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Book Review: The Sirens Of Baghdad by Yasmina Khadra

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You were eight years old when they invaded the first time. At that time your village was ignored. The tribe went on much as it had since even before they settled and gave up the ways of wandering the desert. Nobody cared for a little village made of mud and straw.

But Oil For Food and embargos take their effect and as you've grown to manhood your country has begun to disintegrate around you. Somehow your father managed to find money enough to send you to university in Baghdad, but one night during your studies the sky explodes and your future ends.

You return to your village and do nothing, because there is nothing for anyone anymore. The war hasn't come to your little village, but you and everyone else, watch it on television every day in the café. The talk is of resistance and self-recrimination.

"The Americans wouldn't have come if we had had the spine to get rid of Saddam on our own"

"They would have come anyway for the Oil; to pump us dry"

"They came to make sure that Israel stays the power centre of the region"
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The Sirens Of Baghdad, published by Doubleday Books, an imprint of Random House Canada, is the latest novel by Algerian author Yasmina Khadra (the pen name for Mohammed Moulessehoul). Like his earlier works Wolf Dreams and In The Name Of The God Med. Khadra takes us into the world of the men and women who have been pushed so far by circumstances that they've ended up on the path of violence and vengeance.

For our nameless protagonist in The Sirens Of Baghdad the killing of an autistic young man by American soldiers at a check – point, the accidental bombing of a wedding party in the village that killed village elders, and finally a raid on his house looking for weapons by American troops who humiliate his father are what put his feet on that road. It wasn't so much the first two incidents, they were merely horrific and caused him to faint, it was the last one; the assault upon his family's honour that pushed him over the edge.
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An empty vessel, or a vacuum, will eventually have to be filled with something. When his one-armed, elderly father is knocked down by a soldier and ends up laid out on the floor of the house with his genitals exposed (In the Bedouin tradition a son must never see his father in a state of undress, and to be exposed to his genitals is the gravest of dishonours) because he wanted to put some pants on to cover his nakedness, the floodgates of anger are opened and it streams in to fill the void created by hopelessness.

As the story develops and we follow our young man to Baghdad, where he hopes to strike a blow against the occupiers, Khadra shows us in no uncertain terms how the American occupation of Iraq has driven the young men to a life of terror. It's the complete indifference to them as people or any sort of recognition that their culture and beliefs matter that turn them into killers.

"I wanted to set fire to the world and watch it burn" is how more then one character describes how they felt when they left their villages to come to Baghdad in the hopes of joining the resistance. Our newspapers are filled with stories about fanatical zealots who are promised paradise in reward for their martyrdom when the truth is far different.

Most of them are simply young men who have no hope anymore. All their dreams have been crushed and they no longer see any reason for living. If by their deaths they can bring some meaning into their life and regain a vestige of the self-respect they feel has been stolen from them and their country, they will.

Our young man connects up with people from his village in Baghdad who have become one of the "resistance groups" that blow up anything they feel like. Khadra doesn't paint them like heroes or martyrs; he describes them as people so full of anger that they don't care who they kill anymore. They want revenge on the world for what they see as the injustices served upon them.

At one point in their lives they may have been like our young man, who abhorred violence to such an extent that he was ostracized as a child for being "womanish" and had fainted at the sight of blood. But now he idles away his time in Baghdad going to the scenes of terror attacks and rejoicing in his complete lack of feeling.

He is so far gone that he's almost beyond being touched by anything. When one of his compatriots dares to suggest that their cause is just but they might be going about in the wrong way he tries to ignore him. Even when told the truth about a brave suicide attack on soldiers; the man had become sickened by the violence after he blew up a school bus full of children and strapped belts of bread to himself to look like he was wearing bombs and got an American sentry post to shoot him to a pulp; he is not swayed.

Yasmina Khadra has shown in the past that he has an amazing capability for creating characters that are believable and whose actions are consistent with what they are and where they've come from. He tells a story in a manner that is reminiscent of the way Bertol Brecht wrote theatre; while we can fairly easily predict what will happen, that isn't important.

