2000 - 2007 Books in Translation

Absent – Betool Khedairi

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.


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



2008 Non Fiction

The Weight of a Mustard Seed – Wendell Steavenson

The Weight of a Mustard Seed attempts to discover why ordinary people were driven to commit evil acts under the orders of Saddam Hussein. The author,  Wendell Steavenson, is a journalist who travelled to Iraq many times between 2002 and 2005 interviewing the friends and family of General Kamel Sachet; a decorated hero of the Iran-Iraq war and a man favoured by Saddam Hussein. She tried to discover what motivated Sachet and his colleagues and how his actions affected his family.  

The book is a fascinating insight into the lives of both ordinary Iraqis and members of the military. All the people were brought to life and I found myself having great sympathy for everyone in the book, despite the horrendous acts many of them committed. Wendell’s ability to make me see things from their perspective was impressive.

‘You chose to be a part of it,’ I told him. ‘You could have resigned, you could have gone to live in the country like your cousin.’
‘One of my American debriefers asked me the same question. He asked me why I continued to fight against the Americans. I told him it had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. It’s hard for you to understand, but it was a matter of military honour, being part of a country and within that comes your loyalty to your high command.

The Weight of a Mustard Seed was very readable and although there were some descriptions of violence I never felt that it went over the top. The modern history of Iraq was well described, although as the book wasn’t written in chronological order I got a bit confused occasionally.

The book contained many examples of psychological experiments which explained why people behave as they do under the pressure of war. Unfortunately I was already aware of all of these and so these sections were irrelevant for me. If you are interested in finding out about them then some of the experiments are summarised in this post: The Ten Most Revealing Psych Experiments

I highly recommend this book as an introduction to the psychology of war, but if you have read a lot of books on the subject you may find it too basic.

Everyone seemed to enjoy this one:

…one of the most interesting, engaging, horrifying and moving non fiction books that I have ever read. Savidge Reads

…an accessible book for those wanting to read a factual book about Iraq. Novel Insights

This is a powerful, well-written and moving account… Reading Matters


2008 Memoirs

My Father’s Paradise – Ariel Sabar

Winner of National Book Critics Circle Award: Best Biography 2008

I bought this book after reading Violet’s review. I don’t read much non-fiction, but this one sounded too good to miss! 

My Father’s Paradise is written by journalist, Ariel Sabar, who decides to use his investigative skills to trace the history of his father, a man born in a remote part of Kurdish Iraq. His father is one of the last native speakers of neo-aramaic, an ancient language which has almost disappeared due to population migration. Ariel Sabar decides to do everything he can to record the language and traditions of his ancestors, before they are lost forever.

The start of the book reads almost like fiction, telling the story of his father’s life growing up in a small village. I loved this section! In many ways I wish the whole book had continued in this style (perhaps because I prefer to read fiction), but also because I found the sense of community in the village heart warming. I could feel Ariel’s love for the traditions shining through the text.

As time passes the book starts to bring in more historical facts, explaining the political situation in Iraq and why his father, a Kurdish Jew, had to flee to Israel. Some parts of the book book felt a bit dry, but in reality I needed these facts to fully understand what was happening.

The book then went on to describe their life in America and how they set to work recording the language and folklore of the Kurdish Jews. His father became a famous professor, internationally renowned for his work on aramaic text. It was amazing to see how much one man’s life had changed, but I found I was far more interested in his early life than his work in the University. I think this is summed up nicely by the words of Ariel’s father:

The more a society advances in a technical and material way, the more its people grow complicated and distant from one another.

Overall, this was a fascinating book but I wish Ariel Sabar would write another one, focusing only on life in 1930s Iraq.

If you’d like to learn more about this book then I recommend that you watch this Interview with Ariel Sabar.