Absent (Ghayeb) by Betool Khedairi

On June 2nd we discussed Absent (Ghayeb) by Betool Khedairi.

In Absent, the Iraqi-Scot novelist Khedairi (who also wrote A Sky So Close) tells the story of Dalal, a young girl growing up in a crowded Baghdad apartment complex during the sanctions imposed on Iraq following the Gulf War. Orphaned as a baby, she is raised by her self-absorbed aunt & uncle, and lives under a cloud of collective political anxiety. As she grows up Dalal works several jobs and attends classes, introducing us along the way to a cast of kooky neighbors and the ever present threat of a Baath government informant. The book flows between childhood and adolescence in a dreamy, yet somewhat jarring way to present a lucid and insightful picture of Iraq in the late 1990s. English & Arabic copies available at the gallery.

For a discussion from the author see: A Reflection on Absent by Betool Khedairi: What’s In A Name? http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780812977424&view=rg

Themes discussed in Absent (Ghayeb) by Betool Khedairi are included below:

Some of the themes and questions we used for discussion were adapted from a Reader’s Guide written by Filiz Turhan, an Associate Professor of English at Suffolk County Community College. She is the author of The Other Empire: British Romantic Writings about the Ottoman Empire and articles on the Romantic period and contemporary Muslim and Middle Eastern literature. http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780812977424&view=rg

· Absence and Loss: The title forcefully reaffirms the sense of loss that pervades the book.

o The Absent include the People/Relationships: Dalal’s parents, Abu & Umm Ghayeb’s unborn child, the removed father figure of Saddam, Ilham’s mother, and the characters taken by the police – and the Material: food, medicine, hair dye, etc. The characters reminisce about the Days of Plenty…the current time being quite clearly the Days of Absence, days defined by loss or lack.

o Dalal herself felt absent from many of her relationships – flat and distanced, like someone who was more comfortable viewing the world as a scientist or as a cataloguer of art. At the same the author was in some ways absent, distanced, from events, perhaps owing to her experience growing up bi-cultural and currently, physically separated from Iraq.

o Readers felt strongly that Dalal’s uncle’s insistence that he be called Abu Ghayeb, the father of the absent one affected his adopted ‘daughter’ Dalal, furthing this sense of isolation and furthering his wife’s feeling of abandonment as he set up a new colony of ‘children’ in the bees, driving home the point that she could never be a ‘real’ mother.

· Banality of life under conflict and repression: Amid the tremendous difficulties faced by the characters in the book, its strength comes in the universal, banal details, which felt the most vivid and authentic about the book: the fractious marriage between Dalal’s aunt and uncle, Dalal’s uncertainty as she chooses a profession, etc.

· Absent is set in the 1990’s, after the Gulf War, but the exact time period / conflicts are ambiguous. We discussed if this was so that the lives of the characters were made more real, or if iraqi’s facing continual war from iran/Iraq and an inability to discuss politics brought this focus. Many felt the informative paragraphs about the bombings and impact of environmental destruction at times felt like newspaper clippings, as though they were inserted somewhat stiffly to inform the reader. But they were straight presentation of facts, not propaganda (almost surprisingly, you didn’t really see propaganda on either side).

· Many loved fortune teller Umm Mazim serve in the novel: first seeing her as comic relief, then as a dispenser of faith in times of need, while she was there to make money she did not feel malicious. The spells might have been lies, but there was probably some value in the homeopathy., especially as there were no medicines and there was such a need for an outlet for the tramatized, in face of what we assumed was a poor mental health infrastructure for the trauma of the war / sanctions.

· Was the ‘rumor’ about the nurse Ilham true?? Readers felt conflicted, betrayed, disbelieving, repulsed, trapped by this turn of events.

· Beauty/Self-image: In discussion with Saad, Dalal makes it clear that she accepts as patently obvious that no man could ever consider her beautiful except as a form of “cubism”. She seems to be avoiding the possibility of being hurt by simply forestalling the possibility of love or romance at all. On the other hand, she expresses a great deal of strength in this exchange, telling Saad “Don’t entangle me in things I can do without”. Either repressing her anger & anxiety, or being a pragmatist, we hoped she came to terms with being able to be beautiful but wanted to know more about present day adult Dalal to see how she resolved this struggle.

