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Breaking news, broken lives

Zubaida's Window A Novel of Iraqi Exile Iqbal Al-Qazwini Translated from the Arabic by Azza El Kholy and Amira Nowaira Feminist Press: 138 pp., $19.95

October 19, 2008|Larry Fondation

IT IS easy to feel the pain we suffer, much harder to know the pain we cause. It is simple, even facile, to be a "sensitive" person, if sensitive means easily wounded. Even a vulnerable person, after all, can lack empathy.

We grasp this effortlessly in our private lives. In our public lives, distant violence does not disrupt. This is the point of view of the powerful.

But if you are powerless, an exile and a refugee, and distant violence is descending on your family and the neighborhood where you grew up, where your father raised you and near to where your brother died -- an unwilling conscript to an Iraqi army he did not choose to join -- perhaps it is more painful than bloodshed close at hand.

Iqbal Al-Qazwini's novel "Zubaida's Window" tells the story of an Iraqi woman exiled in Berlin since the mid-1980s. Zubaida's father was a peaceful man; her brother died, or disappeared, during Iraq's disastrous war with Iran; her relatives are communist agitators against the regime of Saddam Hussein.

As 2003 dawns, Zubaida -- a 20-year resident of a rapidly changing city -- is lonely and isolated. Her neighbors distrust her; they despise her "otherness." A pleasant German neighbor chats with her cordially yet casually denigrates Arabs and Middle Easterners during the course of their conversations.

When the United States invades Iraq in 2003, Zubaida watches on television. This banal medium becomes a metaphor for incomprehensible pain and impotence.

Zubaida is an involuntary voyeur.

She's spent a third of her life wandering pre- and post-unification Berlin, equally disenchanted and alienated; she's dreamt another third, almost psychedelically, about memories of her flawed, authoritarian homeland; the rest of her life, she watches the destruction of Baghdad on CNN.

"They are bombing my memory," she says, out loud and to herself.

Zubaida's exile is both physical and psychological. Unable to return to Iraq, she watches its destruction on TV and turns off the sound. Eventually she flees Berlin, and the televised dismantling of her country, for Amman, Jordan. She hears her language once again and is temporarily assuaged. But an Egyptian taxi driver catches on to her Iraqi origin and her exile in Europe -- both in the course of a short cab ride. "European countries offer only depression," he observes.

The war escalates. In Jordan, she watches more TV. Hussein's ministers give rosy reports of their resistance as cities fall and empty battlefields appear on screen.

Zubaida's memories again overwhelm her. Despite its relative familiarity, Jordan ultimately comforts her little more than did Berlin. In the blue light of broadcast news, Baghdad falls. Zubaida retreats further into isolation in her drab apartment. Her heart palpitates. She is afraid of dying. But, in the end, she merely falls asleep.

"Zubaida's Window" is a tormented portrait of a world where watching is not enough, where witnessing is difficult and where power and influence are -- at the individual level -- nearly impossible.

Al-Qazwini closes the novel with a response all too common: Zubaida collapses into a sleep of weariness and depression. "I've chosen stillness and given up movement," she says to herself. Her reaction is sad, even regrettable -- but easy to understand.


Larry Fondation is the author of two novels and a short story collection set in inner-city Los Angeles. "Unintended Consequences," a new collection of short fiction, is due out next June.

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