Basrayatha: Portrait of a City, Mohammed Khudayyir (William M. Hutchins trans.). Verso. 176pp, 15.95.
“It is useless to seek Basra on a map,” writes Iraqi author Najem Wali in “Basra Stories,” “for Basra belongs to those cities which are built by their cursed and fleeing sons in the . . . lands of memory.”
Muhammad Khudayyir’s Basrayatha has no need for maps. Although the book is tagged as a travel memoir, it has little to offer the would-be (if-it-were-possible) tourist to Iraq. The narrative doesn’t pause to orient the reader—to remove our blindfolds and point us in a particular direction—and most of its landmarks are erased and rebuilt, renamed, and then erased and rebuilt again. The book’s only visual guides are not maps but slightly blurred, century-old photographs. These uncaptioned photos, like the images of a W. G. Sebald novel, obscure as much as they illuminate.
But just as Khudayyir does not present us with the pseudo-clarity of a CNN report, neither does he bring us a fuzzy, pre-invasion paradise. Basrayatha is nearer kin to Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. Khudayyir takes us into a story-reflecting-a-city, a series of memories and mirrors that point us toward what the book’s narrator calls “actual, defective reality.” This is not because Khudayyir has fled the land of his birth and must construct things, board by board, from faded recollections. He names himself a permanent citizen of Basra, and says that he has rarely left the city in forty-some years, his age when the book was published in Arabic in 1996.
Basrayatha is structured in largely discrete, self-contained sections. The Verso edition begins with the narrator’s first memories of his city and ends with the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. The top layer of narrative is thus roughly chronological, following the shape of Khudayyir’s life. But most sections also have mythico-historical strands, which reach back through Iraqi memory as far the origins of sedentary culture. Later sections also reflect Khudayyir’s intellectual life, exploring the art and philosophy that have shaped his consciousness and his imaginary city. Most sections are relayed by an adult narrator who seems to be Khudayyir, although occasionally the book takes on a collective voice, that of Basrans/Basrayathans of Khudayyir’s generation.
Muhammad Khudayyir is thus steeped in a city ravaged by recent wars. Still, it is hard to imagine the author/narrator as one of Najem Wali’s “cursed” sons. In Basrayatha’s “War Diary” section, near the end of the book, Khudayyir sets out on a leisurely stroll in an area under siege by Iranian forces. A projectile strikes a nearby pool, and a flock of white birds rises into the air: “They did not land again on the pool’s surface until the earth, houses, and water had imbibed the explosion’s draft, the smell of gunpowder had dissipated, and the breeze had swept away the smoke.” Memory—and the writing process—have turned this moment into something fixed and falsely lyrical. But the narrator simultaneously creates and erases the description, continually reminding us of time, and of the unwriteable place of “actual, defective reality.”
In the sixth war diary section, titled “I Should Erase and Draw,” Khudayyir drives through Basra, erasing restaurants and coffee houses, as well as a boy taking a swim. He sketches in bombed-out spaces, abandoned businesses, and a soldier. A page later, he erases those images and draws new life. Khudayyir never tells us how the war has ended: who won, who lost, how many lives were lost. He leaves us in the middle of death and rebirth, never quite sure of the direction we are headed.
The same is true of the more personal moments. When the missile lands on the pool’s surface—uncomfortably close to our narrator—we don’t know where Khudayyir is relative to the battle’s front, his home, his loved ones, or the city’s center. Each image is tied to the next one, drawing us down tight corners, over bridges, down rivers, but without taking us to a vantage where we might expect a broader vista. Basrayatha thus never offers us a tourist’s or historian’s overview. What Khudayyir presents instead is larger: we watch as pieces of a city are created and destroyed, and we see the landscape grow and shrink around us.
The opening section, called “First Exploration,” demonstrates how we might approach the book. In this section, a pre-adolescent “we” sets off on a rambling exploration of Basra, walking “as far as the roads’ pavement held out beneath our feet.” Buildings and people are left unnamed while an impenetrable and lonely “we” roams the city’s changing streets in search of something they cannot name. The reader is in a similar position: Like children feeling our way through a new city, we must bind ourselves to each sentence, bumping into people and skirting dead ends, without maps or street signs to tell us what is good or bad, or what might be coming next.