What's important is why the story happens and how. It is information that we in the West have been turning a blind eye to for years. Instead of being willing to shoulder our share of the blame for creating these people or at least the circumstances that allows them to exist, we find it convenient to blame it on their religion. Until we are willing to accept the responsibility for our actions we will be at constant risk from someone who has been completely inured to violence and has lost all that he or she cares about.

We see these people around us in the West too, the ones who are willing to destroy the world as vengeance for the wrongs committed against them. One only needs to look at what happened at West Virginia Tech. to see that.

Khadra's gift is being able to turn the world on its head and give us a view we never see. Life is seen through the eyes of the people we habitually call "rag heads" or "evil". These people see the soldiers of the West as brutes who yell at them in an incomprehensible language, make no attempt to understand what's important to them, and treat them like they are all evil.

Khadra reminds us that the location of Baghdad marks one of the birth spots of all civilization, for it was on the banks of the Tigris that humans created some of their first settlements. The people who live there take pride in their history and their culture and when you look at the world through those eyes; and they are also the eyes of a person who sees no hope for a world any better than what he has now, you can't help but at least understand the experiences that make them "terrorists"

The Sirens Of Baghdad is a warning and an education that every Western person should have as required reading. If we fail to learn anything from this book or heed its warnings than quite frankly we're only getting what we deserve. The world doesn't end at the Atlantic or Pacific seaboard and we would do well to start remembering that sooner rather then later.

Canadian residents can purchase copies of The Sirens of Baghdad through Amazon.ca or directly from Random House Canada.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://www.impeachspace.com/profile/amikegreen2 Mike Green

    I have written a book with a message very similar to this one. After more than 3 years of meticulous research, I authored, “The WHOLE Truth about the U.S. War on Terror: answers to every question you never knew to ask.” In that book, you will find real life characters similar to the ones this author created.
    Ayman al-Zawahiri was a young boy in Egypt, born to a family of prestigious doctors. He also became a doctor as well. And today he is known as the No. 2 man in al_Qaeda. Why?
    Such questions are seldom asked. But I ask them. And I provide the history of individuals and nations to offer insight into how the U.S. became involved in the Middle East and created the process that churns out mujahideen (holy warriors) faster than they can be killed by invading forces.
    This book and my own seem to have similar messages written from both a fictional and nonfictional perspective, on opposite hemispheres. Funny how life comes together that way.

