Many Iraqis returned to their country after the American invasion in 2003 as members of the entourage that accompanied the invading army and helped it administer its occupation. Some of them were translators recruited by companies back in the US where they were living either as refugees, residents, or Iraqi-American citizens. Some bought into the “liberation” narrative and believed they were helping the old country get back on its feet. Others were simply in it for the six-figure salary. Zina, the protagonist of In`am Kachachi’s second novel, al-Hafida al-Amrikiyya (Dar al-Jadid, 2008), short listed for the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF or “The Arabic Booker”) is one of those returnees. The novel has been translated into English and was just published by the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation (for a critique of BQFP’s disappointing output so far, see Abdo Wazin’s article in al-Hayat). My review is based on the Arabic original.
Ironically, it is the American dream itself that compels Zina to apply to go to Iraq and work as a translator for the US army. The prospect of moving out of the miserable Seven Mile area in Detroit and securing a down payment for a bigger house in Southfield, buying a new car, and putting her drug-addicted brother in rehab, are as important a motivation for Zina as the Fox News mantras about democracy and liberation she believes and repeats to herself. She had left Iraq a little kid and although half-Assyrian on her father’s side, her Arabic was fluent thanks to his love of the language and the poetry he recited. The father was a famous news broadcaster who was tortured and humiliated following a report written about him alleging that he’d complained that the news broadcasts were too long. His teeth were smashed, tongue stapled, and he was filmed reading a mock newscast of his own execution. Upon his release he took the family and fled to Jordan and then the US. It is quite odd, to say the least, that the father who’d suffered so much during Saddam’s time has a very mild reaction when Zina informs him of her decision to go work in Iraq. He is simply worried that he is still wanted there!
Zina had applied to work with the FBI after 9/11, but never got the call. Initially, she seems to be at home in her Americanness and shows no anxieties about her hyphenated identity, unlike her mother who cried upon becoming a US citizen and asked her dead father to forgive her as the band played “God Bless America.” The author should’ve done more research to discover that it is not the American national anthem and avoid other mistakes. The grandfather was an officer in the Iraqi Army, but was forced to retire following the 1958 revolution and the overthrow of the monarchy. Nevertheless, he continued to dream of being called back to serve and used to bring out his military uniform every year on Iraqi Army day. His American granddaughter has no qualms about donning an American outfit and returning to the country of her birth with an army that vanquished her grandfather’s twice (in 2003 and 1991). The first Gulf War is conspicuously absent as a seminal event in the novel. Watching Baghdad being bombed on CNN in 1991 is a foundational moment in the narratives and memoirs of diaspora Iraqis, especially Iraqi-Americans, but not Zina or her family. She assures herself that it is “not the return of a longing visitor to her home, but a soldier to the battlefield.” (41). For her, Iraq is “[a] country that means nothing to me except for being a container of my ancestor’s bones.” (49)
In a promising twist early on in the novel, Kachachi’s protagonist revolts against the author and takes over the narration in order to resist the author’s attempts to “write a patriotic novel.” (34) “I am stronger than her and I almost pity her naïveté and patriotism,” (36) she tells us. This fissure could have been far more productive for the narrative had Kachachi delved deeper into the tension between the two, but a few passing statements notwithstanding, she never does. The two remain neatly separated and stick to alternating narration, but at least the character is a bit more believable than the author who is too rigid and doesn’t evolve psychologically or politically despite the experience in Iraq.
After passing security checks and health tests and training in Langley, VA, Zina is flown to Iraq and stationed in one of Saddam’s palaces in his hometown, Tikrit. Soon after arriving she calls her grandmother, but is too ashamed to admit that she is working with the US and tells her that she is working with the UN, monitoring the US army. The grandmother, Rahma, was born in 1917 (conveniently for the symbolism, that is the year the British occupied Iraq). The grandmother is driven from Baghdad to Tikrit to meet her granddaughter at the base’s reception area and is skeptical about Zina’s story. A few months later Zina slips out of the military base in civilian clothes to visit her grandmother’s home in Baghdad. To accentuate the symbolism, Kachachi has the visit fall on the 6th of January, Iraq’s Army Day. The grandmother had taken out her deceased husband’s military uniform and Zina puts it on over her American bulletproof vest. Using the family’s history and memories, the grandmother decides to woo Zina back to her roots. The character takes over from the author again telling the reader that the “grandmother decides to bequeath her memory to my character and the author is happy, because it serves her novel well.” During that visit Zina is reacquainted with Tawoos, an older Muslim woman from al-Sadr City who had worked for the family for decades and who breastfed Zina when her mother caught Typhus, thus making Zina a sister to Tawoos’ two sons, one of whom, Muhaymin, was a POW in Iran and is now a member of the anti-occupation Mahdi Army.
