The Washington Post
Peering Into The Terrorist’s Mind
THE SIRENS OF BAGHDAD By Yasmina Khadra Translated by John Cullen Doubleday. 307 pp. $19.95
With “The Sirens of Baghdad,” Yasmina Khadra has taken the final novel in his trilogy about militant Islam straight to the cannon’s mouth. Khadra, a former Algerian army officer who uses a nom de plume based on his wife’s name, began his literary career as a detective novelist who threaded his plots with firsthand knowledge of terrorist networks. Since the U.S. war in Afghanistan, his novels have broadened their scope and ridden the coattails of recent history. In “The Swallows of Kabul” (2004) the lives of two Afghan couples are ruptured under the gruesome pressure of the Taliban. In “The Attack” (2006), a successful Arab-Israeli surgeon in Tel Aviv learns that his wife has carried out a suicide attack.
“The Sirens of Baghdad” opens in Beirut in 2005, just three weeks after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Our narrator, an unnamed young Iraqi Bedouin, has come to town to carry out a terror mission “a thousand times more awesome than the attacks of September 11.” A series of flashbacks from the narrator’s home village follow, from the years of the foundering U.N. oil-for-food program to the early weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom. “It wasn’t paradise,” he tells us, “but — since penury resides in the mind, not the heart — we were able to laugh aloud at every jest and to draw from one another’s eyes whatever we needed to cope with the nuisances of life.” It’s a rosier picture than we might expect, and after U.S. forces overthrow Saddam Hussein, the village plunges into a “stunning volubility” as the men debate their country’s fate around the television.
Just when it seems the invasion has passed the village by, the town is engulfed in a cycle of violence. First, the narrator witnesses a mentally unstable boy, the village’s “purest creature,” gunned down at a military checkpoint; second, a wedding celebration is destroyed by a missile attack; and last, during a military raid, the narrator watches his father stripped down by soldiers (“For me, to see my father’s sex was to reduce my entire existence, my values and my scruples, my pride and my singularity, to a coarse, pornographic flash”). Triply traumatized, the narrator makes his way to Baghdad, where he listlessly joins a cell of terrorists from his village determined to resist the American occupation.
Khadra has been widely praised for his ability to enter sympathetically into the terrorist mind. Indeed, he writes much more realistically about terrorists than many other novelists on the fringe of the Muslim world — Orhan Pamuk and Aziz Chouaki are not his equal in this respect. But Khadra’s directness comes at the price of overweening simplicity. The clear-cut tension of his characters comes off as too forced (the narrator is unable to reconcile his sense of honor and his hatred of violence; another character, Dr. Jalal, has joined the terrorists because he felt slighted as an academic in the West). Furthermore, each member of the cell eventually shirks from the devastating plot to destroy the West; their actions owe more to wounds of honor than to any Islamist ideology. In itself this would not count as a failing. But a novel that refuses even to test the waters of Islamist theology, that gives us a blank-faced Bedouin as its host, that proposes a simple algorithm for his progression toward violence, and that waxes romantic about tribalism and poverty in the Middle East cannot be the tour of the terrorist mind we’ve been waiting for.