Review: The Sirens of Baghdad, Yasmina Khadra

I checked out The Sirens of Baghdad to read it, flipped to the back cover, and saw that Yasmina Khadra is really a dude called Mohammed Moulessehoul. And I was like, Really, dude? Really? You have to write as a girl? and I made fun of him in my mind all day before starting to read his book. Because women actually legitimately have to pretend to be dudes to get their books to sell sometimes! From Charlotte Bronte to Karen Blixen to, hell, even J. K. Rowling a bit! I was paying attention to the serious issues that Khadra was raising in his book, but in my head I was still like, Oh, look at me, I’m Mohammed Moulessehoul, I pretend to be a girl for no reason. Then I got home and looked him on Wikipedia. Turns out not only does he have a really nice face (see?), but also he assumed the pseudonym to avoid military censorship, and he only revealed his identity after he’d left Algeria forever.

I know, I know. I’m such a jerk.

The Sirens of Baghdad, originally written in French and translated into English by John Cullen, is about a young, well-educated Iraqi Bedouin who decides to become a terrorist after witnessing a series of acts of pointless brutality by American troops: first they shoot a mentally impaired man from his village; then they bomb the wedding of a neighbor; and finally they come into his home and humiliate his father in front of the whole family. The narrator (who is unnamed) moves to the devastated city of Baghdad and joins with some other young men from his village who are working on plans to attack America.

The first half of this book was, in my opinion, far stronger than the second half. After the narrator decides to become a terrorist, the book seems to lose focus. By contrast, the parts of the book set in his hometown feel very true: both the family atmosphere and occasional claustrophobia of living in such a remote town, and the encounters with the American troops. Khadra portrays the American soldiers as brutal, but not cartoonishly so: they’re scared and ignorant and making mistakes, but the consequences of their mistakes fall upon the narrator and his family, not on the soldiers. That they are able to do these things with impunity infuriates the narrator and sets him on his path to seek revenge.

Once he gets into Baghdad, though, the book starts meandering. This may be deliberate, to show what life is like for a would-be suicide bomber waiting for his final mission, but it made it hard for me to sustain my interest. Khadra doesn’t make the mistake of trying to valorize the actions of the young men and their missions of terror: it’s clear that their deaths are frequent and frequently pointless, and that their deeds bring suffering to Iraqi soldiers and civilians, as well as American soldiers. But for me, the tension was gone when the narrator left his home, and it didn’t even return when he got assigned his suicide mission at last.

I think it’s brilliant that Khadra writes in such a way to make people understand what engenders fanaticism. This book just didn’t do it for me. I shall try one of his authors and see if I get on with it any better. Other reviews may be found, as ever, using the Book Blog Search Engine.

20 thoughts on “Review: The Sirens of Baghdad, Yasmina Khadra

  1. I didn’t reaslise that she is a man! I haven’t read any of his/her books yet, but have Swallows of Kabul on my shelf. Thanks for pointing out this gender change – I’ll think about how it affects my reading.

    I haven’t heard about The Sirens of Baghdad before, but perhaps this isn’t the best one. I’ll let you know about Swallows next year some time!

    • I know! Who knew? I’ll be interested to see what you think of The Swallows of Kabul — wonder if it’s mainly the same ideas or a different take from a different perspective.

  2. Writing as a woman when you are a man must be really unusual!! Is there a precedent? I really like the writing of Assia Djebar, who is an Algerian woman writing about her homeland but now from exile in America. Telling the truth of Algeria seems to be a rather menacing thing for an author to do, alas.

    • I’ve never heard of Djebar, but I’ll have to look into her. It seems like there are a lot of countries that it is menacing to write the truth about them, sadly.

  3. I just finished reading a book about Bedouins, though it was very different than this book. I am not sure I would really like this book all that much. I do really like to read literature from other countries and that show other perspectives on the world, but the fact that things slow down considerably in the second half might make me angry. Had I read the book without knowing this, I think I might be doubly angry for having wasted my time with the earlier sections. And I also think it’s pretty strange for an author to go around pretending to be a girl. When I read the reason behind it, it made perfect sense, but still, I would have wondered too.

    • Was it fiction or nonfiction? I know very very little about Bedouins, sadly, and although I like to read what I feel like reading most of the time (lots of Victorian novels), I know it is good to broaden my reading horizons.

  4. When I looked at the article about him, I was seized with his use of the word “religiopathy.” I might have to read something of his because of this review and that one word.

    • Yes, it seems he is very critical indeed of extreme religious practices. Although he does try to make the reader aware of the motives behind what the characters are doing, it’s clear that he dislikes extremist religion.

  5. It’s weird that he wants to write as a woman because of the lower status of women – especially in the Middle East. And I have to say, I feel a bit co-opted: it’s like if I were black, and some white writer was pretending to be black to avoid somebody suspecting him of being a traitor or something. I would understand the motivation, but I would also think: unless you are willing to share my social status, don’t use it for your own benefit.

  6. I didn’t know Khadra was a man! Whoa! I’ve not read any of his books yet, but The Attack has been recommended to me several times. Sad that The Sirens of Baghdad didn’t finish particularly well…I hate that.

    • Me too. I read the end in advance of the rest of the book, and I thought it was a bit predictable. I was hoping it would pay off emotionally once I’d read the rest, but it didn’t really. :/

  7. I am intrigued by the fact that this author explores what sparks fanaticism, and the fact that his portrayal of the wrongs done by American soldiers is somewhat balanced. It’s a shame this novel sort of lost its way.

    • His American soldiers are jerks, don’t get me wrong, but they’re jerks in ways that I believe would really happen — scared to death themselves, and really don’t understand the culture in a lot of ways. So I liked that.


      I believe the book blogger in charge of it, Nicki from Fyrefly’s Book Blog, keeps a list of all the book bloggers she knows of, and the search engine searches all their websites. People can ask her to add them to the search engine, though it’s been so long that I don’t remember how that process goes, but anyway it’s on her website. The Book Blog Search Engine is the best bloggy thing ever. Seriously.

    • Sometimes I am embarrassed at how often I use Wikipedia and then believe everything it tells me. If it turns out Yasmina Khadra is really a girl I will be embarrassed. :p

      (I’m kidding! I know he’s really a guy! His book jacket said so too.)

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