· Abu Ghayeb repeatedly tells Dalal that there is much to learn from the bees. Parallels between bees in a hive and the apartment’s inner working…or to life in Baghdad (especially given the bee’s final self destruction)…or to Umm Mazim with her swarming women…brought the connections to life, without being pedantically symbolic.

· In many ways the characters battle between self-preservation & realism vs personal integrity & moral dignity. Which wins? As Dalal forms close friends (Ilham, Saad, Adel) she learns a great deal, but each time loses something by getting close to them – furthering her isolation. Although many of the relationships in the novel disintegrate, Dalal’s final effort to reach out to Hamid shows that she has not lost her capacity for empathy nor her energy to effect change. Readers were torn about whether the novel ends optimistically, with Dalal left with no future…or with Dalal finally taking an action for herself to reach out to someone and proactively teach them, instead of learning from others. Similarly, Dalal’s job at the Recycling plant at the end is ambiguous: while the process of sorting through the discarded items may seem negative, it also shows a kind of hope in that the past can be salvaged to prepare for a new kind of future.

· Disease and Transformation:

o It is a powerful moment when Umm Ghayeb admits both to herself and her husband that she is not jealous “over” him, but “of” his transformation: he has been able to reinvent himself so energetically that she does not recognize him or herself any longer.

o Throughout Absent there are many forms of disease and disability (Dalal’s paralysis, Abu Ghayeb’s skin disorder, the women visiting Umm Mazim, Ilham’s cancer) – that are used by Khedairi to mirror their character’s flaws and to symbolize the greater situation of the Iraqi people.

Want more info: http://www.betoolkhedairi.com

MEDIA & further articles about Absent (Arabic, French, German):

http://www.betoolkhedairi.com/images/bullet2.gifصحيفة الأتحاد 15/7/2004 -إلى الروائية العراقية جداً بتول الخضيري- بقلم محمد عارف
http://www.betoolkhedairi.com/images/bullet2.gifفي الخاطر عن بتول الخضيري وروايتها غايب أيلاف 18 7 2004، جريدة الحدث 19 7 2004 بقلم مالك العثامنة
http://www.betoolkhedairi.com/images/bullet2.gifصحيفة الحياة / عمان – 11/9/2004 – بقلم علي عبد ألأمير
http://www.betoolkhedairi.com/images/bullet2.gifصحيفة المنارة / بغداد – 11/9/2004 – بقلم محمود مكي السعد
http://www.betoolkhedairi.com/images/bullet2.gifصحيفة القدس / لندن – 1/9/2004 – بقلم رنا ابو حنا
http://www.betoolkhedairi.com/images/bullet2.gifصحيفة ايلاف الألكترونية – 9/2004- بقلم جورج جحا
http://www.betoolkhedairi.com/images/bullet2.gifصحيفة الرأي / قبرص – 8/2004 – بقلم معاذ الألوسي
http://www.betoolkhedairi.com/images/bullet2.gifالعرب اليوم / عمّان – 8/2004 – بقلم عبدالاله السامرائي
http://www.betoolkhedairi.com/images/bullet2.gifالدستور / عمّان – 8/2004 – بقلم مي مظفر
http://www.betoolkhedairi.com/images/bullet2.gifصحيفة الشرق الأوسط / باريس – 8/2004- بقلم انعام كجة جي
http://www.betoolkhedairi.com/images/bullet2.gifصحيفة الزمان / لندن – 1/9/2004 (غايب) كوميديا سوداء من المشهد العراقي – بقلم محمد بكر
http://www.betoolkhedairi.com/images/bullet2.gifجريدة (الزمان) / العدد 1949 / التاريخ 2004 – 10 -24 – بقلم وديع شامخ
http://www.betoolkhedairi.com/images/bullet2.gifصحيفة الرأي – 12/11/2004 – بقلم يوسف ضمرة
http://www.betoolkhedairi.com/images/bullet2.gifصحيفة المدى – بغداد – 3/1/2005 – بقلم فاطمة المحسن
http://www.betoolkhedairi.com/images/bullet2.gifجريدة (الزمان) – العدد 2028 – التاريخ 8 / 2 /2005 – بقلم محمد الاحمد / كاتب من العراق


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