SHOW TRIGGER WARNING Descriptions of war

Reviews|||

The Orange Trees of Baghdad by Leilah Nadir

28th Mar 2014

★★★★
The Orange Trees of Baghdad
When Iraq was invaded in 2003, writer Leilah Nadir found herself in an unenviable position. Born to an Iraqi Father and English Mother, she was on the side of both the invader and the invaded.

She had never set foot in the country: her experiences and knowledge of Iraq were essentially her Father’s, who had left in the 1960s and been unable to return, too scared of conscription, arrest or worse.

The Orange Trees of Baghdad is a love story to and lament for a place never visited: through her Father’s stories she tells the tale of their family, the country he came from and what happened after he left.

The orange trees of the title refer to those overhanging the garden of his family home in the capital city: a tranquil, well-built villa full of visitors, laughter and love.

The first image Nadir paints of Baghdad is one memory from this garden: “a date palm stretched high, intermingled with a few fronds from the pomegranate tree… mint and parsley for salads, a loofah plant for sponges,” a place to laze “in the shade on a stiflingly hot day.”

Nadir is adept at using smell, taste, sound and sensation to draw a rich picture of Iraq, her family and their history, and is careful to make sure that this picture is one separate from the usual idea we have of her home country: one of bombed streets, crying children, oppressed women and a war-torn society.

The fact that she builds up this picture so successfully – one which is so rarely shown to the West – makes the eventual descriptions of war all the more gutting. There are plenty, of course: in a history and memoir of Iraq how on earth could someone avoid them?

The final half of the book is a heart-wrenching, relentless depiction of the invasion and the chaos which followed, told through the stories of Nadir’s Iraqi family... and the trips her friend Farah makes to document the conflict on camera.The final half of the book is a heart-wrenching, relentless depiction of the invasion and the chaos which followed, told through the stories of Nadir’s Iraqi family – who she makes and maintains contact with – and the trips her friend Farah makes to document the conflict on camera.

Searingly angry, Nadir draws no distinction between life under Saddam and under the Americans. An old Iraqi saying, “It Shall be Written,” is uttered repeatedly by her relatives as a way of comforting each other about the atrocities committed by both the dictator and invading forces.

The effect is to unite both Bush and Saddam in tyranny, to separate the “true” country and it’s people from anyone who may seek to control it.

They can’t be truly separate of course – and Nadir doesn’t flinch away from showing the effect of the conflict upon ordinary citizens.

A whole chapter is dedicated to Farah’s portraits of people maimed and injured by the war, and there are graphic descriptions of the kidnaps, checkpoint shootings and terror which surrounds her cousins.

They’ll likely provoke any reader with a heart into heartbreak and fury, but The Orange Trees of Baghdad is so much more than a lament or a howl of rage. It’s enlightening.

The invading forces had many aims, but giving a voice to the people they were apparently freeing wasn’t one of them. In this book, Nadir goes someway towards putting that right: only when we listen to more voices like this will we be able to claim that anyone is liberated.

She makes no bones about the fact that her country, as her family knew it, is gone for good, but as long as the people are allowed to speak, to remember, then the loss will never be complete.