The city changes rapidly here as it does throughout; the city of Basrayatha is in constant motion. This point is exemplified by the manner in which Khudayyir describes Basra/Basrayatha’s main river, the Shatt al-Arab (The Arab Strand). Here, we see something like time-lapse photography:
On its banks were planted millions of palm seedlings and fruit trees. The number of date palms increased, and date presses with clattering machinery were established. . . . It [the river] became more densely inhabited and began to show its age, so that sand bars broke through its surface. Dense thickets grew beside it, and animals found habitats in them. . . . The river was isolated by walls guarded with guns. Quarantine posts were established on its sandbars. Upstream, guard barracks, grain elevators, and shipyards were erected. The city grew larger around it, and streets for draft animals and streetcars were built on both sides. . . . The number of bridges increased. The offices of government agencies and foreign firms towered over it. Prison and hospital, as well as entertainment districts and plants to produce ice and carbonated beverages, were located near its major tributaries. Warships, postal ships, and commercial vessels anchored in its waters.
In a few spots, Basrayatha becomes a bit pedantic. This is perhaps because of the impossibilities of translation, or because the author was a scholar and long-time schoolteacher. Or because he was an artist working within a dictatorship. In a statement given to Grinnell College’s Faulconer Gallery, exiled Iraqi writer Fadhil al-Azzawi noted: “It is very difficult to stay under these circumstances, under this dictatorship in Iraq, and to stay a poet, a writer.” Perhaps one reason Khudayyir has been able to remain is that his works don’t express a direct political challenge. Moreover, his prose is not always very accessible. It’s hard to imagine a mid-level bureaucrat, charged with censorship, puzzling out what Khudayyir meant in the section “Utopias and Heterotopias.”
But at its best—as in the section “Mobile Cities”—Basrayatha draws the reader not just into the narrator’s essayistic thoughts about cities, but also into a delicately realized physical and emotional landscape. “Mobile Cities” takes us into the world of Iraqi trains and stations, recounting a time when the narrator was a young village schoolteacher. The section begins in a train station, a place of apparent movement, and ends in a village, a place of apparent stasis. In the village, Khudayyir was one of five teachers living in a house attached to the school where they worked. The five stayed up late bragging and sharing stories, their beds packed close together.
The narrator describes his numerous students as scrawny and destitute, children who, for lack of energy, “did not play together or pick quarrels with teachers.” The five young teachers seem to long for escape. But, Khudayyir writes, “We [the five teachers and the local stationmaster] did not live for nothing. We lived for the sake of known or delayed goals, for brief or transitory . . . moments.”
At a certain point each night, the teachers’ five beds would shake as a train whined and rattled to a stop. It would stay for a few minutes before it moved on. The narrator continues: “Each man lives for these moments. They cannot restrain themselves from releasing a stifled cry in the face of the hope that explodes in front of them like a spring in the desert of their lives, which are arid and extensive: ‘Oh! Yes, yes, this is the moment we live for.’ We would meet our 50 pupils the next morning, and the master of the nearby railway station would be watching for the arrival of his moving goal late that night.”
The reader who approaches this book hoping for insight into Iraq’s current political struggles will likely be disappointed. After all, this is not Basra but “Basrayatha,” a city born of myth, history, and Khudayyir’s fertile imagination. The reader who demands straightforward memoir will be similarly confounded, as there is no single narrative road that takes us through the book; it’s more like a whole city that grows up around us. Thus it’s easy, particularly for those unfamiliar with southern Iraq’s landscape, to get a little lost. But the seeming lack of a central plan also makes Basrayatha feel more like an organic creation, something that can point us toward “reality” more readily than a guided tour of a city with brightly colored signs and wide, well-traveled boulevards.
Ultimately, the effort put forth in exploring this city-book is justly rewarded. Because for solitary readers—those of us groping our way through our own imaginary cities—Basrayatha provides a number of oases, those moments of: Oh! Yes, yes. This is what I live for.
M. Lynx Qualey has work published or forthcoming in New Orleans Review, Black Warrior Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Fiddlehead, Fourteen Hills, and others.
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