- Life Style
Ali Bader’s “The Tobacco Keeper” is a complex, emotionally charged novel of masks and shifting identities. It encompasses eighty years, and an overwhelming range of characters and landscapes, but always has one question pulsing beneath the text: How did the violent, terrifying Baghdad of 2006 come to be?
The novel, published in Arabic in 2008 and long-listed for the Arabic Booker prize in 2009, is set in Damascus, Tehran, Baghdad and beyond. It addresses universal questions of artistic production, dispossession, and identity. But, wherever it goes, it never forgets Baghdad. As the book comes to a close, the nameless narrator wonders, “How could we define the identity of the [city’s] enemy? Sectarianism? Imperialism? Foreign Intervention? Was it the desperate defense of private wealth, the class system, international law, or the conflicts of the governments? How could one label what was happening?”
The narrator muddles toward an answer, but, to his credit, never settles on just one.
The nameless, questioning Iraqi journalist opens and closes the novel. Within, he is writing a biography of the fictional violinist Kamel Medhat, who was assassinated in Baghdad at the age of 80.
In trying to explain the life and death of Medhat, the narrator is also trying to tell the story of his native Baghdad. Who was to blame for the Baghdad of 2006? We are not given a single culprit. The best we have is a starting point for the current violence. This is “the Farhoud incident,” which followed the May 1941 revolution.
The Farhoud incident — a wave of attacks on Jews, who were then a third of Baghdad’s residents — deeply affected the Sunni Muslim Kamel Medhat. This was because Medhat was born, and spent his first twenty-seven years, as the Jew Yousef Sami Saleh.
The Farhoud incident, the narrator writes, “can be described as a real turning point in the history of this society, being the first attack of its kind against its own citizens, and opening the door to civil conflict. Although historians have devoted little attention to it and have done nothing to address our collective amnesia, we can safely say that all the subsequent civil strife in Baghdad may be traced back to what happened on that fateful day in 1941.”
During the incident, Saleh’s aunt was burned to death. A Jewish girl was stripped of her clothing, and Saleh watched as men placed their feet on her head and stamped on it “with full force.”
The descriptions are sharply done, and Baghdad and Tehran both come vividly to life under the touch of Bader’s prose, in clear translation by Amira Nowaira. The WWII Baghdad of the 1940s, the “revolutionary” Baghdad of the 1970s, the patriotic Baghdad of the 1980s, the isolated Baghdad of the 1990s, and the post-apocalyptic Baghdad of the 2000s, are all constructed and re-constructed before the reader’s eyes.
The book doesn’t ignore the colonial role of the British and Americans. Another beginning of the story is 1926, when Saleh is born and the Iraqi-British treaty is signed. Twenty-four years later, the Jewish violin prodigy is stripped of his Iraqi nationality and must leave for Israel. But Saleh finds Israel suffocating and wants to do whatever he can to return to the civilization of Baghdad. So he becomes the Shiite Haidar Salman, who is deported to Tehran, and later sneaks back to Iraq as the Sunni Kamel Medhat, who plays concerts for Saddam Hussein.
The core of the novel is strung around these three overlapping identities. The narrative reminds us (too often) that it’s in conversation with the three main alter egos of Fernando Pessoa. Bader’s “The Tobacco Keeper” opens and closes with a passage from the Portuguese existential poet’s “The Tobacco Kiosk”:
Eat your chocolate, little girl;
Eat your chocolate!
Believe me, there are no metaphysics in the world beyond
Believe me, all the religions in the world do not teach more
than the sweetshop.
Eat, dirty girl, eat!
But “The Tobacco Keeper” is not just in conversation with western art. Its violinist is an artist in the western tradition, yes, but he is also searching for ways to express Iraq. And the narrative is aware not just of the masks of Fernando Pessoa but also those of Frantz Fanon.
The female characters are perhaps the most disappointing part of the book. They are little more than djinni, sexual beings that exist to attract, repel, and reveal more about the male characters. But, in the end, perhaps the dozens of male characters don’t exist for themselves either, but rather to reveal the characters of the cities they inhabit.
After all, the true protagonist of this book is not the narrator, nor his violinist, but Baghdad.