  • http://www.mohammedab.com Mohammed A Bahjat

    Laurecia The real Angel

    a Girl has a pain in her legs its same paralyse .. her name is Lucrecia she cant move her legs either … her parents taking care of her.. there life was Difficult no Money no Good Food, .. her father was looking for a job … One Day HE found a job in another Place not with Family … His job is (SCAVENGER) in that Day …. DAD : Hey my Girl I have TO Go to Work Now I wIll Miss you ,,, When i come back i will bring you a beautyful Dress …… Lucrecia : OK Dady I love you … Lucrecia’s tears Go On her father’s face… It was Sad Time when see her father opening Door and taking his bag to move to Work in another city …. At the Night 11:16 pm … MOM: Lucrecia please sleep its time to sleep… Lucrecia : Mom I cant sleep ……. Why… Because my father is not beside me i am waiting for his Kiss… MOM: ok Lucrecia he will come back Soon… Lucrecia: Ok Mama I love you… I love you too… In the Morning 9:50 am… Laurecia opened her eyes… My Sweety i will bring you to a garden… Lucrecia and her mother move to Garden there was some Butterfly’s… at the same time the people laugh at her because she is in Wheelchair the people was Bad they has a bad heart…. Lucrecia Get bored after she saw the people… Lucrecia : mama please move to Home i cant stay here please mama… her mother listen to her doughter she was Very Good women because she Do everything that Lucrecia want… when they Go home They saw a paper under Door… Lucrecia: hey Mama look at the Paper mama… OK… Hey its a message from your Dad he said that he is fine and i will come back soon I miss you Lucrecia my doughter… when Lucrecia heard MISS YOU… she cry… at evening 5:35 pm Lucrecia Looking at The Sun. she heard An ANGEL sound… Hey Lucrecia Come on Take my hand we will fly… Lucrecia saw a white hand… She take the ANGEL hand… She feel That she flying… hey Girl i will bring you to all world… Lucrecia see many country’s She moving To United States America… ANGEL… Hey Lucrecia look at Freedom Tower… Lucrecia said Oh Is that real… YES its Real… Its beautyful… Angel Bring her to many Country’s like London, Germany, and others.. Angel: OK laurecia now i will bring you back to your Mom… OK my Angel… It was Nice travel with the Angel… Laurecia: OK Angel.. after The Angel bring Laurecia to her House… Mom: Hey My Doughter I it was 7 hours I searching for you where you have been?? Mama i was with Angel I Go To many Country’s…. How you Go? I Go With Angel… her Mom Think maybe In Dreams She Go… But it was realy… OK MY Doughter I love you… I LOVE YOU MOM… after a while someone Open The door Laurecia Laurecia, I have a Gift for you… Laurecia What is my Gift Mom.. MOM: the Gift IS… Your Dad… Realy… The gift was her Father and it was very Long TIme She dont see her Father… Dad: hey Laurecia I bring the Red Dress just a minute I will open my Bag (Bag Sound) this is your Dress, Do you Like It… Laurecia: YEs Daddy Thanks YOu She HUg her Father and kiss because… after 6 or Seven Days Laurecia with parents Move to the Home Garden… her Mom tell her Dad come on i DOnt know they Go in the Garden Laurecia heard a sound of Satan Hey Laurecia Take my hand I will Bring you To many Country’s… The parents Came back they look to her wellchair She was Not in IT .. Laurecia Laurecia .. MOM: Laurecia Please where are you Laureciaaaaaaaaa… They Dont Find Laurecia the Police Come To her House to look Where she Going They Dont FIND her: Police Officer: MR we Dont Found your Doughter but we will search her… Laurecia Was with Satan… Satan: Hahaha Girl I will show you my Beautiful country’s…. Where?…. You will see Now This Is Saoudia Arabia, Look at this Man we they will cut His Head because he is Theif Hahaha Look At Him Keep your Eyes on HIm… Laurecia Is Like Angels how She will look To Those Bad Guys… No I Cant I Cant… She Close her Eyes… hey laurecia Open your EYES I will bring you to another Country’s This is IRAN look they Will Catch This woman Because She talk about The PRIEST… after that the Satan Bring Laurecia To home… her Mom she crying… Febo what time is it now? its 7:50 Mom Dad where are you… Its Laurecia Laurecia Hey Doughter where you have been?? The Satan was Show me some bad Country’s… Dad: Doctor I think she is sick because she told me That she was with Satan and before that she told me I was with Angle… Doctor: Maybe she have a problem in her Brain.. Mom: no Doctor she Dont have any problems in Brain when we was in Room She was in Garden But after a while we move to look at her she was Not In the it even the police Search her but they Dont find her. Doctor: where is She Bring here i I want to talk with her… Hello, What is your name? my name is Laurecia .. OK how was your Travel with Angel? It was Nice Travel but my past was bad because Satan was take me OK Laurecia if you GO another Time Tell me about ok… OK I will tell you… Doc Whisper… Bring her out maam i want to talk with her Father .. Mr your Doughter looks like a Mad she say something Not TRUE how she Flying GOing To many country’s Bring her Home and tell her I want to come with you To go Travel with The Angel OK .. OK thanks do you believe that Laurecia IS mad or her Brain Is not well ? Dad: Laurecia I want to come with you when you Go to Travel ok… OK but where is my Mom I want her To Come with us we will go together in this evening… At evening They hear Angle Sound Hey Laurecia you and your family will fly now her they GO to Germany hey mama hey daddy you believe now?? YEs I believe… Angle Now I will bring you to Mississippi City IN United States… Laurecia: OK But can we stay… YES I will keep you In USA… Laurecia And with her parents Now living in UNITED STATES Now She is Not paralyse because she is in another Country and now Her Father working a Driver For one Company and her Mom Teaching English at school…

    Sorry If there is wrong words