The current emergence of Iraqi novels about the war with Iran has been attributed to the new absence of censorship that once held the nation in its violent grip for decades; a lot of Iraqi literature was effectively repressed until the fall of the Saddam regime. The post-2003 Iraq war canon has indeed come to address not only the more recent occupation but the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s. Mahmoud Saeed’s A Portal in Space is one of a few such Iraqi novels translated into English this year.
Set in the southern Iraqi port of Basra during the 1980-1988 war, the narrative highlights the city’s position under constant threat from bombing. It not only focuses on the effects of war — bombings, conscription, casualties — but also sets in stark relief very ordinary episodes of family gatherings and everyday work dramas. The ordinariness and regularity of bombs falling are highlighted by the clarity and accuracy with which the youth in the neighbourhood can identify nonchalantly almost the exact location of an explosion nearby and its probable damage, as soon as it is heard.
Anwar, a newly-graduated architect, and his affluent family attempt to maintain a sense of normality during the attacks with light-hearted banter, celebrations and regularly maintained work and school schedules. However, the family’s sense of normality, order and structure comes to an end when Anwar joins the Iraqi army and is then listed as missing in action. The ordinariness with which they conducted their lives amidst the bombs before Anwar went missing disintegrates when they struggle to cope with the uncertainty of his fate. His father goes to the front and searches for him; when he doesn’t find any information, he shifts his attention from his work as a judge to make a weekly pilgrimage to Baghdad to seek clues as to his son’s whereabouts.
Both Anwar’s father and sister seek ways to escape the household that his mother has put under interminable mourning and made unbearable for them. His father, Mundhir, pursues a relationship in Baghdad with the beautiful Zahra, who is searching for her missing brother-in-law. His sister, Nur, gets married very quickly without much ceremony and moves to the Iraqi capital.
So concentrated is Saeed on the dialogue between the characters that the novel, at times, looks and sounds like a play. With the exception of Mundhir’s visit to the front, the external environment is neglected and we are left attuned only to the characters’ conversations with each other. Internal dialogue and the feelings of the characters are also amiss. The family members are going through the mourning and grieving process of losing their son and brother, but their feelings are hardly rendered at all. Rather, their declarations to each other and their actions or lack thereof are left to do the work of conveying their emotions: Anwar’s mother cries and locks herself in her room and says hurtful things to her family, so she’s depressed. But her internal self-dialogue, the details of her grieving, her memories, her senses, are all nebulous points in the narrative.
Likewise, Mundhir’s mourning takes the shape of an extramarital affair; again, we are left only with his actions dictating the coordinates of his grief. He tells Zahra, the new object of his desires, that he is grieving for his son but also the woman his wife used to be; he dutifully makes the weekly journey to Baghdad to see if his son shows up on a Red Cross list, but he uses the trip to escape from his wife into the arms of Zahra and tells her what he loves about her. Through all of this, though, the sense of grief and love is hardly conveyed at all; instead, actions and dialogue symptomatic of those expressions are all we are allowed to access. The intimacy suggested by the narrative focus on dialogue between family and lovers belies the distance at which the characters are kept from the reader.
The Iraqi cities are points of departure and arrival amidst the family’s duties and rendezvous. With the exception of the war front where Mundhir seeks out his son, the environment is barely explored. What, for example, is the difference between Baghdad and Basra? How are the cities laid out? How do the characters interact with the city landscapes and their residents? We aren’t told. While the novel gives a glimpse into the effects of war in 1980s Iraq, it is rendered so sparingly that it reads like a bare outline, giving only a glimpse of its potential and what it might have been.