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Book Review Courage in adversity

MARY CONWAY recommends a compelling and complex story of one Iraqi family, held together by their Jewish heritage

Um-Kamal
By Fawzi Ibrahim
KFI Publishing £11.99

IRAQ, throughout history, has been a source of wonder: the cradle of civilisation, the inspiration for the Garden of Eden while, in recent times, a stain on the collective conscience of the thinking West.

But what is it really like to live there?

Fawzi Ibrahim’s debut novel is a unique insight. Starting in 1948 and seen from this century, it brings us the compelling and complex story of one Iraqi family, held together by their Jewish origin and the steadfast, unwavering strength of a mother so purposeful that she pits her simple family loyalty against a military-controlled, hostile, anti-Jewish state.

The mother is the eponymous Um-Kamal (meaning Mother of Kamal) and the story hangs on the arrest of  two of her sons described by their police captors as “filthy Jews.” Her eldest (Kamal) is inexplicably released; the other son, Sasson, is sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment.

It falls to Um-Kamal with the help of the Communist Party to fight for her imprisoned son; meanwhile her youngest son tries, over years, to make sense of the events surrounding his brothers’ fates.

Fawzi Ibrahim is, by profession, a lecturer and international authority in engineering, with a reputation rooted in political activism and the trade union movement at national level. But he has another dimension.

For what amazes, in this book, is the beautifully tender, atmospheric writing from this hard man of the left, and the cumulatively engrossing descriptions of an Iraqi life lived in a regime of fear where, far from being the “chosen” race, you are the enemy within.

Based on the author’s own experience, the recall of atmosphere and the impact on the senses is so authentic as to transport us body and soul into this lived reality.  Political posturing there is none – there doesn’t need to be.

The immersion in the moment-by-moment detail of Iraqi living is enough to make us feel the anger, share the wistful glimpse of what this beautiful land could be, and watch with disbelief as we see all that can go wrong with a government and how it can bring fear to the world.

The characters  come and go, and we jump from one time period to another, but what emerges from the book is far more than an individual story… it’s the experience of being in Iraq and walking in the writer’s shoes.

We imbibe the urgency of political literacy, not just for ageing patriarchs but for children too. We laugh with the writer at the absurdities of a country where aspiration and reality are so starkly opposed. We enjoy the memorable filmic qualities. And we learn, as the author comments, that “humanity was in short supply in these hellishly hot days of Baghdad.”

From a writer so practised in the cerebral art, this is a genuinely artistic endeavour.

It is politics lived out in human empathy with wit and humour: no sentimentality, no preaching, just veracity, humour and heart.  Big themes and a  journey in every sense.

 
Um-Kamal is available from from kfiPublishing.com — there is a 15 per cent discount coupon for Morning Star readers (code MS1S)

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