Resiliency and Empathy in The Sirens of Baghdad

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

The Sirens of Baghdad: Questioning Preconceived Notions

A visceral, tragic read, Yasmina Khadra’s novel got me turning pages and tensing muscles.

The Sirens of Baghdad makes the reader question his/her preconceived notions, in some obvious ways and those less so. Yes, the very fact of the book’s perspective of a young Iraqi Bedouin man interested in joining terrorist forced against the Americans is a blatant method in forcing an American reader to empathize with the other side. By following the narrator’s thoughts, growing anger, and changing motives, we are offered a deep, graphic, and disturbing look into the mind of an “enemy.” Somehow, we can sympathize with the narrator (how is it possible not to when tragedy is all around him, and he’s telling us all the details?), and at other times, value priorities differing from my own forced me to re-read paragraphs and find a way to continue trusting the narrator even though I felt like I might respond differently to his circumstances (and my own culture views terrorists as sadistic animals). In my culture, honor plays less of a role, especially in family situations; seeing my father naked certainly wouldn’t prevent me from ever returning to my hometown. Going through these questions forced me to develop a sense of understanding and sensitivity to continue to care about and trust the narrator; though I disagreed, I didn’t have any desire to stop reading.

The novel also uses more subtle ways to make the reader question first impressions. One of my favorite instances can be seen in the very beginning of the book, when we are first introduced to the narrator’s “best friend,” Kadem, he is described as defeated, quiet, “disgusted,” impenetrable, anti-social, grumpy, impatient. Our first impression isn’t great; why is he best friends with this guy? As the novel progresses, we learn more about the honest and supportive quality of the relationship between the two young men. I think Khadra’s decision to make his first impression unlikable was beautifully deliberate: like the rest of the book’s characters, religious Muslims or terrorists are detestable on first impression, but as their characters develop and we learn more about their struggles, we come to be able to empathize more with them, and feel bad about our first impressions of them.

The most compelling part of Khadra’s novel was the way in which it traced the arc of the main character. The narrator remains nameless, a literary technique performed skillfully and powerfully. This is the most profound way that we have to question what we think we know, but learn that we don’t: he is a good guy, with a good heart and awareness for the world around him, but is possessed by his burning anger to avenge the gruesome wrongs that he’s been witnessing all his life. He could be anyone, and is anyone, preventing the reader from boxing him up in a label separate from how we identify ourselves. The most terrifying part is that the narrator isn’t special, and his path to terrorism isn’t unique to him, and his path toward terrorism isn’t completely unbelievable.

The Warning Sirens of Baghdad

Sirens of Baghdad offers a provocative perspective of the War on Terror that calls into question widely accepted views on extremism and counterinsurgency. The nameless narrator relates a story that is probably all too common in the region and evokes the sympathy of the reader—in spite of his destructive and violent intentions. I argue that the novel provides a how-not-to manual for counterinsurgency while simultaneously seeking to contextualize how terrorists are made. It would make fine reading material to counter Western reactionism towards the Middle East.

The author condemns the tactics and strategy of Western forces through his depiction of American soldiers. Their scant knowledge of Arab language and culture, and propensity for careless violence is underscored in every interaction. As a past commander of counterinsurgency forces in Algeria, the author understands that sensitivity and tact are crucial to success and that American forces exhibit little of this. He makes it clear that it is the suffering of the narrator at the hands of Western forces and a sense of insecurity is what drives him to a terrorist cell—not mindless hatred for Western values.

