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The Loved Ones
By Alia Mamdouh
Translated by Marilyn Booth
Arabia Books by arrangement with American University of Cairo Press, London and Cairo, 2008. 279 pp.
Sons and Lovers
Suhaila, an Iraqi actor and dancer, lies in a coma in a Paris hospital. She has fled her country during the first Gulf War along with her only child, Nader Adam, a teenager. Her military husband, who had abused her for years, has gone missing - perhaps a prisoner, or one of the anonymous dead.
The novel, winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2004, is an impassioned and lyrical tale of three struggles: between mother and son, enmeshed in the love-hate told so well by D.H. Lawrence; Nader coming to an epiphanic reconciliation through music; and Suhaila – middleaged and ailing with hypertension – recovering the beauty of her inner and outer selves through return to a Paris dance stage in an erotic, seven minute pas de deux.
But then the haemorrhagic stroke, where the story begins. Nader, now married and a father of two-year old Leon, lives in Montreal, and since the birth of the boy has refused to answer his mother’s letters from Paris. It seems (as we learn from Suhaila’s diaries at the end of the book) that there was a psychological struggle between Suhaila and Nader’s wife Sonia (of Persian and Indian descent, therefore it is a “mixed marriage”) for Nader’s soul. No one wins; Nader is also disaffected from Sonia. He must, however, come to Paris at the beseeching of the coterie of women (the ‘Loved Ones’) who adore Suhaila, and who believe only Nader can heal his mother. In the first half of the book we find Nader in a literal sweat with anxiety and fear. The women, an eclectic gathering of several nationalities (Swedish, Lebanese, Iraqi, French), are Nader’s Furies, who then become his Eumenides, guiding him to a reconciliation with his mother who, in fact, does waken from coma a few days after his arrival and bedside vigil.
Presiding over the events (like Glinda, the good sorceress of the Land of Oz) is the beautiful, assured, enigmatic Tessa Hayden – playwright and impresario of the Théâtre du Soleil, who enables Suhaila to achieve her dance epiphany. It is hinted that Tessa is Jewish.
The rhetoric of the book is unremitting: intense emotion, lyrical expressions of eros and desire, hysterical outbursts, rages, and deep bonding between the women. Indeed, even Nader is rather feminine: a former lover tells him not to shave, he is too sweet otherwise; his mother says: “Inside of you I see a mother, a sister.” Three other men have walk-on roles: Hitam, husband of one of Suhaila’s friends is ‘Gentle Ben’ personified, soothing every gathering with his beautiful singing; Ken, the too-wise Vietnamese helper; and Faw, the Iraqi dancer partnering (and perhaps loving) Suhaila.
The story is told in overlapping remembrances, layered conversations, and reminiscences from Suhaila’s diaries. I was impatient with the latter, which sounded more often like the author’s voice, expository rather than emanating from the characters themselves. Ultimately, the story is about Iraq where, says one friend: “We incur big emotion-debts” to be passed on, especially to children.