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Iraq: Author Seeks To Bridge Distance Between East And West

  • Charles Recknagel

Iraqi author Betool Khedairi is the daughter of an Iraqi father and Scottish mother who writes about the clash of Eastern and Western values. Her books, set in Iraq and written in Arabic, have established her as a strong new voice in Iraqi literature. In translation, her work also is getting increasing notice abroad. RFE/RL spoke with Khedairi about her writing as she visited the Frankfurt Book Fair this month.

Prague, 12 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Anyone meeting Betool Khedairi can be forgiven for not knowing at first whether he is talking to an Iraqi, or a British, author.

That is because Khedairi, who turns 39 next month and lives in Amman, speaks native-born English with a slight Scottish lilt. Yet she writes in Arabic.

As she admits herself, she belongs fully to both the East and the West.

"I write in Arabic," Khedairi said. "I feel in Arabic. I even dream in Arabic. But if I have problems I want to face, or need to face, normally I switch to my European side."

Khedairi is an engaging, pleasant woman who realizes she has an extraordinary life. Much of that life is retold in her first novel, which loosely chronicles her childhood and was published in Arabic in 1999.

Titled "A Sky So Close," the book has since been published in five other languages, including English and Italian. It tells the story of a young girl growing up in Baghdad in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s.

"It was really very much about a little Iraqi girl growing up in Baghdad with a very English mom, as opposed to her very Iraqi dad, with all their conflicts of cultures, religion, habits -- even eating habits," Khedairi said. "Everything they did caused a problem in the house. And there is this little girl who has to deal with all this conflict. Half of the book takes place in Baghdad and the other half takes place in England. So, in Baghdad, she is the daughter of the foreign woman, and in England, she is the Arab."

"A Sky So Close" won Khedairi a loyal following in the Mideast and in Europe and the United States. A literary critic for "The New York Times" called the book "a lush first novel...both impressionistic and accomplished."

But Khedairi -- who spent 10 years writing her first book -- is modest about her success. She said she wrote it to cope with the death of her father in a car accident at a time when her mother was also dying from an extended illness. The story was highly personal, with characters changed only slightly for dramatic effect.
"I was pleasantly surprised that I managed to connect to the West. I managed to show them what the Iraqi human being is about, rather than what they know through their media." -- Khedairi


She considers the greatest success of her book to be the fact that it is about everyday Iraqis, yet still manages to interest readers who may know little about the country:

"I was pleasantly surprised that I managed to connect to the West," Khedairi said. "I managed to show them what the Iraqi human being is about, rather than what they know through their media."

After "A Sky So Close" was published, Khedairi said she faced the problem that bedevils so many writers describing their childhood for their first book -- that is, how to follow up with an equally strong second book that does not draw on the same source.

She knew she wanted to write again about Iraq and set it in the present. But at that time -- in early 2000 -- Iraq was suffering under UN sanctions tied to Baghdad's purported efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. She worried that the lives of everyday Iraqis might make for rather bleak reading.

"I wanted to write about Iraq, but [the situation there] was so depressing that I felt no one would read it," Khedairi said. "So I tried to write it in a comic way, and I came up with a black comedy. I chose one building where everything happens. And every floor of the building represents an Iraqi layer of society -- and how the sanctions and the wars and the dictatorship and all that led to the collapse of the moral structure based on the collapse of the infrastructure of Iraq during all this period."

Her book, called "The Absent One," was published in Arabic six months ago. But this time, her story is not just of a young girl caught between East and West, but of a whole society.

She said that the book "talks about an Iraq, an old Iraq, known to Iraqis but unknown to the West, and it ends with a new Iraq being known to the West but unknown to Iraqis."

As in her first book, Khedairi has tried not to prescribe how her subjects -- or her country -- should cope with the competing pulls of Eastern and Western values. Instead, she focuses on how ordinary people make their own choices and often suffer the consequences of political decisions made far beyond their own homes.

"I focus on writing about the regular, normal human being in the back lines, because when the politicians do take decisions, they do not take the opinion of the normal person, and that is the guy or the woman who suffers. And this is worth writing about," Khedairi said. "When I do write, I don't like to go into politics. And I do not tend to judge because it is so complex that only after years and years of secrets coming out, then we will know the 'truth,' between brackets. So until then, I will keep on writing about the normal human being."

For now, Khedairi is busy trying to interest filmmakers in turning her second book into a movie. But sooner or later, she knows, she will again have to face the question of what to write next.

What keeps Khedairi going -- even during those dark times when an author wonders if she has anything more to say?

Khedairi says her greatest encouragement comes in the form of notes she receives from readers:

"It makes me very happy when I receive an e-mail from Thailand, say, from a student saying, 'I related to your book,' and I wrote a book about Iraq," Khedairi said. "So every time I get depressed that writing doesn't change anything, that I am not going to add anything -- you know, you have your withdrawals -- and then I just receive a sweet e-mail like that, or a letter or a phone call, and I realize that maybe I am offering something to the world in the end."
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