In a sea of words, an American translator searches for herself

Daily News Egypt
5 Min Read

In war, identities are polished and wrecked, all at once. Some prophecies are fulfilled, others are never realized. Sometimes war leaves nothing behind; for Zeina Bahnam, the only thing war spared was undead ashes.

She left Detroit upbeat and sanguine only to return lost, confused, and at war with herself. This is the state of mind troubled Iraqi-American heroine of Inaam Kachachi’s “Al-Hafeeda Al-Amerkeya (The American Granddaughter) finds herself in upon her return from Iraq to a world that has been disfigured for good.

On the back cover, the author describes herself as “a journalist and a writer who, despite her long stay in France, has closely adhered to her Iraqi-ness. The novel has been deservedly brought to the spotlight after it was shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (aka the Arabic Booker Prize). Despite the eminence of this year’s contenders, it would come as no surprise if Kachachi walked away with the prize next week.

Zeina’s family fled from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq when she was a teenager.

In need of cash and proper work, she decides to return to her home country, wearing another nation’s army uniform, working as a translator for the American army. Steadily, she realizes that the dream she had of the US bringing democracy to Iraq is nothing but a delusion. She also discovers she has a brother through breastfeeding who’s fighting with the Mahdi militia.

After surviving the horrors of the war, she goes back to the US to examine both her life and her family’s history through new eyes.

In Zeina’s mother, father, American boyfriend, Iraqi grandmother and her brother, Kachachi has created deeply empathetic, fully-rounded rich characters. The Christian-raised Zeina is the most complex. She is constantly battling the writer inside her, torn between authoring a dramatic story and documenting the facts with no additives.

She “tries and tries to write a nationalist novel, drawing a portrait of the stray daughter returning on a US tank.

The novel’s sole drawback is the sparse Iraqi dialect, which is often employed unaccompanied by Arabic translation. You can’t help but sense that the novel wasn’t written with the international or general Arabic readers in mind.

Engaging narrative and multifaceted themes aside, what makes Kachachi’s a masterpiece is her vivid imagery, lyrical meanderings and introspective analysis. Several passages feel like pure poetry; heartbreaking, startling in their frankness. Kachachi’s writing is breathtakingly beautiful, demanding multiple reads via a deliberate pace to digest the sheer splendor of her words. Take for instance the passages Zeina writes upon her return to Detroit:

“Even my laugh has changed. I don’t chuckle anymore like I used to do, openly showing my crooked lower teeth which Kelvin [Zeina’s American boyfriend] describes as a local cafe with brawling customers. That day Kelvin was flirting with me. But today flirtation doesn’t suit me. Who flirts with a woman carrying a catacomb between her ribs?

“I am miserable; a make-up table trashed to the ground, a cracked mirror. I laugh briefly, a meaningless, cold laugh; a fatless laugh, tasteless like a carbonated drink. Am I really laughing or struggling for a muted smile? Am I deliberately avoiding joy? I hide the true core of my heart lest its insides spill over and divulge my weakness. I have returned from Baghdad like a strained floor-moping rag. A Khaki rag, this is how I returned.

Although the rest of the novel is constituted of Zeina’s light cynical diary, its core as tragic, capturing the heroine’s sense of loss with such honest gravity.

Kachachi refuses to offer a solution for Zeina’s predicaments, and in this refusal, the abyss of despair in which Zeina becomes a submissive prisoner is expanded.

“The American Granddaughter grants the Arabic reader the rare chance of delving into the mind of an American who speaks their language and at times shares their concerns. Using this specific ground as platform, Kachachi flies with Zeina into more universal skies where themes of sadness, identity crisis, and loyalty to one’s heritage become dark mountains of clouds blocking each last ray of the shy receding light.

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