Between Silk and Barbed Wire

Sami Michael's 'Aida' is first and foremost a love story. But it is also the tale of the last Jew of Iraq, a man who flits between loneliness, nostalgia and longing

Aida, by Sami Michael Kinneret, Zmora Bitan Press (Hebrew), 271 pages, NIS 88

The black box of "Aida" cracks open to readers' eyes as Zakhi Dali, the book's protagonist, stands before a Kurdish refugee who has been tossed upon the doorstep of his Baghdad home. Introducing himself, Zakhi begins to speak to her of his family, which is scattered throughout the world, and of the luxury items adorning his home; of the fact that he is stuck in Iraq, and mainly of the irony that characterizes the playing field of his life.

"I thought I would be a writer, but now I'm just a lousy television reporter trying to convince viewers that God gave us a beautiful, charming country," he says. In soccer terms, this is an "own goal." In Zakhi's terminology, this is extra time, injury time, for the game has already ended. It is injury time and there is no one nearby waiting to blow the whistle and signal an end to the drama.

Zakhi Dali is the last Jew in Iraq, a country most of whose Jewish population left for Israel during the 1951 aliyah. The reasons for his remaining are described implicitly. One of them is the fear of having to get up to speed on an entirely new alphabet. Zakhi knows that for those who make their living from words, it is all the more difficult to become acclimated in the Hebrew state. His situation has him acting almost like a manic-depressive. On the one hand, there is the low point of loneliness: "The Jews fled from the country of their youth, and he stayed behind as if he were a jellyfish dying after being washed ashore." On the other hand, Zakhi can virtually hear history applauding him for completing the Iraqi enterprise begun by Abraham.

Zakhi chooses not to decide on which side of depression to place himself, and Sami Michael, a writer who knows well how to spell the word "arabesque," veers his way beautifully alongside the protagonist's thoughts.

He will say that the back-and-forth between Zakhi's Jewish and personal memories is "the vanquished cry that now gusts between the palm trees, as naked lights flash between their hillocks." This picture is no less than alchemy. The palm trees whose roots stretch to the groundwater of the Iraqi existence are adorned with naked, artificial lights, lights that pale in comparison to the knolls of dates that shine in their exquisiteness.

The description of this landscape isn't a coincidence. Zakhi Dali is in love with the view. He makes a living off of it, he photographs it and speaks of it on his television program. In essence he is the one remaining person who can provide tourists with a postcard of the city that was obliterated by American bombs during the Gulf Wars. Sami Michael deftly highlights the irony and provides fertile ground for the protagonist's character to grow as if he were a daffodil in a swamp still holding onto memories of a glorious past.

Zakhi isn't just the last remaining Jew; he may just be the last Iraqi who stubbornly insists on looking for points of beauty on the shattered face of his country.

The plot also features neighbors who, in the cellar they received from the Jew, hide their two sons, who are being hunted by the regime. The reader also becomes acquainted with Nur, a mythological love who is thrown into a jail where Communist inmates rot to death.

There is also Zakhi's driver, whose daughter, Ranin, wraps herself in naive innocence with no one really knowing what rustles beneath, or what the true length of her tongue is, in a state where those with wagging tongues are recompensed with sacks of dinars.

The man who drives the plot is Mukhabarat secret policeman Nazar al-Sayad. His friendship with Zakhi is interlaced with both silk and barbed wire. Nazar is the sharp teeth that the regime flashes before anyone who dares raise an eyebrow. It is very tempting to dip the author's ink in poison, and to present Nazar as a slogan on the wall of the state headed by Saddam Hussein. Sami Michael avoids this minefield by smartly developing a character who conceals a soft pillow of an interior behind his menacing claws. Nazar is a lion cub who knows how to shed his fur during moments of indulgence, especially when he is surrounded by his prostitutes.

"Aida," however, is first and foremost a love story. Aida, who in her misery appears on the doorstep , is proof that the first rule of love is there are no rules. Zakhi brings the woman into his home and in that moment loosens the ties that bind him to his neighbors, friends and memories. Michael builds her presence without the use of dialogue, and her silence allows the author to slowly reveal her identity. This restraint adds one piece of burning coal after another, until the whole batch erupts in flames. It is his uncanny ability to turn love into a scar that is impossible to live without.

Ronny Someck is a poet.

Haaretz Books Supplement, August 2008