Judith Kazantzis reviews


by Shimon Ballas

translated from the Hebrew
by Ammiel Alcalay and Oz Shelach
City Lights Books 2007
$13.95, £9.99.

The chasms and jumps of haunted memory

This novel is the secret memoir of the fictional Haroun Soussan. Soussan is an Iraqi Jew born in al-Hila before “the Great War”. By 1979-80 in the looming shadow of another bloody war, Saddam’s war against Iran, Soussan’s public face is that of the quietly successful and respected civil servant, a retired civil engineer formerly in charge of a major government department. More, the President has just crowned his years of work as a self-taught historian with an award for Soussan’s great work The Jews In History, on which he is acknowledged as the leading authority. The reason for his success and indeed the reason for his private ‘confessions’, as he dubs these tortuous, moving accounts of a lifelong loneliness, spring from the same source. Slowly in the telling Saussan comes to terms with remorse; he reaches a point where he can stand up for what he believes, in the simple sense he has always admired in his boyhood friend the communist ex peasant Qassem. For the moment he is not ashamed or afraid of attack any more, either on his origins as a Jew or on his youthful conversion to Islam.

The painful circumstances of this conversion many years ago have marked him for life. He is expelled from his family and community. Finally he loses his closest boyhood friend, Assad, a middle-class Jew like Haroun. Warm-natured, literary, Assad Nissam and his poetry is the complement to Qassem’s fierce, uncompromising and hugely brave life as a Communist who is imprisoned by successive regimes, tortured cruelly by the Shah’s Iran, yet who never betrays his beliefs.

Thus his conversion comes to complete the journey he is on, a lonely bid for a life of his choice. But he stands by it, he is grateful to the wider society that takes him in, as he puts it, and in Islam he sees a religion of reconciliation. Politically he hopes to see a united, independent Iraq as a ‘beacon’, open to the West, yet Islamic; and distinct.

Writing in old age, he has to reassure himself once again that he has devoted his life to a noble idea, a nationalism that would include all Iraq’ s minorities, Jews or Shia, that would end tribal and ethnic squabbles. For now in time present, in 1979-80, in Saddam’s growing tyranny, success brings with it problems. What were minor matters for him in other turbulent times become serious. He is a public figure, no longer Haroun but Ahmad Soussan; still his past sets him apart. His book about the Jews is being ‘maliciously’ attacked as pro revolutionary Iran. Is it possible that the motherland, for which long ago he gave up family and love, will reject him at last?

Through Ahmad/Haroun’s eyes we have feared the rigid heroism of Qassem, who made one kind of choice, and we have silently regretted the choice made by Assad Nissim, who emigrates to Zionist Israel in the fifties. All his life Soussan, as the true civil servant, has kept quiet. He has married again, but for custom, not for love; his steadying old friend Kassem has died. His only consolation now is his daughter Butreina, a young academic whose career he must protect. We leave him at a turning point. Required to write an important forward to the English edition of his book he will use it to state his lifelong credo and take the consequences. In long ignored letters and then in a dream he at last finds a key to his locked up loves, all he put aside; he begins at last to inhabit his own bitterest choices. In crystalline words he defines for himself and us the Islam he believes in: ‘the might of the word, which is wisdom and knowledge’, the only salvation from despotism and zealotry. The most human element of this subtle ending is that Soussan readies himself not only to defend his beliefs, but also in hopes to help Qassem’s young nephew, thrown into prison to punish his exiled uncle. At long last he senses a chance to repair a little the fissure he sees and mourns in the principled careful life stretching behind him, the central fissure between belief and love.

But if the less knowledgeable reader has to take a breath now and again it is because Shimon Ballas has brilliantly succeeded in constructing a feel of the ski slope, chasms, and jumps of haunted memory. Saussan seeks a united and independent Iraq. It is he who finds a certain unity at last, and with it a renewed independence. The conviction of his youth, the belief in a truly united society, is still good, even if the retiring academic life that serves his vision can never save the outcast.

Given these crossings and recrossings of fiction and real life it would have been helpful had City Lights added a half page of the relevant timeline of Soussan’s Iraq. Their editing of this first English edition leaves a few holes; Ballas gives his diarist a fluency which glides between the formal and the pensively emotional, and his translators serve him well. Still there are some minor incoherencies, easily remedied in the editing, and how did the word ‘rein’ come to be spelt ‘reign’?

Fiction and truth being tied together, the original fact is simple: the elderly Soussan is based on a real person, an Iraqi Jew by name of Soussa, a convert to Islam whose writings were used by Saddam, we are told, as a ‘certain kind of propaganda’. Was the character Soussan then a kind of ‘what if’ self, a door into a parallel world for his creator, Shimon Ballas? Shimon Ballas, who will be well known to Banipal readers, is an Iraqi Jew who emigrated (not unlike his character Assad Nissim) to Israel in 1951 at the age of 21 and has since lived as an academic and writer in Haifa, now also in Paris.

Ballas’s own words, in interview with Ammiel Alcalay, open if not the door, at least a window into the making of this ‘memoir’, ‘written’ in Arabic, written and published in Hebrew in 1991, reissued in 2006 and first published in English nearly twenty years after he wrote it (1989-90). His fictional Soussan concludes of his own proposed new Forward to his grand The Jews In History: “It would be my credo in the face of fundamentalist Islam and Zionist aggression.”

Then go to Ballas talking to Alcalay (www.fascicle.com/issue01): “...I came from the Arab environment and I remain in constant colloquy with the Arab environment. I also didn’t change my environment. I just moved from one place to another within it. The whole project of a nationalist conception, of Zionist ideology … all this is quite marginal to me … it’s not part of my cultural world.”

From Banipal 31 - Spring 2008

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