The Long Way Back
By Fuad al-Takarli.
New York: AUC Press, 2001. 379 pp.
In February of 1963, a cohort of Baathist civilians and soldiers overthrew the republican regime of Abd al-Karim Qasim in Iraq. The leader, who had himself been responsible for ousting King Faisal II in 1958, had become unpopular with the pan-Arabist and the Communist forces within his country. This, combined with other political factors, led to the downfall of his government and his assassination. "The Long Way Back," by the winner of the 2000 Owais Prize for the Arabic Novel, Fuad al-Takarli, takes place in the days and weeks before the eruption of the streets of Baghdad and the assassination of Qasim, who did seek refuge in the Ministry of Defense for 24 hours but was eventually executed, along with several of his top aides. While the nation spins toward violence and unrest, "The Long Way Back" describes a family whose inner, personal turmoil will become inextricably caught up with and unhappily resolved by the political chaos around them.
Munira, a schoolteacher with long blonde hair and "golden eyes," and her mother have arrived at the house of their Baghdadi relatives, the Ismailis. The Ismailis lived in the old Bab al-Shaykh area of the city - four generations in one large home that allows for little privacy. The elderly grandmother, Umm Hasan, relies on the rest of the household to care for her, while Abd al-Karim suffers a bout of depression after the death of his friend, causing him to fail his university exams and spend his days philosophizing about the significance of life. His brother Midhat, a successful lawyer, tries to mend the broken marriage of his sister and alcoholic brother-in-law, while their meddlesome Aunt Safiya monitors the interactions and behavior of the house's many inhabitants.
|"The Long Way Back" is about the slow, painful process of disillusionment and the choice that follows: Does one continue living, or simply give up? Munira's tragedy enlightens her about the unbalanced gender politics in Iraqi society....|
Safiya is especially interested in Munira, who prefers to spend her days lounging in bed and reading, breaking once in a while to chat idly with her cousins, Midhat, Madiha, and Abd al-Karim, or her nieces, Sana and Suha (Madiha's daughters). Munira is intelligent and beautiful, and skillfully evades Safiya's constant questions about why she and her mother mysteriously moved from the town of Baquba to Baghdad. The questions are so incessant that Munira grows increasingly more irritated by the obvious lack of privacy in the household and loses her temper with Saifya: "She addressed Safiya angrily, without raising her voice: '... There's nothing wrong with me, but I'd be better still if you weren't so nosy, Auntie.'" An air of mystery surrounds Munira, and it is upon her secret that the plot of the novel hinges.
As the novel progresses, al-Takarli gracefully passes control of the narrative to various characters. Often, significant scenes are repeated, 're-shot' as in a film, but from different viewpoints, thus revealing new information and offering new insight to the many tensions in the Ismaili household. During the chapter in which the narration is aligned with Munira's thoughts, al-Takarli unveils the secret Munira has been harboring, the secret that has driven her and her mother to seek refuge in Baghdad, but has kept her aloof and emotionally distant from the family.
She had been raped in Baquba, and she realizes that even though she is not responsible for the crime, society's strict codes on sex and its equation of an unmarried woman's virginity with her family's honor will combine to ruin any hope for future happiness. Even her cousin Midhat, who is deeply in love with her, contemptuously thinks, "she had turned out to be flawed" when he discovers her secret. As a survival strategy, Munira does her best to withdraw from the family, as well as from society, because she knows that the rape will incriminate her despite her innocence.
As an unmarried woman, Munira lacks freedom and is caught in the impenetrable cage of the family. A conversation that she has with Midhat makes this clear: "'I mean,' he turned to Munira as he spoke, 'even if our lives are in God's hands, my life belongs to me. It's in my hands. Nobody's got the right to ask me to explain what I'm going to do with it....' 'Perhaps it's a philosophy I don't know much about,' said Munira, 'but what you're saying wouldn't work here. Everyone questions you and interferes in your life, whether you want them to or not.'"
Munira understands that women don't have the same options as men, and that the ability to philosophize about freedom is itself a luxury. Her words highlight the hold that traditional family honor has over her, and the vulnerable position in which she has found herself - a fatherless, husbandless woman, dependent on her Aunt's family for support and protection.
The crime committed against her, and the silence she feels forced to maintain, cause her to question long-held traditions, especially when her cousin Midhat proposes marriage to her. Afraid that he will find out that she has lost her virginity and refuse to understand her innocence, she casts a cynical look at the entire tradition of the Arab marriage: "We had been told, on dubious authority sometimes, that marriage was everything in a girl's life here, as both a means and an end, and included legitimate sex and children, and other pleasant things besides, and also a man. They did well to keep quiet about the bad side and leave us to enjoy the dreams that always float around these subjects, to hope eternally, since there is no life without hope. A flagrant lie."
"The Long Way Back" is about the slow, painful process of disillusionment and the choice that follows: Does one continue living, or simply give up? Munira's tragedy enlightens her about the unbalanced gender politics in Iraqi society; Midhat struggles to break from the cultural traditions that his logic rejects, but which nonetheless exercise a powerful influence over his actions; Abd al-Karim undergoes an emotional internal battle due to his friend's death, but learns about himself; and the Baathist revolution brings home to them all how unpredictable the nation's politics can be, and a new understanding of the tight coils that bind country and family. It is Husayn, Madiha's alcoholic husband, who speaks what are probably the most poignant lines of the novel: "I don't know if I'm better or not, whether I'm going to live or die ... I'm a useless person, Midhat, but I can't leave this world behind! ... Death's no easy matter, my friend." He clings to life, no matter how overwhelming it often is, and the force of his words captures the attitudes of the other characters, who collect the tattered remains of their defeated selves and persist in living.
The novel has an unorthodox publishing history: al-Takarli, who is Iraqi, was asked by the Iraqi censor to cut out a major character who represented the Baath movement. The author refused, and instead sent the novel to be published in Beirut by Dar Ibn Rushd. In 1980, "The Long Way Back" was published and distributed in Iraq without any further censorship problems.
It was translated into French in 1985, and now appears for the first time in English translation. It enters the English canon at an important and tense time in American-Iraqi relations, and captures the spirit of a nation at one of its most tumultuous and significant historical moments. "The Long Way Back" is masterfully told, a novel filled with honest and searing revelations about gender inequalities, political alignments, romantic passions, and familial grief - but most of all, about internal enlightenment.
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 8, no.38 (Winter 2002)