Synopses & Reviews
The third novel in Yasmina Khadra's bestselling trilogy about Islamic fundamentalism has the most compelling backdrop of any of his novels: Iraq in the wake of the American invasion. A young Iraqi student, unable to attend college because of the war, sees American soldiers leave a trail of humiliation and grief in his small village. Bent on revenge, he flees to the chaotic streets of Baghdad where insurgents soon realize they can make use of his anger. Eventually he is groomed for a secret terrorist mission meant to dwarf the attacks of September 11th, only to find himself struggling with moral qualms. The Sirens of Baghdad is a powerful look at the effects of violence on ordinary people, showing what can turn a decent human being into a weapon, and how the good in human nature can resist.
About the Author
YASMINA KHADRA is the nom de plume of the former Algerian army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul. He is the author of six books published in English, among them The Swallows of Kabul and The Attack, for which he was awarded the Prix des Libraires and was short-listed for the Prix Goncourt, Prix Fémina, and Prix Renaudot. He lives in Aix-en-Provence, France.
Reading Group Guide
1. What does The Sirens of Baghdad
reveal about the Iraq war and its effects on ordinary Iraqis that news reports do not fully convey? In what ways does it challenge, complicate, or confirm conventional narratives about the war?
2. As The Sirens of Baghdad opens, the narrator describes Beirut as a sleepwalker and says that “according to ancestral tradition, a somnambulist is not to be interfered with, not even when he's headed for disaster” [p. 1]. Is the narrator himself a “somnambulist”? Is he “interfered with”? Does he awaken?
3. During a heated discussion about the war, Sayed tells Yaseen a story about an Egyptian strongman. He begins by saying, “When I was a child, my father told me a story I didn't completely grasp. At that age, I didn't know that stories had a moral” [p. 64]. What is the moral of the story Sayed tells? How does it relate to the larger story of The Sirens of Baghdad? Does the novel itself have a clear moral?
4. After they have been betrayed, Yaseen furiously interrogates the narrator, in order to find out who led the police to them. “It was the age-old story: When you can't make sense of your misfortune, you invent a culprit for it” [p. 224]. What is the broader significance of this statement?
5. What are the major turning points that transform the narrator from an innocent young man with an aversion to violence to a fully committed jihadist, filled with rage and willing to give his life for the Cause?
6. Omar warns the narrator: “Fight for your country, not against the whole world…. If you want to avenge an offense, don't commit one”
[p. 182–3]. What role does Omar play in the novel? Why is he so important, even though he is a minor character? What terrible ironies are involved in his murder?
7. How does Khadra build and sustain suspense throughout the novel?
8. During a heated discussion at the café in Kafr Karam, Doc Jabir says that “the world is run by the forces of international finance, for which peace is equivalent to layoffs” [p. 35]. Later, Omar tells the narrator that “all nations are victims of the avarice of a handful of multinational companies” [p. 182]. In what ways, and to what extent, do these assertions help explain the war in Iraq?
9. What different points of view about the war are represented in the novel? Look at the arguments put forth by Doc Jabir, Yaseem, Omar, Dr. Jalal, the writer Mohammed Seen, and the narrator himself. Which of these views seems, finally, to predominate? Which of them seems most convincing or most accurate?
10. What is the effect on the narrator-and on the reader-of the violence described in The Sirens of Baghdad? How is the narrator changed by the violence he witnesses? In what ways do cultural differences, and American ignorance of Islamic customs, contribute to the brutality occurring in Iraq?
11. When Shakir asks the narrator why he didn't board the plane to carry out his attack, he replies: “I have no idea” [p. 304]. How can his failure to act be best understood? What might have caused him to refrain? Is this a satisfying way to end the novel?
12. In what ways does The Sirens of Baghdad offer a more complex and nuanced understanding of the terrorist violence in Iraq than news reports have offered? What does the novel reveal about the emotional, psychological, and cultural motivations for acts of terror?
13. Is The Sirens of Baghdad ultimately a frightening or reassuring novel? To what extent is it both frightening and reassuring, terrifying and hopeful?