BEIRUT: That tired old adage about literature in the Arab world - Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads - may carry more caustic bitterness than sweet nostalgia these days, especially among those who self-critically consider the region's cultural production to be at an all-time low. But a spate of newly published novels and first-time translations promises to give interested, English-language readers their fill of Iraqi fiction this summer. Ranging from philosophical treatise to magical realist tract, and racked throughout with humor, the writers behind these books suggest that while the country is falling apart, its literature is holding fast. Poet and filmmaker Sinan Antoon's highly anticipated novel "I'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody," about a young student thrown into solitary confinement for ridiculing Saddam Hussein, is just out in English translation from City Lights, with an introduction by Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury. Come September, the writer Alia Mamdouh, known for her daring portrayals of female sexuality, will see her novel "The Loved Ones" published by the Feminist Press, with an introduction by Helene Cixious, the prolific French critical theorist who wrote "The Laugh of the Medusa," among other landmark texts.
In between, Saqi Books and the American University in Cairo Press have published three very different novels that delve into the complexity of the Iraqi experience by casting three very different cities as virtual flesh-and-blood characters.
Maged Kadar's "From Baghdad to Bedlam" is less a fully formed novel than a thinly veiled memoir. But in the same style as Samuel Shimon's uproarious and rollicking book "An Iraqi in Paris," the twists and turns of Kadar's life are so surreal that his story reads, most of the time, like riveting fiction.
"From Baghdad to Bedlam" opens in the summer of 1987. The author is in London working as a cab driver. His dedication to the daily news coverage of the war raging in his country borders on alarming obsession. Kadar is, reluctantly, on the verge of commemorating the seven-year anniversary of both the Iran-Iraq war and his troubled marriage to a Liverpudlian. Unable to bear his wife's diet of tranquilizers and soap operas, his children's inability to speak Arabic or the lurking suspicion that he abandoned his family when they needed him most, Kadar bunkers down in his memory.
He writes of his childhood in the village of Al-Hay, near the River Gharraf and an ancient Mesopotamian canal system. He recalls coffee rituals and diwan gatherings and - in vivid detail - the shock of his circumcision. He remembers long-buried grudges between neighbors, his early schooling and his army days, when he and his friends dug their way out of their training camp to catch Charlie Chaplin films at the Babel Cinema, sure to attract the best-looking girls in Baghdad.
He courses through the last years of Iraqi monarchy and a succession of military coups. When he is arrested for having long hair, Kadar realizes its time to go. He wrangles a student visa and leaves for London. "Little did I know that it would be three wars and 20 more years before I saw my family again."
The story drifts to Liverpool and back to London, but as a narrator dwelling largely in the mental space of his memory, Kadar never strays far from home. The Baghdad of the book's title - where Kadar spent his days of being wild - is necessarily different from the one to which he returns. But as the novel ends on a historical pivot - with Iraq under sanctions and Saddam Hussein's thumb, before the US-led invasion of 2003 - Kadar offers a fleeting glimpse of what could have been less tragic that today's truth.
Dramatically different in style is Mohammed Khudayyir's "Basrayatha: Portrait of a City," in which the author - who is in the minority among Iraqi novelists whose work is available in English in that he still lives in Iraq - creates an imaginative twin to match the city of Basra.
Originally published in Arabic in 1996, "Basrayatha" produces an invented city through words, stories, experiences, snapshots, retold folk tales and recycled literary references. Khudayyir's language swirls in circular rather than linear patterns, though he often falls into dissertation mode, footnotes and all. He lurches from Michel Foucault to Al-Jahiz in theorizing his approach to the city of his birth. Like Constantine Cavafy on Alexandria or Mike Davis on Los Angeles, Khudayyir is a literary urbanist writing a love letter to his home town.
But the strongest influence that underpins the Basra missives is Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities." Like Calvino, Khudayyir tells one story after another. He offers autobiographical anecdotes, lengthy descriptions of place, a war diary told as "morning airs" and "nocturnes." But in the end he is telling just one story about a city that hovers between physical reality and the author's mind.
"None of us can imagine a city without a storyteller or a storyteller without a rostrum," Khudayyir writes. "This city has no history until time clothes it with the cloak of events. You begin its history wherever you wish by pulling from its cloak a thread with which to weave an incident or narrative ... I cannot imagine in Basrayatha a storyteller without a rostrum or a citizen without a loom. The rostrum and the loom are the secret emblems of this city."
More experimental is Fadhil al-Azzawi's "The Last of the Angels," set in the city of Kirkuk in the 1950s. Azzawi, a noted poet who has lived in Germany since the 1970s, spins an intertwined story about three characters - Hameed Nylon, who gets canned by the British-run Iraqi Petroleum Company and becomes a labor organizer and communist agitator; his brother-in-law Khidir Musa, who leaves Iraq from the Soviet Union and returns a man of great wealth; and Burhan Abdullah, the novel's hero, who finds a trunk full of angels in the attic of his family's home and who may or may not be falsely named a prophet.
Azzawi bounces from one narrative to another, picking up a character and running with his story for a few pages, then setting him aside for another. At times the technique recalls Abdelrahman Munif's masterful "Cities of Salt," but in the end Azzawi jumps off the deep end into a deep pool of magical realism. Burhan, after 46 years in exile, suddenly finds himself back in Kirkuk. "Here you return, carrying your old age in your heart to a city that knew you only as a child," he tells himself. "He was not even able to weep."
In this dream version of the city, he encounters a false spring (cue Ernest Hemmingway's "A Moveable Feast") and a book of ledgers that furiously writes its own history as Burhan reads it (cue Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude.") Kirkuk has become a city of accumulated wars, dictators and corpses. Even the dead do battle, Azzawi writes. The ancient dead hate the less ancient dead. The 18th century dead despise the 19th century dead. Burhan, in the end, only hopes to find the last of the living.
Mohammed Khudayyir's "Basrayatha: Portrait of a City," translated by William M. Hutchins, is out now from AUC Press. Maged Kadar's "From Baghdad to Bedlam: An Immigrant's Tale," written in collaboration with Noel d'Abo, is out now from Saqi Books. Fadhil al-Azzawi's "The Last of the Angels," also translated by Hutchins, is out now from AUC Press