Country Focus: Iraq (Al Iraq / Eraq in Arabic)
Zubaida’s Window: A Novel of Iraqi Exile
By Iqbal Al-Qazwini
Translated by Azza El Kholy and Amira Nowaira
Afterword by Nadje Al-Ali
Originally published in Arabic as Mamarrat as-Sukoon by Azminah, 2006.
My edition: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2008.
Time period: 2003
I chose Zubaida’s Window because I anticipated that it would provide a unique perspective – what does it feel like to see a war fought against your own country on the boob tube, especially when you’re culturally isolated?
Zubaida lives alone in an apartment building in Berlin; before German reunification she had lived in the communist, East German side. She mentions only two friends: a fellow unhappy exile and a long-dead East German writer. She gains no pleasure from her work and the cold weather depresses her.
Now she watches America invade Iraq live on television, sees Baghdad’s buildings and landmarks destroyed, and her fellow citizens killed. She can’t help but rehash where in its history Iraq went wrong. Did the downward spiral happen after the murder of King Faisal II or the assassination of rebel leader Abdel Karim Qassem?
The war brings grim memories to the surface: the forcing out of the Jews, murdered politicians, hangings in the square. Insomnia plagues her. As an exile, she had resigned herself to the loss of her country, but now the war has shown her the loss of her dreams. Longing for sun and Arabic voices, she visits Amman, Jordan, but even this Baghdad substitute can’t break her out of her depression. Coffee is her only comfort.
To have all of these memories and emotions and have so few people around to commiserate with must be quite overwhelming and therapy-inducing. But Zubaida has no spark to her; she is as dreary as the Berlin winters she complains about. Her unrelenting funk almost seems to have less to do with the war and more with an intrinsic melancholy. The burgeoning war might be a plausible excuse if her mood had darkened since the invasion, but her misery and loneliness in Berlin goes back 30 years!
Zubaida’s Window is a work of fiction, but like her title character, Iraqi author Al- Qazwini has also lived in exile in Berlin since the late 1970s. I can only hope that Al- Qazwini has adapted and persevered more successfully than Zubaida.
Nadje Al-Ali’s informative “Afterword” serves as both Cliff Notes and an Iraqi history lesson and far outshines the novel. I recommend trying out one of the books in Further Reading rather than hanging with gloomy Zubaida.
After she takes her third bitter sip [of coffee], she glances at the black television screen and read the blackness as Baghdad, a city shut off, its image gone. She feels suddenly terrified. The coffee cup trembles, spilling a few drops onto the blanket. She gets up and cleans the blanket with warm water. Seated again, she wraps her trembling body with the blanket once more. She is no longer able to drink the rest of the coffee, feeling sickened by the empty television screen, which, she is convinced, is her only window to Iraq. For almost a year now, it has transmitted nothing but images of Iraq and especially Baghdad, drowning in a sea of expectations and possibilities: death, annihilation, destruction, burning oil, the smell of gunpowder, the remains of dead bodies, and the wolves coming from the border deserts to devour corpses of soldiers and non-soldiers alike. She cannot bear to look at pictures of Baghdad burning, and is equally terrified by the image of Baghdad dead and still. She presses the “on” button on the remote control, which lights the screen, showing an area of debris and a man wearing a grey dishdasha saying, “They bombed our homes and our neighbor here is dead, his kids injured. This side of my house has collapsed. No government officials were here.”