War and Me: A Memoir
- By Faleeha Hassan; translated by William Hutchins
- Amazon Crossing
- 364 pp.
- Reviewed by Gretchen Lida
- August 24, 2022
A heartfelt if impersonal recollection of life in Iraq.
Early in her creative life, author Faleeha Hassan painstaking transcribed by hand Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and other works into notebooks with images of Saddam Hussein on the cover. Juxtapositions like this one define her new memoir.
The title War and Me is sharp and precise, yet it’s a wonder the word “war” isn’t plural. Hassan doesn’t just live through one war in her home country of Iraq but three. As she writes at the very beginning of the book:
“From the events I recount in this memoir, you will understand that next to my name in the Unknown World or beside it at the moment I was born, the only comment inscribed must have been, ‘Faleeha Hassan will coexist with war for most of the years of her life.’”
Born in 1967, Hassan writes about the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and the American war in Iraq. While she didn’t experience actual mortar fire until 2002 — when U.S. troops entered her country — each conflict left a mark. A teenage suitor was killed during the first war, and the crushing sanctions imposed after the Kuwait invasion left Hassan and most of her countrymen struggling to feed themselves as their economy crumbled.
Still, it isn’t battles that drive the narrative of War and Me. Rather, it’s Hassan’s interpersonal dramas, which she describes in Truman Capote-like detail. Political strife is a fan whirring in the background as our narrator grows up, becomes a teacher, and finds her voice as a writer among the local intelligentsia. Hassan’s literary and academic prowess threaten the women around her, including the domineering principal at a rural school.
Through intricately constructed scenes, War and Me tears down the preconceived notions we Americans have about Iraq. Yes, its authoritarian government and strict moral codes did constrain the actions of many Iraqis. Nonetheless, the country’s culture is complex and full of life. Hassan’s very persona repudiates the typical Western idea of Muslim womanhood; she is stubborn, full of agency, and often finds power through her relationship to Islam and not in spite of it.
Unfortunately, even in scenes depicted with awe-inspiring detail, there’s very little self-reflection here of the kind common in most contemporary memoirs. Although this depersonalization gives the work a plot-like structure, its effect is to keep readers at arm’s length. It feels like a missed opportunity.
The writing, too, is sometimes painfully formal. This makes sense given that so much of the memoir chronicles Hassan’s extensive — and impressive — education. Above all, she reveres the written word, but this reverence comes at the cost of the conversational quality that makes so many memoirs such a pleasure to read. The narrative drags in places where it should soar, as when Hassan is recounting turbulent events — of which there are dozens. While some of this over-formality may be a function of War and Me’s translation, I suspect the careful erudition is present in the original Arabic, too.
Shortcomings aside, Hassan achieves what a good memoirist should: She gives readers insight into an experience far beyond our own and allows us to expand our understanding and empathy for others. What we don’t learn about in this work is the author’s move to the United States, where she now lives. It’s been reported that Hassan taught herself English by watching Tyler Perry and Kevin Hart movies. If she recounts that story with as much precision as she brings to this one, it, too, will be worth reading.
Gretchen Lida is an essayist and an equestrian. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. She is a contributing writer to Book Riot, Horse Network, and the Independent, and is also the host of HN Reads on Horse Network, a monthly interview series with authors of horse books. She lives in Chicago and is still a Colorado native.