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Sophie Richter-Devroe reviews
Die Reise nach Tell al-Lahm
by Najem Wali
Translated from the Arabic by Imke Ahlf-Wien
Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2004
Iraq under dictatorship: A big brothel
In September last year, Najem Wali’s novel Die Reise nach Tell al-Lahm [The Journey to Tell al-Lahm] was published in German, just in time for the Frankfurt Book Fair. The book has caused an eager debate not only in the Arab world, where the book is banned in five countries, but also in the German press – it is different from most Arabic literature today.
“If you want to generalise, than I am describing Iraq as a big brothel”, states Najem Wali, who has lived in exile in Germany since 1980. It is no wonder the book has caused such a strong reaction. With a sharp and critical view, and without shying away from taboos, the author describes Iraq under Saddam’s dictatorship, a country constantly torn apart by war. The novel is a painful and bitter portrait of a society cast by violence into a hopeless mire of corruption, betrayal and hypocrisy.
Yet, Najem Wali’s Journey to Tell al-Lahm is also a story full of action, irony and miracles. It resembles a “road” film, featuring the two protagonists, Najem and Ma’ali, driving in a stolen Mercedes towards the miraculous town of Tell al-Lahm in southern Iraq. They are chasing their partners, Wajiha and Asiyad Luti, who ran off together whilst Najem was a serving soldier in the Kuwait war.
On the journey they reveal their stories to one other, along with those of their partners, their friends and enemies – and gradually, just like Sheherazade’s stories in the Thousand and One Nights, these fragments begin to come together and the characters become familiar. The reader encounters strange personalities such as a mother who reads with her nose, and Ma’ali’s husband Asiyad Luti, a modest man who manages to rise to fame under the totalitarian regime by taming cocks, climbing palm trees and catching the giant jassaniya fish, a symbol of the Shatt al-Arab – and the dictator’s favourite dish.
Yet behind these fantastical stories lurks a bitter truth. The hideaway of the jassaniya fish also functions as a secret deposit for chemical weapons. Prostitution, as part of the five-year plan, has become state policy; the brothels’ madam, Iftaim Pay Day, is well known not only for her beautiful girls but also for her successful abortion techniques. Behind every story is another, and no one is who they pretend to be.
Finally arriving in Tell al-Lahm, Najem and Ma’ali discover the same grotesque society: people uprooted by war, wandering without aim or ambition from the “Hotel of the Helpless” to the “Café of Hope”, telling stories that merge reality and fiction. Deprived of hope, trust and love, everyone’s identity is a cause for suspicion and doubt. In the end, not even Ma’ali seems to be herself.
It is thus only the bizarre little stories which remain, lending meaning to the meaningless and disorienting time of war when things happen that no one could have thought possible. In an ironic and burlesque style, the author strings these stories together and juxtaposes the tragic with the comical. This may provoke critics to denounce it as macabre, and of little help in informing readers about the realities of life in modern Iraq, but “seeing the reality as a burlesque”, as the author states, “can help us to find fresh hope. It entertains and captivates the reader, whilst its mockery shocks us and raises new questions”.
The Journey to Tell al-Lahm might not be a story based on fact, but it helps the reader to understand the facts. It is a fantastical story and yet, at the same time, with its deep and sensitive insights, it is decidedly real.