the Iraqi constellation of poetry and poets. As in the rest of the narrative, we smoothly move from the national to the regional and eventually to the global.

Topping the well-used convention of personal papers and photographs as an inroad to memory with staggered chronology, merging identities and metafiction, this well-researched narrative is a challenging read. It is a self-consciously crafted but elliptical story that engages the reader in many literary games. It is dense and informative, multi-voiced and panelled.

Existential struggles of self-love, of treachery, of notoriety, of fame and fortune are well served by masks and masquerades, code names, and cross dressing. All conflicts are played out on the emotional high ground of life. Kachachi’s latest ​creation Al Nabiza is an intense novel about national pride.

But this is national pride with a humanist flavour, at once familiar and remote.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline:The ambiguities of Iraqi identity