When the war in Iraq meets romantic fiction
A U.S. journalist and her Iraqi fixer meet forgers and kidnappers, tribal leaders and grieving families, as they contend with the romantic tension between them and the inevitable cross-cultural misunderstandings
by Ilene Prusher. Halban Books, 672 pages, £10
We have been inundated by wave after wave of books about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. First came the personal testimonies about life under oppressive regimes, with titles such as “My Forbidden Face” detailing the life of women under the Taliban, slotting in nicely with the fad for “misery memoir” that peaked in the middle of the last decade, most notably with the “A Child Called It” series by Dave Pelzer.
Then came a swathe of reportage, with journalists like The New Yorker’s legendary Jon Lee Anderson turning their experiences into ready-made books, followed by a surge of more militaristic accounts of the frontline life of coalition forces by writers such as Sebastian Junger and Evan Wright.
But these books have overwhelmingly been non-fiction. The Global War on Terror adventures, defining episodes of our era, have provided rich pickings for Hollywood films but have yet to be explored in any great depth by Western novelists, despite the ample material they provide.
Ilene Prusher’s debut book, “Baghdad Fixer,” is a rare attempt to interpret the momentous events of the Iraq war through fiction.
As an eyewitness to the war and the early days after the fall of Saddam Hussein, U.S.-born journalist and former Christian Science Monitor bureau chief in Tokyo, Istanbul and Jerusalem, Prusher certainly has the CV for such an endeavor.
Her novel is told from the point of view of the Baghdad “fixer” of the title: Nabil al-Amari, a 28-year-old local English teacher, who is recruited in the immediate aftermath of the invasion to work as a translator for American print journalist Samara Katchens.
Red-headed firebrand reporter Samara is dispatched by her editor to follow up on a devastating story by a colleague that Saddam Hussein paid high-profile American politicians for their support. Her task is complicated by a libel suit and suspicion that the colleague had paid for the − potentially forged − documents proving the report.
The hunt takes Samara and Nabil from Baghdad to Fallujah and Tikrit, where along the way they meet Sunni loyalists, American intelligence officials, looters, forgers and kidnappers, along with tribal leaders and grieving families.
There is certainly much that rings true in this book, which is seasoned with snippets of Arabic slang as well as quotations from Arabic poetry and the Koran that appear as part of Nabil’s internal narrative.
The texture of life in post-invasion Baghdad is there, including the power cuts, shortages and confusion, as well as the influx of foreign reporters taking over luxury hotels, with, as Prusher describes them, the men wearing “adventurer’s” vests and the women with their ubiquitous “serious-but-sporty” look.
Prusher vividly depicts the intensely charged atmosphere of a city wracked by violence where no one is bound by normal rules of behavior. Her real-life experience as a Western, not to mention Jewish, woman reporting in these circumstances is clearly reflected in Samara’s struggle to negotiate the tricky path between being dismissed as an irrelevant female and scorned as a loose woman while fending off accusations of spying for the CIA or Mossad. And sometimes Samara seems to struggle more with her editors back in the U.S. than with the stresses of reporting on the ground in Iraq.
As narrator, Nabil, a frustrated writer and poet who dreams of writing the “Animal Farm” of Iraq, clearly highlights the disconnect between two worlds where in just one day working for a U.S. journalist, he can make more than he would in a month as a teacher. The sometimes crude exploitation of locals by the international media is showcased as another display of the unequal relationship between invader and occupier.
A fixer is supposed to arrange interviews, provide contacts as well as translate, with their responsibilities often extending to transport, accommodation and a wealth of other incidentals. Often close friendships emerge, but it’s a dynamic that can at other times be problematic. Training local journalists in Iraq a few years ago, I heard tales of how Iraqi “fixers” − often professional, experienced journalists in their own right − were sent to do the field work and take most of the risks while their Western employers would snaffle the credit.
An incidental figure in the book − a 21-year old fixer working for another reporter − gives this insight into how many of his fellow interpreters are treated by the international media. “They don’t want us to just interpret what’s said in the interviews. They want us to arrange their meetings, get their money changed, go and fetch their food and supplies for them, go ahead of them to check on the situation to see if it’s safe enough for them to go.” Then, he continues, his employer would stay in his air-conditioned office and send him out to buy water and chocolates, handing him a stack of dinars “and doesn’t even look at me in the eye when he does it.”
Where the connection begins
That’s not, however, the relationship that develops between Nabil and Samara.
With fighting raging in the streets of Baghdad, they first meet in the emergency room of a Baghdad hospital where Nabil and his father have taken his prospective fiancee, Noor, fatally wounded by a stray bullet that pierces the living room window during an awkward second date in the presence of both families. Samara is in the hospital trying to track down her colleague (and erstwhile lover) who has gone missing. The harried nurses don’t speak English, so Nabil steps in to help, and that’s where their connection, both professional and personal, begins.
Samara convinces Nabil to become her translator, and as their relationship develops, comes to call him “my best friend in Baghdad.” Yet Nabil wants more, fantasizing about marrying her and even agonizing over what their son would look like, “A red-haired soldier. An occupier.”
And that’s where the narrative falters, because for a story with these two characters supposed to be at the center of events − and, inevitably, the romantic tension between them − neither character comes to life on the page.
It’s clear that both of their back stories have been exhaustively constructed, with parallels intended to bridge the yawning East-West divide that separates them. He is the product of a mixed Sunni-Shia marriage, not uncommon in Iraq but which nonetheless throws up issues of divided loyalties; Katchens is half-Jewish, half-Catholic, from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. She lost the love of her life in a car crash; Nabil’s prospective fiancee is killed at the very start of the book.
But despite such telling details, both central characters remain blurry and indistinct. We know that Katchens is supposed to be brave, independent and free-spirited, but somehow by the end of the book her only distinguishing feature remains her flame-red head of curly hair, which stands out in Iraq “like a burning ember amid black coals.”
And although the entire story is told in his voice, Nabil too often comes across as faux-profound and uncertain. “It seems noteworthy that the two things Americans shoot in Iraq are either a gun or a camera. Bullets, or photographs,” he muses in the early part of the book. Elements such as his tensions with his father, an overbearing cardiologist, “who treats the heart as a machine,” don’t quite elicit sufficient sympathy with his character.
There is plenty of insight into Iraqi culture, as well as a convincing depiction of post-invasion Baghdad and complex journalistic plot, with a cast of suitably shady characters, from militant Islamists to cynical U.S. agents. But Prusher, an experienced journalist with a rich supply of material to draw on, doesn’t resist the temptation to pile on the layers of plot.
There’s the burgeoning love affair that falls just short of ringing true, the thriller-like plot as the duo attempts to get to the bottom of the possibly forged documents, and the sometimes clumsily rendered culture clash that serves as a recurring theme.
Prusher is clearly aiming for a higher class of fiction than the standard airport page-turner or steamy love story. Perhaps she tries too hard to weave a complex web of character and narrative.
The concept is worthy; the detail impeccable. But this isn’t quite the great novel of the war we’ve been waiting for.
Daniella Peled is editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.