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.