The Dispersal ~ طشّاري (Tashari)

A book Review The Geography of woes in Kachachi’s Tashari

By: Inam Jaber

Published and shortlisted for the International Prize of Arabic Fiction in 2013, “Tashari” is a novel written in Arabic by the Iraqi novelist, Inaam Kachachi, who resides in Paris. It is the story of the anguish of diaspora and exile  to countries around the globe,  as experienced by the protagonist of the novel, Dr. Wardiyah, and her family members. It is also about the suffering undergone by so many Iraqi families who were forced to flee the country following the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. The novel also tells of those who had to flee the country earlier.  One of these was Wardiyah’s daughter, Hinda, who had suffered the pain of separation ever since the Gulf War in 1991.

According to Kachachi, the word “Tashari”, a local Iraqi Arabic word, means the idea of Dispersal. She says, “not that standard Arabic is not expressive enough, but to give the text an Iraqi flavour, I couldn’t find a word more expressive than ‘Tashari’ as a title”. It is worth noting that the recurrent use of Iraqi Arabic dialect by Kachachi is a stylistic feature typical of her writing in almost all her novels.

When targeted birds, Tashari shoots from a hunting rifle, scatter them in all directions. Wars, oppression, injustices, despair and fear functioned like Tashari who scattered Iraqi people around the globe.

“The Dispersal (Tashari)” is steeped in the bitterness of separation. In Kachachi’s words “The Dispersal” is the novel of hometowns and of love of  them. It shows the bitterness of being separated from family and loved ones in a home town where sweet memories were nurtured over the years,

“…her brother Sulayman’s friends and his companions weren’t lying when they claimed that there were birthplaces both for people and for hearts. Wardiyah would come to know Diwaniyah as the birthplace of her heart, a place as tender as the sky, that was kind to her, and that would give her a lot, though it had little”.

One of the most expressive illustrations of the painful separation experienced primarily by Wardiyah, the protagonist, can be found in chapter two. Wardiyah, now in her eighties and a refugee in Paris, is in her flat on her own, thinking of her family members – Yasameen in Dubai, Hinda in Canada and her son, Barraq, in Haiti as well as of relatives back home, in Baghdad. “It was as if a butcher had picked up his knife and decided to gouge out her insides and toss them away. He threw her liver to North America, flung her lungs toward the Caribbean, leaving her arteries to float on gulf waters. As for her heart, the butcher took up a sharp, precise knife similar to ones used for amputations. Carefully, he cut her heart out from where it rested between the Tigris and the Euphrates, lifted it up and rolled it down the Eiffel Tower, snickering with pride at what his hands had accomplished.”

Kachachi drew the ‘geography of woes’ of Iraq in the novel through narratives told mainly by three characters: Wardiyah, her niece and her daughter, Hinda.

The novel begins with Wardiyah as an old, retired doctor in her eighties, on her way to the Elysee where a ceremony is in progress in honour of the Pope, who is on a visit to Paris. The then French president, Sarkosy, invited the refugees to the ceremony and Wardiyah was among them. Iraq’s ‘geography of woes’ covers a turbulent history of a country that has never seen a respite in its modern history throughout the last century and the present one. The country’s geography of woes was reflected through Wardiyah’s life story. It is a story that is reflective of pain of separation from a country gripped by successive wars and calamities over decades. In the meanwhile, the reader –the Iraqi reader in particular- would certainly feel the blessing of how homogenized the society was before it had been destroyed gradually by dictatorship, sanctions and later by the American invasion and occupation. Wardiyah had never thought that one day she would end up as a refugee in France. “I would rather die and get buried here than be displaced,” she would say. Wardiyah is a Christian from Mosul in the north of Iraq; her family had to leave Mosul because her brother Sulayman needed to go to the university in Baghdad, as there was no university in Mosul. She grew up in Baghdad and graduated at the college of Medicine and was appointed in Diwaniya south of Iraq, where she would live the best years of her youth. In Diwaniya she loved Dr. Jirjis, a Christian who came from Samawa Hospital to work with her at Diwaniya Hospital. Later they married, and she gave birth to two daughters, Hinda and Yasameen, and two sons, Barraq and Sarmad. She lived and worked in Diwaniya as a gynaecologist, helping women give birth and caring of them for twenty-five years. She liked people and people liked her. In Diwaniya she won the respect of women and men. The fact that she was a Christian woman and not Muslim like them did not occur to them. They saw as a helpful doctor, and respected her as a woman with a profession they badly needed. She liked the company of Illwiyyah Shathra (a respectable Muslim woman and a leading social figure) who was a great help to her, especially when she first came to Diwaniya as a newly appointed doctor). She also greatly appreciated the help of another Muslim woman, Sharara, the daughter of a former woman patient, who offered to nurse Hinda for two months. Wardiyah did her best to save Sharara’s newborn son. Sharara’s mother, therefore, made a vow to make her daughter serve Wardiyah for two months. Sharara’s help came at a time when Wardiyah was desperately looking for a wet nurse for her daughter, Hinda, who had to be breastfed; her mother was unable to do this when she was  at work at the hospital. An alternative, the doctor said, would be donkeys’ milk,  as she was allergic to any bottled milk. Sharara was the golden solution.

