Reading The Sirens of Baghdad was a profound emotional experience for me. In my opinion. one of the most impressive elements of the novel was how Khadra structured the plot and the prose in a way that allowed the reader to feel the same horrifying transition that the protagonist underwent. The descriptions in the beginning of Kafr Karam, its inhabitants, and the events and disasters that take place within the city are beautiful, haunting, and emotive. On the other hand, although the protagonists’ experience in Baghadad was an equally dramatic one as he joined a terrorist organization, overall it is described in a way that feels sterile, detached and mechanized. The way in which this novel toggled between sensuous and almost mechanical prose to describe the portagonist’s transformation from a position of empathy to one of complete numbness was absolutely stunning.
I cannot for the life of me remember who brought up this comment in class…however, someone mentioned how this novel illustrates the specific role that one take on in the pursuit of violence in the name of a “Cause” I interpreted this comment to mean that throughout the novel, the protagonist begins to fall into an automated and single minded pursuit of vengeance and violence- a path that seems to have been rutted by centuries of Bedouin tradition. In a way this novel helped me understand how violence and trauma may lead to the transition of an individual from a place of empathy to a place in which they are detached from violence.
Prior to seeing his father in a humiliated state, the boy describes himself as being a person that “simply hated violence….and found other people’s sorrows devastating.” Pg 97. However, over the course of the novel we see the protagonist become hardened and numb, he “carried my hatred like a second nature; it was my armor” Pg 134. This weapon of hatred helps the protagonist focus his anger and survive in Baghdad. Eventually, this anger has forced the protagonist to become completely numb and disconnected from emotional attachment to his memories. Leading up to the reveal of the virus he has complete control and command over his fears, memories and emotions. This detachment has created a numb and resilient individual.
I thought that this transition within the protagonist illustrated an interesting distinction between empathy and resilience that seemed to create dissonance within the narrator. Although the narrator is naturally an empathetic individual who felt that he had, “enormous compassion” for his father, after being violated and humiliated by the American GI’s, the narrator effectively sheds this empathetic side of his personality in order to sharpen his focus on regaining honor for his family. This tension between empathy and resilience comes to a pinnacle as the narrator revisits the moment of his father’s humiliation, “ And when a rifle butt knocks him down, I don’t help him up. I remain upright; my sphinxlike inflexibility prevents me from bending, even over my father.” At this moment the narrator seems to be statuesque and made of marble as he shows absolutely no compassion for his father. At this moment, he also appears to be the pinnacle of strength and unwaveringness- sphinxlike- signaling his success in being undefeated and unaffected. To me, this notion of being undefeated in the defense of honor seemed to be an extremely important aspect of Bedouin culture.
The correlation between resiliency and a sense of numbness seemed to be extremely strong until the end of the novel, where the narrator is overwhelmed by the experiences, stories, and potential of the individuals that he sees at the airport. This experience seemed to ground the narrator in the kinds of social interactions that had made up his identity prior to the incident with the American GIs. In a circuitous way, the empathy that the narrator feels for the crowd of people at the end of the novel allows him to become even once more resilient as he regains agency over his decisions.
This juxtaposition of empathy and resiliency interests me with regard to the reference to the Myth of Sisyphus that is mentioned in the novel. Through the majority of the novel, I felt as though the author was building tension between empathy and resiliency, indicating that the only way for an individual to survive in the absurd task that is survival is to become numb and removed from the world. However, in my opinion the end of the novel refuted this, showing that human connection, empathy, and the bundle of social relations that composes each of us is the only way for us to see beyond, “the edge of the abyss…the infinite void” pg 101.
Although violence and trauma may harden individuals and make it seem as though disconnecting oneself from emotion is the only way to succeed in pushing one’s one stone up a hill as Sisyphus did, this novel gives the reader a nugget of hope- showing that ultimately human connection and empathy can be an even stronger weapon in preparing individuals for survival in an arguably absurd world.S