The Sirens of Baghdad: A Novel by Yasmina Khadra

from the Guardian

Sirens of Baghdad is a novel of the current Iraq war. The nameless narrator is a Bedouin, from Kafr Karam, “a village lost in the sands of the Iraqi desert, a place so discreet that it often dissolves in mirages, only to emerge at sunset”. His studies at the University of Baghdad were terminated by the invasion, as, he explains, was much else: “From one day to the next, the most passionate love affairs dissolved in tears and blood. The university was abandoned to vandals, and my dreams were destroyed, too.” So he returns to his village, where for the novel’s first third Khadra beautifully evokes a scorched quietude, the village so far untouched by the occupation, as it had been by the previous dictatorship, symbolised by “the party’s community antenna, inaugurated amid fanfare 30 years previously and fallen into disrepair for lack of ideological conviction”. Satirical scenes of political arguments among the elders in the barber shop alternate with explanations of the complex structures of kinship, insult and reconciliation, studded with laconic sensuous evocation: “It was about 11 o’clock, and the sun sprinkled false oases all over the plain. A couple of birds flapped their wings against the white-hot sky.”

All at once, the war comes to Kafr Karam. A group of men are taking the village’s mentally disabled young man, Sulayman, to a clinic because he has hurt himself. Their car is stopped by US soldiers, and Sulayman tries to run away. In a brutal scene, he is riddled with bullets. Next, a wedding party is bombed from the air. “The guests were having a good time,” one witness says, “and then the chairs and tables blew away, like in a windstorm.” Finally, a group of GIs conduct a night raid on the narrator’s own house, perpetrating an unforgivable humiliation on his aged father. According to Bedouin tradition, this insult must be “washed away in blood”, so the narrator decides to travel to Baghdad and join an Islamist cell planning an attack on London.

To direct a novel’s narrator into a conspiratorial, mass-murdering mindset when not even halfway through is a brave strategy. We stay in his head as he begins work in an electronics shop that is a front for explosives distribution, right up until the critical point of his mission. Meanwhile, there are other voices pondering various sides of the question of violence.

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