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Naphtalene: A Novel of Baghdadby Alia Mamdouh
Synopses & Reviews
Seen through the eyes of a strong-willed and perceptive young girl, Naphtalene beautifully captures the atmosphere of Baghdad in the 1940s and 1950s. Alia Mamdouh vividly recreates a city of public steam baths, roadside butchers and childhood games played in the same streets where political demonstrations against British colonialism are beginning to take place.
At the heart of the novel is nine-year-old Huda, a girl whose fiery, defiant nature belies Western stereotypes of Muslim femininity — and also contrasts sharply with her own inherent powerlessness. Both childishly innocent and acutely perceptive, Huda observes and documents the complex web of relationships in her family. Her father, a bullying police officer who works as a prison guard, treats his two children with vacillating tenderness and brutality, and drives her desparately ill Syrian mother from the house after he takes a second wife. One aunt waits in vain for a man to marry her, while another engages in a sexual relationship with a woman, but is forced to hide it.
Huda must struggle to form her identity amdist this world of unfulfilled women, of yearnings, frustrations, and small tragedies. Her inspiration is her grandmother, a resevoir of strength, humor, and of traditional storytelling, who manages subversively to wield great power in her family and her community.
Through Mamdouh's strikingly inventive use of language, Huda's stream-of-consciousness narrative expands to take in the life not only of a young girl and her family, but of her street, her neighborhood, and her country.
"Originally published in Arabic in 1986, this first U.S. publication by an award-winning Iraqi author living in Paris explores 1950s Baghdad through the eyes of Huda, a fiery and precocious nine-year-old girl. In the teeming streets and dirty alleyways of her neighborhood, Huda is loud and plays rough; she tells her not-so-secret crush, Mahmoud, that she 'can be like a boy.' At home, however, she lives in a world of women: her sickly mother, her grandmother and her aunts. Over the next few years, Huda's father abandons them, her mother dies and Huda herself reaches puberty and must wear the dreaded abaya, or black cloak, in public. Also imminent is the end of the monarchy and the coming revolution. Mamdouh's prose is at once lush and refreshingly earthy — the women, in particular, are free with their frank assessments and insults. Mamdouh's tendency to switch between first- and second-person narration (rendering Huda as both 'I' and 'you') can be disconcerting, and the cast of characters is confusingly large. But she anchors her tale with a spirited and highly sympathetic narrator coming of age in a Baghdad long gone. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Ferocious, visceral descriptions...give a powerful sense not only of Huda's world but also of the way we make and understand memories." Booklist
"The story of Huda, a young girl growing up in Baghdad during the 1940s and 1950s...leaves an indelible impression. Her world is rich with family and neighbors and she notes all of their subtle interactions and secrets." Library Journal
"Mamdouh...employs shifts of narrative perspective and a sophisticated techique in this affectionate but critical dissection of her culture...(Naptalene is) A pungent, episodic glimpse of childhood in a patriarchal society...often intense and lyrical." Kirkus Reviews
"Describes in poetic, incantatory language the city's domestic life...(and) around this private world swirl the politics of the 1950's in Iraq." The New York Times Book Review
"Beautifully evokes the sounds and scents of old Baghdad, as in her descriptions of Friday night prayers: stained tiles and worshippers with sweat-glistened faces, bare feet and non-stop supplications, incense and perfumes." The Washington Post Book World
"[Naphtalene] is a hallucinatory incantation, a fevered dream and nightmare and, finally, a lyric evocation of a place disappeared." Susan Straight, Ms. Magazine
A literary event: the first novel by an Iraqi woman to be published in the United States.
About the Author
Alia Mamdouh, of the Naguib Mahfouz Award in Arabic Literature, is a journalist, essayist and novelist living in exile in Paris. Long banned from publishing in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, she is the author of essays, short stories, and four novels, of which Naptalene is the most widely acclaimed and translated.
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