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The American Granddaughter
By Inaam Kachachi
Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, www.bqfp.com.qa
. . . If I should ever forget you, Baghdad
There are many books about Iraq, many novels, many accounts written by the soldiers who have served in the US Army in Iraq and Afganistan, but there is only one book that brings out insights of the contradictions of such conflicts today, only one book that is so thought-provoking that everyday realities described on its pages and its storylines will resonate with you for ever.
The American Granddaughter (Al-Hadifa al-Amerikiyya, Dar el- Jadid, 2008), the latest novel by Paris-based Iraqi journalist and writer Inaam Kachachi, relates a story of a young Iraqi-American woman Zeina who joins US occupation forces in Iraq as a translator. Pragmatic, and attracted by a generous salary package, as well as longing to get to know her motherland which she was forced to leave behind as teenager, Zeina’s experience working in the Green Zone turns out to be filled with both self-discovery and trauma. Zeina’s journey is a personal one and innocent; beginning with a single mother wanting to provide a better life for her son and ageing parents and a young woman wanting to re-establish family ties with her homeland and hometown of Baghdad. After her arrival to Iraq, Zeina soon realizes that her journey is becoming more political than intended: her grandmother is ashamed of her work, seeing it as a betrayal and sets herself a personal project of re-educating her granddaughter. Zeina feels hurt by her grandmother’s judgment as well as by the rising conflicts with family friends: her nanny Tawoos and her milk brothers Haydar and Muhaymen. The relationship with Muhaymen becomes particularly sensitive after he joins the Mahdi Army whose plotting against the US occupation forces intensifies. Zeina, who remains neutral to the politics and also sees the other side of the coin while many of her comrades die in ambushes in Mosul or Sadr City, cannot understand why her own family is turning against her.
Kachachi illustrates paradoxes of Zeina’s daily life in Iraq with brilliant self-explanatory situations.When Zeina wants to visit her grandmother in her house in Bagdad, the US army soldiers have to stage a raid on Rahma’s house in order to protect the grandmother from possible local attacks on the grounds of her granddaughter being involved with the occupying forces. During her visit, Zeina tries on an Iraqi military uniform that used to belong to her grandfather who was a proud officer in the Iraqi Army, while the US soldiers accompanying her for the visit wait next door for the pretended raid to end.
As the end of Zeina’s translating contract in Iraq approaches, she becomes more disillusioned. Her grandmother dies, and Zeina returns to Detroit in deep sadness and sorrow. She went to Iraq thinking she would take part in a noble historic cause, seeing her journey as a wonderful opportunity to rediscover her homeland, but she returns feeling nothing but anger, despair and trauma.And indeed, on the last page of the novel Zeina repeats her father’s saying: “I’d give my right hand if I should ever forget you, Baghdad.”
The novel is beautifully written in a language that is literary yet very accessible and representative of the language spoken by young generations today. Skillfully translated by Nariman Youssef, the English edition of The American Granddaughter is a welcome addition to Arabic literature in translation from the recently established Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing.