How do you tell the story of modern Iraq? For novelist, film producer and war correspondent Ali Bader, it’s not enough to recount the terrible cycles of violence that have made his country unrecognizable. His fictional account of Iraq in “The Tobacco Keeper” — first published in Arabic in 2008 as “Hareth al-Tabgh” and newly out in English from Bloomsbury Qatar — is filtered through an identity that is as complex and multivalent as history itself. As an idea, it intrigues, but as a finished book, it becomes mired in its own ambition.
The unnamed journalist narrator takes us through 80 years of Iraqi history, with diversions through Israel, Moscow, Iran and Syria. An ambitious and wide-ranging setting for a political tale of the Middle East, Bader’s novel is also an intensely personal and artistic one. Its central character, a musician, reflects after a performance for Saddam Hussein: “There has always been an ego that watched me and made fun of everything I did. Don’t those great politicians possess a similar ego that watches them and makes fun of their acting and role-playing?”
This existential angst — for the artist, and for Iraq itself — underpins the unfolding plot, and with good reason: the musician character turns out to have lived three different identities during his life, all filtered through the political convulsions of Iraq. Born Yousef Sami Saleh in 1926, a middle class Iraqi Jew exiled to Tel Aviv in 1952, he witnesses what, for him, was the key event in the collapse of Iraqi values: the 1941 Farhoud incident, involving a series of violent and murderous attacks against Iraq’s Jews, events Bader describes 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.”
At moments like these, there is a real sense of atmosphere in the book, and of a fresh analytical perspective that brings internal Iraqi struggles to the forefront of history, but the narrative never settles for one answer. In closing, the narrator muses, “How could we define the identity of the 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 character Yousef Sami Saleh avoids labels as thoroughly as his home country. With a forged passport, he escapes Tel Aviv to Moscow and then Iran, returning to Iraq as the Shia Haidar Salman in 1958 after the fall of the monarchy, only to be deported again in 1980 as Iraqis with Iranian affiliations lose their citizenship in the shadow of the Iran-Iraq war. In 1981 Salman changes his identity a third and final time, for that of Kamal Medhat. This was the Sunni character that brought him back to Baghdad for the third and final time — a Baghdad that would, in 2006, claim him — an 80-year-old man kidnapped and murdered by an unnamed armed group. With a characteristic sense of tragedy, the narrator declares, “He thought that identities spelled the end of the world.”
The book is a worthy choice for translation by Bloomsbury Qatar — it was long listed for the Arab Booker Prize, and Bader himself is well known and respected in Arab literary circles. But despite some poignant moments, its overall execution is frustrating. Bader’s often dry, repetitive prose and paper-thin characterizations seem to have suffered from both indifferent translation and uncritical editing, resulting in a text which, while fascinating in set-up, will neither convert new readers to Arab literature in translation nor thrill those already on the lookout for titles previously unavailable in English. The title of the book comes from a poem, “Tobacco Shop” by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, whose three narrators — the author’s heteronyms — correspond to Saleh’s three lived identities. Again, a fascinating possibility, but the repetitive musing on this connection drags the book down further. At a time when the appetite for voices from the Arab world has never been greater, this is a missed opportunity.