Escape & Return in the Iraqi Fiction of Exile ~ الهروب والعودة في القصة العراقية

أنغام عبد الله

لوحة ليلى نورس

ملخّص:
أحاول في هذا المقال أن أستكشف جوانب رواية “شبّاك زبيدة” للكاتبة العراقية إقبال القزويني/ رواية المنفى العراقي (2008).
تعيش بطلة الرواية زبيدة في المنفى بعد أن نجت من الحروب لتكون شاهدة على تاريخ العنف الذي شهده العراق، وذلك من خلال السرد. وتتجلّى صدمة الشخصية المحوريّة من خلال أحلام اليقظة وذكريات الماضي والجوانب التي كثيراً ما تتخلّلها صور الحرب الحيّة التي يعرضها التلفاز ممّا يدفعها لمواجهة حقيقة وحدتها وحزنها على وطنها المكلوم. وشيئاً فشيئاً تدرك زبيدة أنَّ عزلتها في غربتها وذاكرتها هما أشدّ وقعاً عليها من ألم الحرب وصور الحاضر التي تشاهدها من شاشة تلفازها في شقّتها الصغيرة في برلين.

Angham A. Abdullah

Painting: Layla Nawras

Abstract:

In this article, I explore some aspects of Iqbal al-Qazwini’s Shubak Zubayda: Riwayat al-Manfa al-Iraqi (Zubayda’s Window: A Novel of Iraqi Exile 2008). In the novel Zubayda lives in exile. She survives wars to testify to the history of violence by narration. I explore the way this woman’s survival allows her to be a secondary witness to war and occupation to narrate history. Not only war but alienation and memory become Zubayda’s enemies in exile. The trauma of the central character is presented by means of daydreams, flashbacks, and asides, frequently disrupted by the depiction of the live images of war on her television which push her back to face the reality of her loneliness and grief over her homeland.

As an active member of the Iraqi Women’s League, al-Qazwini was sent to East Berlin in 1978 to participate in the International Women’s Conference as a representative of the Communist Party. When Saddam Husayn became President in 1979, al-Qazwini was unable to return to her homeland and continued to live in Berlin. Zubayda’s Window echoes the life of the writer. Apart from being the first novel in English by an Iraqi to focus on 2003 invasion, what makes Zubayda’s Window particularly interesting is the writer’s attempt to portray a tormented woman who fled Iraq but still longs for her homeland.

While irony and sarcasm allow some writers inside Iraq to obscure their critique of the state, many writers in exile address these issues directly. Walters states: “displacement creates a distance that allows writers to encode critiques of their homelands, to construct new homelands and to envision new communities” (viii). The exilic spaces of Iraqis offer them a sense of freedom where they can depict the Iraqi turmoil away from threats and censorship. However, exile as Edward Saʿid suggests is “terrible to experience [as] its essential sadness can never be surmounted” (137). The sadness inherent in the experience of exile lies in the conflict between the desire to escape one’s country and the desire to return to it.

This is found in many narratives by Iraqi exiles who try to resolve this conflict by conjuring up memories of the past (Zangana xiv). Commenting on the new generation of Iraqi writers who emerged in exile in the 1980s, Zangana writes:

Writing in exile is characterized by the dominance of memory […] as a vital
tool, enabling him or her to recreate everything that happened in the past and preserve it intact. Memory may extend to the present and may overshadow the future. For some, memory becomes life itself. Other writers are happy to visit it, using it to reflect on their bitter experiences in Iraq (xiv).

While memory in Zubayda’s Window plays a vital role in helping the protagonist to come to terms with her exilic experience, it also becomes a source of agony. Memory locks Zubayda into a position where her relation is to the past which requires perpetual mourning.
Commenting on the dominance of memory in exile Bauman writes: “Memory is a mixed blessing […] Memory selects and interprets, and what is to be selected and how it needs to be interpreted is a moot matter and an object of continuous contention” (86). The problem of the selectivity of memory faces almost all the exile writers who fail to escape a terrible past while at the same time trying to invoke pleasant memories to be able to survive. In this novel the central character finds solace in resurrecting a happy past while struggling with a painful and a violent present of war and alienation.

TV images play a vital role in the narrative. The text is structured around the interplay between the audio-visual images of war, Zubayda’s memory and her present reality in exile. Action takes place in Zubayda’s room in Berlin. Readers are constantly taken to Baghdad through the TV and by means of Zubayda’s memory and then back to Berlin through Zubayda’s window overlooking the cold city. This interplay between visual imagery and memory of the past is always intersected by Zubayda’s present seclusion where she negotiates the ugly reality of war that she watches on her television screen.

