A Stranger in Baghdad: A Novel

  • By Elizabeth Loudon
  • Hoopoe
  • 436 pp.
  • Reviewed by AA Bastian
  • June 29, 2023

A British wife navigates multiple upheavals in a politically shifting Iraq.

A Stranger in Baghdad: A Novel

“Take me, too.”

These three words plunge a young white woman named Diane into the world of Baghdad in 1937. A 20-year-old nurse, she falls in love with physician Ibrahim Haddad in London and follows him home to Iraq. Baghdad comes alive in vivid detail as she navigates her interracial marriage to Ibrahim, her in-laws, her high-profile but politically sensitive job as a nanny for the Iraqi royal family, and eventually, her relationship with her own biracial children.

The Haddads begin life in high society in an old-style residence built for royalty, complete with servants, a hammam (steam bath), and status. Author Elizabeth Loudon majestically dances you into the thick of it all, down to the “long black fringes” of Diane’s shawl and the essence of old Baghdad embodied in their first home:

“Their bedroom was like a ship captain’s quarters, beamed and creaking above the swirl of the river below. Ibrahim told her that the house had been built for the first king, Faisal. The King had liked to sleep there in the heart of the city, and Gertrude Bell had held court in the reception room, staking her claims for borders and boundaries, a great map spread on the library table.”

Still, Diane hides extra cash in the back of a drawer during the early years of her marriage, secretly wishing to unwind the choices that have led her to a place that both adores and despises her and then slowly alienates and isolates her as the political landscape shifts. But there is no immediate escape available; her British passport surrendered, she is officially an Iraqi citizen. 

The secretive Scottish Duncan Claybourne, assigned to Baghdad from the British Foreign Office, meets Diane by chance but seems to understand her situation completely. Yet he’s always aloof, and no one, including Diane, knows exactly what he’s up to. He will disappear and reappear many times in this decades-spanning tale.

As the years pass, Iraq devolves into a police state. The Haddads are less and less able to live as they used to or even to find viable paths forward. The three Haddad children grow up to embody the diverse dynamics of their country. Ramzi enters the military and juggles dual loyalties to his English mother — long rumored to be some sort of spy — and his nationalist homeland. Mona resents Diane and grows close to Ibrahim, who gives his daughter a window into the complicated dance he must do to survive. And Ziad, who is gay, seeks a more tolerant reality but is constrained by the limitations of his status.

Themes of love and belonging — and their opposites — drive the story in ever more complex ways. At times, the narrative feels like a well-crafted geopolitical analysis of Iraq’s relationship with the U.K., told through the eyes of a British expat and her bicultural daughter. Diane and Mona know that intrigues are happening all around them, but they’re excluded from the full picture. So, too, is the reader. Loudon does an excellent job of not revealing too much in order to keep us firmly in the women’s world.

As Mona reaches adulthood and the climate becomes more volatile, Diane is increasingly caught between two very different players in the country’s political dynamics: Duncan and her husband. While both seek to conceal from her precisely what they’re doing, she seems to know more than they’d like. This makes her a threat.

The author looks at her characters from multiple angles throughout the novel, exploring their foibles and prejudices alongside their triumphs and passions. In the process, she conjures an intimate, intricate portrait of how people’s lives are jostled and remade as a changing country’s fortunes ebb and flow. Reflects Mona at one point:

“We young people never join in when our parents argue about politics. We’re supposed to drink it up, learning what can be said and what can’t, divining our relatives’ shifting positions and tracking the torturous paths of power and betrayal…But this argument feels more dangerous than the usual quick flare fights.”

Much feels unexpected in this murky world of enigmatic loyalties and conflicting interests, yet readers will want to immerse themselves in it nonetheless. A Stranger in Baghdad is an engrossing read.

AA Bastian is a writer of history and geopolitics in Washington, DC. She publishes on East-West topics. Find her on Twitter at @AABastianWrites.

Believe in what we do? Support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus