Rain over Baghdad: A Novel of Iraq
- By Hala El Badry; translated by Farouk Abdel Wahab
- The American University in Cairo Press
- 480 pp.
- Reviewed by Bridget Connelly
- June 30, 2014
An Egyptian journalist with a newborn baby commutes between Cairo and Baghdad during the turbulent 1970s.
Dedicated “to the people of Iraq,” Rain over Baghdad is a novel of ideas, a political novel that treats hard subjects. The first line poses a question: “Where has Anhar Khayun disappeared to so suddenly from Baghdad and why?” From this beginning, the reader might well expect a conventional mystery plot and with it, a simple linear sequence of events that leads to a solution. The Egyptian journalist and magazine editor, Hala El Badry, however, delivers much more in this capacious novel that enfolds multiple stories in an atemporal stream of consciousness that melds the personal and political. The reader who is willing to go with the flow will be transported into a complex web of memories that move backward and forward through five years of political change from about 1975 to 1980.
The journalist author and her fictionalized persona-narrator bring the reader up close to people caught in current events that become history. What hooked me as a reader and kept me reading El Badry’s latest novel is its very personal voice and poetic structure. The author plunges the reader into the world of Nora Suleiman, a young Egyptian journalist who leaves her newborn son behind with her mother-in-law and a wet nurse in Cairo as she flies off to follow her career in Baghdad where her husband works as an engineer. The novel is filtered through the memory of the first person narrator, as the young nursing mother-journalist commutes between her offspring and her work.
El Badry uses the flow of her narrator’s breast milk as a metaphoric device that sets up a rhythm of expectation for the reader. (The Arabic word for novel, incidentally, is riwaya, which etymologically connotes a flow, a stream of words or water that quenches thirst.) The metaphor holds the stream-of-consciousness narrative together, melding political history with the personal life of a working journalist, wife and mother who literally streams milk when she cannot make it to a ladies’ room in time to pump her breasts.
Whenever Nora misses her baby, her milk lets down and its flow triggers memories and the flow of narrative. The mention of milk signals the reader that the storyline is about to start streaming forward or backward in time as we follow Nora and gain intimate knowledge of the conflicting needs of a busy journalist who, in the midst of interviewing people for a story or caught in a meeting, must rush out to empty her breasts. Nora interviews people for magazine feature stories, goes to a conference to promote education and women’s literacy; she travels on trains and planes — always returning to Cairo and her nursing child and always remembering.
The conflict of career and motherhood provides an ongoing theme as Nora’s civilized life as a journalist in Baghdad changes. By 1980, watching television in Cairo, Nora sees her Baghdad house in ruins and burning. Iran has bombed the Baghdad Power Company. As she travels, Nora remembers the ever-growing number of those who have disappeared: Anhar, the Iraqi journalist who is her friend and colleague; Hilmi, who is her boss and mentor; and Baysuni, a young Egyptian migrant worker and political refugee who is little more than a boy.
The story loops back four times to Nora as she departs for Baghdad, each time re-running the riddle of the three disappearances that propel the storyline. New details are added as the story is retold incrementally, beginning each time with a repeated refrain: “Three knocks on the door of memory restored life to the days that were lingering as they turned toward disappearing forever.” Through flashbacks, letters, notebooks left behind by Nora’s missing colleagues Hilmi and Anhar, the stories of the disappeared unfold in “the ruthless flow” of the days that “broke loose and came tumbling down” into the narrator’s heart.
In this heartfelt “tumble” of days, El Badry has created a novel chockfull of people caught in the drama of their lives and times, like episodes of a television serial. In one scene, El Badry’s reader joins Nora and her husband in their Baghdad living room to watch the TV news coverage of the new president taking office. The screen reveals a public execution taking place in Baghdad’s central square as Saddam punishes his political rivals. People disappear, some leave of their own accord, some end up in Abu Ghraib. The anxiety level rises. And the reader hears the incessant refrain of the text’s four-time repeated riddle that opens the door to pain and loss: “Three knocks on the door of memory restored life to the days that were lingering as they turned toward disappearing forever.” The reader of this long, complexly structured novel is invited to open that door, to remember and care: Where is Anhar? What’s become of Hilmi? And Baysuni?
Bridget Connelly is emerita professor of rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Arab Folk Epic and Identity.