Watching the burning of Baghdad from her flat in Berlin Zubayda says: “It is happening here in my soul, too” (al-Qazwini 6). Zubayda’s situation is worsened by means of her isolated state which is made worse by the command of a wounded memory which she cannot escape.
The balcony becomes Zubayda’s window onto a world from which she feels estranged. Agitated by the sound of blasts from her TV, “her imagination shifts among the artillery fire, the noise of planes, and the prattling of a neighbour […] all in a country where she feels alien” (6). While imagining the fearful planes on her balcony and listening to the noise of explosions on her TV screen, Zubayda meets her next-door neighbour, a fat old man “in a good mood” (5) watering the potted flowers along the adjacent balcony rail. When he sees her, he greets her and asks timidly:

“Excuse me! Haven’t you told me some time ago that you come from
Iran?” “No, -sir. I’m from Iraq.” Apologetically, he says: “Yes, yes, from
over there! Please forgive me, all the names of these countries of
yours are similar! […]” “European countries are suffocating with all these
newcomers […] They arrive here and […] rob shops and homes. As soon
as a German forgets to lock up his bike, he watches it moving off, ridden
by an immigrant coming from such countries” (6).

The neighbour’s inability to distinguish between Iran and Iraq and his dislike of immigrants whom he considers thieves, enlarges the distance between him and Zubayda. Though Zubayda has been living in exile for thirty years, she is yet still estranged “in a country where she feels alien. Still, she carries German identity papers and a passport and feels grateful for that bit of false security” (6). Being a German national is supposed to boost Zubayda’s sense of security, but her estrangement heightens her feeling of insecurity in a way that turns exile into an enemy.

In the text Zubayda’s distancing is made clear by means of the minimal conversations she has with other characters. Even when she decides to go to a coffee shop, Zubayda does not enjoy the scene “for what is the pleasure in sipping a cup of coffee alone?” (15). Zubayda “imagines herself all alone in the world, all the creatures having deserted the earth for another universe and forgotten to take her along with them” (14). Zubayda’s loneliness is not only due to her separation from the world outside her flat but also because of the fact that she lost two of her close Iraqi friends in Berlin.

To overcome her loneliness, Zubayda drifts into invoking memories of her pleasant childhood which become a means of escaping the present “[that] drops off like a garment she removes from her body whenever she is besieged by the details of alienation. She seeks refuge in memory whenever she feels forlorn” (27). In the text, Zubayda’s good memories are mainly about Baghdad when her father used to take her “on the double-decker red bus to the theatre […] She felt secure and happy because her father was sitting beside her” (38).
The lack of certitude in Zubayda’s present explains her longing for her father’s company, which implies reassurance. “On clear days, Zubayda used to walk beside her father and sometimes run ahead when he took her to the factory where he worked” (41).

The feeling of security and confidence soon fades with the images of war on her screen: “she sees that the planes bombing Baghdad are burning this beautiful day as well” (42). There is nothing but temporary respite from the images of war. While good memories are very rare, the memories of the painful past cover a larger section of the text in a similar manner to the Iraqi history of long periods of political turmoil in comparison to brief peaceful epochs.

In Zubayda’s Window the central character carries the burden of the traumatic memory of her country in exile. Partaking in war at a distance is intensified by means of the deferred death (Derrida 91) Zubayda experiences with the burning of her soul while watching the explosions in Baghdad. The burning of Zubayda’s soul inside her flat is juxtaposed with the outside coldness of Berlin where she experiences a slow death: “like the hands of a clock, she is caught in a circular trap, turning around and around without any hope of salvation” (14).

However, hope is gestured towards in the last paragraph of the text:

Her heart beats become even more irregular. She feels alternately cold and hot […] She calls the ambulance, gives them her address and hangs up […] The doorbell rings […] She has neither the strength nor the desire to get up […] She gets up, goes to the window, and opens it. She leaves it open to let In the air wet with rain, goes back to lie down. She dozes off and falls asleep (122).

Zubayda’s irregular heartbeat during the bombing of Baghdad, becomes more acute at the fall of the city, a function of her visceral identification with Baghdad. Her inability to open the door to the ambulance men and her attempt to open the window instead “to let in the air,” suggest a desire for a merger of some kind opposite to the earlier image of the window as a source of fear and alienation. The final indication that Zubayda “dozes off and falls asleep” but not that she dies means that Zubayda’s death is textually deferred. Zubayda’s confrontation with death without really dying leaves open the possibility of survival similar to the survival of Berlin. This image thus opens up new questions about a possible survival of Baghdad whose destiny is uncertain after its fall.

Bibliography:

Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds. Cambridge: Polity, 2003.

Derrida, Jacques. The Instant of My Death. Trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

al-Qazwini, Iqbal. Shubak Zubayda: Riwayat al-Manfa al-Iraqi [Zubayda’s Window: A Novel of Iraqi Exile] Trans.ʿAzza al-Khuli and Amirah Nowayrah. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University, 2008.

Saʿid, Edward W. Reflections on Exile and other Essays. 2001,Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Walters, Wendy W. At Home in Diaspora: Black International Writing.
Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Zangana, Haifa’. Introduction. Women on a Journey: Between Baghdad and London. Haifaʾ Zangana. Trans. Judy Cumberbatch. Texas: Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 2007: ix-xvi.

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