Zina works as a “cultural consultant” in Tikrit and advises soldiers on the proper ways of dealing with Iraqis in various spaces and situations, but to no avail. Despite seeing that most Iraqis are against the occupation and witnessing horrendous injustices against innocent civilians during night raids, Zina never questions the mission. “I didn’t allow myself to be sympathetic or to show any feelings.” (96) She maintains full identification with the occupation and consistently uses the “we.” She is transferred to the Green Zone. Seeing how much she missed her grandmother, her commanding officer, in yet another Hollywoodish twist, suggests and arranges for a fake raid so that Zina could visit her grandmother again, but without endangering the grandmother! The latter is shocked and heartbroken to see her granddaughter Zina in her American uniform. On this visit Zina is infatuated with Muhaymin, the other returnee who is her political antithesis and who refuses her advances and her offers to marry him and take him to the US!
When her contract expires, Zina returns to Detroit, but feeling lost, she renews it and returns to Iraq again. “Living outside of anxiety doesn’t suit me anymore and I don’t feel any affinity to Calvin. (163) Calvin doesn’t meet her at the airport, but her father and brother do. The father is saddened by her stories about Iraq, but all he says is: “Beware of Iraqis” and then returns to Arizona where he works after separating from the mother.
While in the US she exchanges many e-mails with Muhaymin, but they now articulate their political disagreements in more visceral and uncompromising terms. The grandmother dies during Zina’s second round in Iraq and she is racked with guilt and is convinced it the shame and heartache of seeing her granddaughter work with the enemy. In one of the many unbelievable events in Kachachi’s novel, Muhaymin manages to leave Sadr City to come see the dying grandmother during the fierce fighting between US troops and al-Mahdi Army. Zina goes to the church services and is recognized by the women in attendance. Only towards the end of the novel, almost four years into the occupation, does Zina realize the dismal failure of the mission. One of her fellow translators commits suicide and she realizes that Iraqis consider her a traitor.
Kachachi is palatable when writing about Iraq. Her Iraqi characters are believable and distinct. Zina’s poetic reminiscence of her childhood brings to life the grandmother’s character in tender language. One of the novel’s many glaring weaknesses, however, is the authors dismal attempts to portray America and Americans who are consistently flat. They remain Hollywoodish stereotypes at best. For example, Calvin, her boyfriend, is unemployed and spends his time drinking beer out of the can and watching TV. He thinks the greatest invention of the 20th century was the remote control. Although Zina exchanges long e-mails with him while in Iraq, we are never given any idea about their content. He conveniently disappears after her return from her first stint in Iraq. We never know much about her brother, Yazan, and what drove him to drugs. Her Arab-American friends who “meet once a month to eat Arab food and dance” don’t fare any better. Rula, the Lebanese-American translator who goes to Iraq with Zina drags “two heavy suitcases full of dresses and make-up as if going to her honeymoon in Paris. She returns to the US, because she’s not stationed in the Green Zone or at a hotel! (32) Caucasian Americans are too often likened to famous movie stars. The voice of the CIA man on the phone sounds like Sean Connery. Colonel Peterson in the Green Zone looked like Burt Lancaster and you can guess the rest.
In the end, Zina’s character takes over the narration one last time and tells us that she “pushed the author to a mine and got rid of her.” She doesn’t renew her contract and returns to the US, but makes a stop at the Arlington National Cemetery to visit the grave of an American coworker who died in Iraq.
The novel ends on a very sentimental note with Zina writing: “I will say, like my father, let my right hand forget me if I forget thee O Baghdad.” Ironically, Kachachi ends up writing the very same naively patriotic and sentimental novel the character had resisted all along. Zina returns drained and crestfallen, but armed with her family history, she has a story to tell. “ I am no longer an ordinary American, but a human from another place, distant and ancient, clutching in her hand the ember of a unique tale (10). A unique tale it could have been, but the telling doesn’t rise to the occasion at all. The sentimentality spills over to the author’s bio on the back cover where we are told that the even after many decades in France, the author insists on her Iraqiness. However, Iraqiness and patriotism are not sufficient to write a readable novel.