You were eight years old when they invaded the first time. At that time your village was ignored. The tribe went on much as it had since even before they settled and gave up the ways of wandering the desert. Nobody cared for a little village made of mud and straw.
But Oil For Food and embargos take their effect and as you've grown to manhood your country has begun to disintegrate around you. Somehow your father managed to find money enough to send you to university in Baghdad, but one night during your studies the sky explodes and your future ends.
You return to your village and do nothing, because there is nothing for anyone anymore. The war hasn't come to your little village, but you and everyone else, watch it on television every day in the café. The talk is of resistance and self-recrimination.
"The Americans wouldn't have come if we had had the spine to get rid of Saddam on our own"
"They would have come anyway for the Oil; to pump us dry"
"They came to make sure that Israel stays the power centre of the region"
The Sirens Of Baghdad, published by Doubleday Books an imprint of Random House Canada, is the latest novel by Algerian author Yasmina Khadra (the pen name for Mohammed Moulessehoul). Like his earlier works Wolf Dreams and In The Name Of The God Med. Khadra takes us into the world of the men and women who have been pushed so far by circumstances that they've ended up on the path of violence and vengeance.
For our nameless protagonist in The Sirens Of Baghdad the killing of an autistic young man by American soldiers at a check – point, the accidental bombing of a wedding party in the village that killed village elders, and finally a raid on his house looking for weapons by American troops who humiliate his father are what put his feet on that road. It wasn't so much the first two incidents, they were merely horrific and caused him to faint, it was the last one; the assault upon his family's honour that pushed him over the edge.
An empty vessel, or a vacuum, will eventually have to be filled with something. When his one armed, elderly father is knocked down by a soldier and ends up laid out on the floor of the house with his genitals exposed (In the Bedouin tradition a son must never see his father in a state of undress, and to be exposed to his genitals is the gravest of dishonours) because he wanted to put some pants on to cover his nakedness, the floodgates of anger are opened and it streams in to fill the void created by hopelessness.
As the story develops and we follow our young man to Baghdad where he hopes to strike a blow against the occupiers, Khadra shows us in no uncertain terms how the American occupation of Iraq has driven the young men to a life of terror. It's the complete indifference to them as people or any sort of recognition that their culture and beliefs matter that turn them into killers.
"I wanted to set fire to the world and watch it burn" Is how more then one character describes how they felt when they left their villages to come to Baghdad in the hopes of joining the resistance. Our newspapers are filled with stories about fanatical zealots who are promised paradise in reward for their martyrdom when the truth is far different.
Most of them are simply young men who have no hope anymore,. All their dreams have been crushed and they no longer see any reason for living. If by their deaths they can bring some meaning into their life and regain a vestige of the self-respect they feel has been stolen from them and their country, they will.
Our young man connects up with people from his village in Baghdad who have become one of the "resistance groups" that blow up anything they feel like. Khadra doesn't paint them like heroes or martyrs; he describes them as people so full of anger that they don't care who they kill anymore. They want revenge on the world for what they see as the injustices served upon them.
At one point in their lives they may have been like our young man who abhorred violence to such an extent that he was ostracized as a child for being "womanish" and had fainted at the sight of blood. But now he idles away his time in Baghdad going to the scenes of terror attacks and rejoicing in his complete lack of feeling.
He is so far gone that he's almost beyond being touched by anything. When one of his compatriots dares to suggest that their cause is just but they might be going about in the wrong way he tries to ignore him. Even when told the truth about a brave suicide attack on soldiers; the man had become sickened by the violence after he blew up a school bus full of children and strapped belts of bread to himself to look like he was wearing bombs and got an American sentry post to shoot him to a pulp; he is not swayed.
Yasmina Khadra has shown in the past that he has an amazing capability for creating characters who are believable and whose actions are consistent with what they are and where they've come from. He tells a story in a manner that is reminiscent of the way Bertol Brecht wrote theatre, while we can fairly easily predict what will happen, that isn't important.
What's important is why the story happens and how. It is information that we in the West have been turning a blind eye to for years. Instead of being willing to shoulder our share of the blame for creating these people or at least the circumstances that allows them to exist, we find it convenient to blame it on their religion. Until we are willing to accept the responsibility for our actions we will be at constant risk from someone who has been completely inured to violence and has lost all that he or she cares about.
We see these people around us in the West too, the ones who are willing to destroy the world as vengeance for the wrongs committed against them. One only needs to look at what happened at West Virginia Tech. to see that.
Khadra's gift is being able to turn the world on its head and give us a view we never see. Life is seen through the eyes of the people we habitually call rag heads or evil. These people see the soldiers of the West as brutes who yell at them in an incomprehensible language, make no attempt to understand what's important to them, and treat them like they are all evil.
Khadra reminds us that the location of Baghdad marks one of the birth spots of all civilization, for it was on the banks of the Tigris that humans created some of their first settlements. The people who live there take pride in their history and their culture and when you look at the world through those eyes; and they are also the eyes of a person who sees no hope for a world any better then what he has now, you can't help but at least understand the experiences that make them "terrorists".
The Sirens Of Baghdad is a warning and an education that every Western person should have as required reading. If we fail to learn anything from this book or heed its warnings than quite frankly we're only getting what we deserve. The world doesn't end at the Atlantic or Pacific seaboard and we would do well to start remembering that sooner rather then latter.
Canadian residents can purchase copies of The Sirens of Baghdad through Amazon.ca or directly from Random House Canada
(Originally posted April 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.