Oct 21, 08
edwebb's review: "A book that promises more than it can deliver.
Issam Jameel's return to post-invasion Iraq should provide us with insights from street level into the rearrangement of social life, the day-to-day struggles of people trying to get by in a ruined economy, the increased salience of sectarian identities, and the other crucial details that will affect whether Iraq will bounce back as a viable state. What Jameel's book offers in fact is some disjointed observations and rather superficial impressions of these matters. But two factors get in the way of the narrative: language and religion.
I read and write Arabic, but would not attempt to write a book-length memoir in it, so I can only applaud Jameel's efforts to write his observations in English. However, were I to attempt such a task, I would ask competent native speakers to review every aspect of my manuscript, or insist that my publisher do so. The introduction thanks a Ms Salmon and a Mrs Babbage for their work revising the manuscript, but the thanks is ill-deserved, sad to say. Often the language is stilted and retains what to any speaker of Arabic are obvious word-for-word translations of Arabic grammatical forms. The reader can get past this, if dedicated enough. But surely, if the book is worth publishing at all, it is worth getting things like that right. A competent editor would also have given the author some pointers on structure and pacing that would have gone a long way toward letting the power of the situation and the struggles of the country he returned to as a semi-foreigner shine through more strongly.
The religious factor is more subtle, but important nonetheless. Jameel is a convert from Islam to Christianity, which he tells us a little about. What is possibly not clear to a general audience, at whom this book is presumably aimed, is what the ramifications of that are, and he does not help us much. There are descriptions of his debates with his brothers Sami and Mohamed about religion, in which he shows scant regard for Islam, characterizing their positions as 'radical' and 'fundamentalist.' Well, OK, maybe they are radicalized by the occupation - there's a lot of that about - but it would have been much more helpful to explore their views, rather than to write them off in the way he does.
In sum - there are some moments in here, some nuggets worth digging for. But the whole is disappointing, let down by a banal writing style and a lack of editorial guidance. We need more eye-witness accounts from Iraq; but we also need better ones."