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For Books’ Sake Talks To: Leilah Nadir

28th Apr 2014

For Books' Sake Talks To: Leilah Nadir
In her memoir The Orange Trees of Baghdad, Leilah Nadir explores what it means to be both Iraqi and English when war war broke out in 2003. For Books' Sake's Rebecca Winson caught up with Leilah to find out more about her relationship with Iraq, the West and her writing.

For Books’ Sake: Do you ever envision a time in the near future when you, your siblings or your Father would make the trip to Irag?

Leilah Nadir: I think I will be the only one who goes to Iraq if there is ever an opportunity. I now understand that it would be too hard for my father or his sisters to see the wreckage and destruction of everything they knew and cherished. At the moment, Baghdad feels completely out of reach to me for a long time, but I may be able to go to Northern Iraq, the Kurdish part. It wouldn’t be the same as going to Baghdad though, they are very different parts of the country. I dream of going with Farah Nosh, my photographer friend who illustrated the book, showing me the country.

FBS: Now there’s conflict in Syria, how are Karim and his family? It must have been terrible for them to go from one conflict to another? Have you been able to see them again?

Karim and his family made it to Canada just before the conflict in Syria began. At first they weren’t sure that the move to Canada was a good one and they missed Syria as at least it was still the Middle East and so many of their Iraqi friends were there. But now they have seen the horror of the Syrian war they feel like they narrowly missed having to live through another war. I have met them again since then, and we were all surprised that Canada was the place of that meeting. They could have ended up anywhere in the world.

FBS: Your book was so brilliant not only because it told me about the war from an angle I’d forgotten, but, in all honesty, because it reminded me of the war. Now Bush and Blair are out of the picture, people seem to have forgotten about the injustices committed. Would you like to see both leaders made to answer for their actions?

Absolutely, Bush and Blair are war criminals as much as the other leaders in other countries that are brought to justice because of their illegal wars and killings. We will know we live in a just world when Western leaders are held as accountable as all other violent men in the world. But that isn’t the way things are. When Saddam Hussein illegally invaded Kuwait he got the Gulf War as his punishment, but this illegal invasion has not been punished. It is very dangerous for the world. It makes the divide between East and West much stronger as people outside the West see the inconsistency and hypocrisy as proof of political inequity in the world.

There is an amazing American lawyer and Iraqi single mother who have filed a suit against the Bush administration that seeks to hold political leaders accountable for their actions. We should all support this effort, as we have had our democracy hijacked for the ends of an elite group who benefited from the war. We should be shouting from the rooftops as we are the ones who paid for it. The Iraqis paid in blood, but we paid in taxes. But we are a passive democracy.

FBS: You make it very clear that the women in your family aren’t the type you can oppress easily! Why do you think that the oppression of women was held up as evidence of Hussein’s evil before the invasion, but then afterwards was seemingly forgotten?

It was held up because it is an emotive issue in the West. We are so arrogant about our liberation that we forget how recently women won these rights in the West. We are impatient for the rest of the world to look like us, instead of thinking that maybe other societies have their own ways to progress and become free. The issue was quietly forgotten after the war because it was never really a goal, it was a smokescreen.

Oppression of women and diminishment of their rights has increased in Iraq since the invasion. War does not liberate women. We should always be questioning the argument that war can help women’s rights. Women (and children) are usually the victims of war, left widowed and often without income, with their lives destroyed but the pressure of providing for their families left. Our ignorance about the role of women in Muslim or Eastern societies was exploited to make us think that women’s lives in Iraq were comparable to those in Afghanistan, say, or Saudi Arabia. We aren’t going to war with Saudi Arabia to liberate the women there, are we? In Iran, women are members of parliament, and yet we demonize that country all the time.

We need far more facts and less emotion when it comes to the lives of women in the East. And yes, alarm bells must ring when political leaders use women’s rights as an excuse to invade countries and do unspeakable violence. Ask the mothers of Fallujah whose children have terrible genetic deformities since the war if they think they have been liberated.

FBS: Your book is packed with information about Iraq and your family history. It’s also very emotional. How did you stop the emotion spilling out and keep focused when you were writing about such sad events?

I wrote an essay called “In the Red Zone” about how I had to sublimate my anger while writing this book so it didn’t kill the story. I discovered that I had to let the story speak for itself — if I related the story as I saw it, then the story itself would provoke anger and emotion in the reader far better than if I just let myself have histrionics on paper. But I do feel irritated by our unspoken desire to leave emotion out of writing in newspapers and to put on this voice of objectivity, especially in the face of something as grave as war. We don’t trust emotion anymore in our political discourse, but we shouldn’t be afraid of letting the personal influence the way stories are told.

We all have biases and showing rather than hiding them can be effective ways to communicate. I always thought it strange that we were taking as fact the articles written by journalists parachuted into a country that Westerns hadn’t visited for a decade, when clearly they knew very little about what was really happening. That is why true intrepid journalists and bloggers like Salam Pax and Riverbend are such heroes and to be valued.

FBS: What’s next for you – will you continue to write about the after-effects of the conflict? Would you ever be inspired to write fiction or poetry about your family history and the war?

At the moment I’m working on a novel set in Baghdad in 1926 with flashbacks to World War I, featuring some real historical figures. But for some of the Iraqi characters I’m drawing on my family history. This was also a time of occupation, this time by the British, the period when modern Iraq was created as a state. It was a more optimistic time in my many ways, but the parallels with now are also striking.

FBS: The memoir is one of very few pieces of writing I’ve read which describes the war from the point of view of the invaded. Are there any other works out there you’d recommend?

The late Anthony Shadid wrote Night Draws Near: Iraq’s people in the Shadow of War (2005) and Haifa Zangana, an Iraqi writer who lives in London, has published many books but Not One More Death (2006) deal with the Iraq war.
Two Iraqi bloggers wrote about the war while it was happening from Baghdad; both blogs were published as books. They are Salam Pax: The Baghdad Blog and Riverbend: Baghdad Burning. And if you want to know how The First Gulf War and sanctions affected life in Iraq, check out Nuha Al Radi, Baghdad Diaries.

The Orange Trees of Bagdhad is available to buy from Foyles now.