Absent – Betool Khedairi

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Absent Translated from the Arabic by Muhayman Jamil

Five words from the blurb: Baghdad, apartment, bombings, arrests, honey

Absent is set in a crowded Baghdad apartment building and follows the lives of the residents as they endure bombings, arrests and the international sanctions of the 1990s. The central character is Dalal, a young woman who was abandoned at birth. Living with her aunt and uncle the three manage to avoid the worst of the poverty by taking up beekeeping. This book does a fantastic job of explaining the difficulties faced by Iraqi citizens,  as well as providing a fascinating insight into the problems of setting up a honey production business.

I join her at the window to share her amazement. The smoke from the bombing over the past few weeks has combined with the rain from last night, painting bars of loathsome solution everywhere. The local weather forecasters failed to predict the sudden downpour. Its smell is like a mixture of burnt engine oil and the stench of a rat that had died a while ago.

The book begins with a series of short passages, each describing a different unrelated scene. It was a bit like reading several short stories that happened to be set in the same place and I struggled to connect with it. It took about 40 pages for everything to become clear and for me to begin to bond with the characters, but once I’d managed to fit the pieces of the jigsaw together I was hooked.

I never formed an emotional connection to the characters, but I was intrigued by their lives; curious as to what would happen to them all. The writing/translation was of a very high standard and I loved the way that gentle humor was sprinkled throughout the text to lighten the mood.

My edition of the book also contains a short postscript, explaining the author’s motivations for writing the book. This added an extra dimension to the text and made me feel especially lucky to live in such a safe country.

This can never be described as an enjoyable book, but it is an important one. Recommended to anyone who wants a greater understanding of what the ordinary citizens of Baghdad had to endure at the end of the 20th century.

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How did I hear about this fantastic little book? Come back tomorrow and I’ll explain all!

 

 


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5 Comments

  1. Tortoisebook says:

    Aha, I was looking at Arabic fiction earlier today as it is something I’d like to get into whilst I live in the Middle East. This book looks fascinating so I will check it out. I’d be interested to know whether anyone else can recommend any English translations of Arabic books.

    1. Jackie says:

      TortoiseBook, I’m afraid I haven’t read many translations from the Arabic. The only other one I can recommend is Palace Walk: http://www.farmlanebooks.co.uk/2010/palace-walk-naguib-mahfouz/

      Hopefully someone else will be able to help you here later.

  2. This one sounds really interesting, but it worries me that you were not able to connect with the characters. I have a hard time enjoying a book if I don’t have someone to connect with.

  3. Amy says:

    This book sounds powerful and fascinating, Jackie. Although I like to connect with the characters, if they and their lives are interesting and the narrative is well-written, I’ve found that I don’t miss the connection as much. I have also found this to be especially true when I’m reading books set in other countries with characters living lives vastly different from my own. I’m reading Sea of Poppies right now and having similar issues with the characters.

    I’m intrigued by the setting of this book and by the beekeeping which is fascinating. I’ve read a few books that describe and discuss beekeeping, it’s so interesting.

    Thanks for a terrific review, Jackie!

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, I had the same issue as you with the characters in Sea of Poppies. There were some scenes which were interesting enough to carry it off (especially in the beginning) but I’m afraid boats don’t appeal to me that much and so I failed to enjoy most of the second half of that book. Luckily Absent doesn’t have that problem – there were enough bee facts and information about life in Iraq to hold my interest.

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