Neither Sharara nor her mother ever thought that Wardiyah practised a religion different from theirs. Both of them felt happy to do the doctor a favour. And when Sharara had to leave, Bustana, another Muslim woman, came to Wardiyah’s rescue by virtue of Illwiyyah Shathra. Bustana breastfed Hinda and took care of her even after she had gone to school. After Hinda was weaned, Bustana went home. But Hinda “could not tolerate Bustana’s absence. She kept wandering around searching for her in all the rooms, calling her. When she couldn’t find her, Hinda broke into tears. She refused to eat and kept asking for Bustana.” Hinda was so attached to Bustana that people, especially children at the kindergarten, where she was appointed with the help of Dr. Jirjis as a housekeeper for Hinda’s sake, believed that Hinda was Bustana’s daughter. It was in Diwaniya where Wardiyah led a peaceful and fruitful life, such “a life that would make her steadfast, deeply rooted in a soil that would make her grow, branch, bud, bloom, and bear fruit”. Although the majority of people were Muslim in Diwaniya, Christians and Jews coexisted with Muslims in a society free of grudges or hatred. Wardiyah’s Jewish friend, Um Yaqoub, was keen to share Wardiyah her happiness when she bought a car. She came over with an Um-Sab’yoon and silver cord and hung it round the car’s  inner mirror. She said, “Don’t ever untie that cord, no matter what.” She meant to protect Wardiyah’s car against this Um-Sab’yoon, the evil eye.

Um Yaqoub’s husband had  a brick-making factory in Diwaniya. The Jews lived in peace together with Muslims and Christians, just like elsewhere in Iraq. Um Yaqoub’s family stayed in Diwaniya till late 1960s when party struggles were on the increase. The communist party and the Arab nationalist party and conspiracies colluded to evict Jews from Iraq.

Now as a refugee in Paris, Wardiyah wanted to give her niece’s teenage son, Iskander, who represented the Iraqi generation who were born and grown up in Paris, the true image of the Iraqi people, the antithesis of that prevailed during and after the sectarian war that broke out in Iraq in 2006, three years following the American invasion and occupation of the country. “She repeated to him that Iraqis used to be as brothers, the offspring of one country.” To support her statements, she gave him examples. One was that she, a believer in Jesus who had faith in Mary’s intercession, had attended the mourning rites of Imam Hussein during Ashura’ in Diwaniya, the tenth day of the month of Muharram. And even when she moved to Baghdad, she attending the Mawlad, the birthday anniversary of Prophet Mohammed, for whom she wished peace, held by her neighbour, Um Mohammed.”

Things, however have remarkably changed due to the deep divisions planted among Iraqi people over about seventy years that were permeated with the curse of wars, social violence, unrests and the sectarian war, particularly following the American invasion and occupation in 2003. And instead of enjoying peace and prosperity in their country, Iraq, the Iraqis were forced to flee the country in a series of waves of immigrations as early as the 1960s away from their families, relatives and loved ones. The big Iraqi diaspora had to find a space that could bring them together. Wardiayah’s niece’s only son, Iskandar, had the solution. Because he was smart at computer programming, Kachachi put the key of solution in his hands so that he could create a virtual space where Iraqi immigrants could meet even after death and where they could lie in graves designed by him in a virtual graveyard. He managed to bring Iraqi family members and relatives from graves where they had already been buried in different spots all over the world to be reunited in his virtual space. “An Assyrian newcomer from Cologne would sleep next to his wife, whose bones had been brought from Ainkawa, in Iraqi Kurdistan. Their sons, who  came from Erbi, Oakland and Jaramana, would visit the gravesite whenever they liked and from  wherever they were, to read prayers for their loved ones’ souls”.

Kachachi succeeded in charging the text with contradictory images and scenes of life in two different realities in Iraqi society.  The first was the 1950s when people enjoyed living with one another with a high degree of understanding and tolerance. The second was when political life of struggling parties turned life into a hell to serve perpetrators’ interests. And things kept deteriorating until the present moment. Among the awful harrowing scenes is that of Suhaila, a relative of Wardiyah, who lost her only son, Raad. During the sectarian war (2006-2009) Suhaila her son was  kidnapped and the kidnappers demanded a ransom. Although she paid the ransom, her son was shot. The unimaginable pain she had suffered was that she failed to find his body. Unexpectedly,  she was told by her neighbour that he had seen his picture among those buried in Najaf in a graveyard allocated for those who had been killed and no one from their families had claimed their bodies. And the journey of her torture started. With the help of Bishop Francis and the guidance of a local guide, Suhaila spotted on a stick nearby the photocopied  picture of her son in the grave where he was buried. Her son’s shrouded body was dug out by the Bishop and a local guide. “Suhaila hugged her son, tearing at the shroud to see his face. Everything stank, but she kissed the corpse shouting: “I love the smell, my dear!”

Dispersed Iraqis had but the virtual space to interact with their past, present and future. “They would rub the keyboard like the lamp from ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, and Iraq would reappear a great giant”, said Wardiyah’s niece. The great civilisation that flourished in their country are there on the pages they exchange and share. When rubbed, the lamp will show in detail everything about people in Iraq starting from youth, their fathers with sidara caps. followed by women in their traditional costumes in addition to traditional food, songs, singers, sculptors, photographers, poets, musicians, jewellers , fishmongers…” A vast country with all its magnificent civilisation and its wretched present sprawls across the screen. Reason disappears and lamentations sound.”

Their longing to their country and their loved ones and the type of life they had been missing cost them a great deal. “We won’t die of drunkenness or smoking, but from grief and yearning for the parallel virtual life,” said Wardiah’s niece.

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