The narrator also goes out of his way to describe the poverty of his village and the way his life was uprooted with the advent of the invasion. Unemployed disgruntled men occupy cafes until dusk. Cars are hard to come by. His family depends on the earnings of his sister—an embarrassment to the men of the family. Senses of masculinity and honor are already teetering on a precipice, even before the invasion. The village is a powder keg, simply due to poverty. The narrator’s one way to help his family—attending university—is taken from him after the American invasion. There is a profound insecurity present, regarding his manhood, future and way of life. Add extreme trauma and injury of family to the mix, and it isn’t hard to see why the narrator made the decisions he did. His back-story provides easily understandable motives for that which seems initially incomprehensible to Western minds. It also demonstrates how important it is for counterinsurgents to provide assistance to the communities they are trying to win over. The more lives are disturbed by the invading forces, the less inclined the population will be to support the counterinsurgents.

I would make the claim that this novel was certainly intended for a Western audience. Its story arc, the choice to keep the narrator nameless, and the emphasis on honor but not necessarily religion as a motivation all make the narrator more approachable. It seems the author designed the narrator to be easy to empathize with. He is religious, but he is no zealot. He is driven to violence by despair, trauma and a sense of aggrievement—universal factors that affect everyone, regardless of nationality, ethnicity or creed. His namelessness and the use of first person narration gives the reader the sense that he could be anyone. We are inclined to ask ourselves—if we were in his shoes, would we really behave any different? The ending of the book redeems him in a way that feels profoundly genuine. He is weary of violence and hatred and empathizes with innocent strangers. His anger drains away and he his able to see light once more.

Above all, the author of the book designs his narrator to be a generic soldier. The narrator is simply someone who seeks an outlet after suffering an injustice. He leaves his brutalized home and family searching for a purpose that validates his anger and gives him a sense of identity. He suffers and becomes indoctrinated and dissociated from humanity. In the end his anger is unsustainable. Exhausted, he gives up his revenge and removes rage from his identity. His bare bones of his story could ultimately be mirrored by any soldier, in any part of the globe—that is what makes the novel exceptional.


Sirens, Monsters and Men

“War makes monsters of men” is a simple yet encompassing quote from Patrick Ness that I found myself recalling as I read Sirens of Baghdad. Even if I don’t completely agree with the statement, I thought it was something worth keeping in mind in considering the realities of war as shown in Khadra’s powerful novel.

Sirens of Baghdad was, for me, an evocative piece of fiction that paints a realistic image of how even the most pacifistic youth in a remote village can still suffer violence and loss to the point of breakage, and intimately explores what kind of person emerges from those remains. This story deals with the themes of faith, cultural awareness, violence, individualism and most of all humanity through an intensely personal first-person view, and as such was a very enjoyable and insightful read for me, and I was pleased we managed to discuss these many aspects of the novel in depth during our class.

I was somewhat surprised to hear in class that many people found it hard to relate to the narrator in this novel, and also with the narrator in Camus’ The Stranger with which we drew many comparisons. To me, it made sense that the narrator in Sirens of Baghdad became increasingly desensitized to everything and everyone around him – especially as he is forced to shed his sense of self in order to survive his trip to Baghdad – with only his cold anger providing the fire within him to become a jihadist and fight back against the looming amorphous entity of America. In my view, this was a very natural and logical descent of one’s fixation after a traumatizing experience, and I can definitely sympathize with and understand this progression of character as a product of an unforgiving reality, even if I don’t agree with his decisions. However, the fact that he is able to refocus and find worth in the lives of individuals at the airport speaks to me as a very uplifting ending, which I would argue conveys a hope that no one is so far gone that they cannot come back and find their humanity.

Similarly, Meursault finds himself in an illogical world where nothing makes sense to him and one in which he is so apart from that emotional detachment is the only reasonable outcome. However, like the Sirens of Baghdad narrator, he also finds some form of resolution in the end, though for him it is in realizing the futility of trying to understand humankind’s role in the universe, which is an undoubtedly bleaker conclusion. I would argue that neither of these men are monsters, but they have been made (and are viewed as) monstrous by the world around them, and that is not to say that there are not still monsters in the world who only show their true colors once the fabric of society breaks down.

One additional piece of intertext that I would like to recommend would be Generation Kill by Evan Wright, an embedded journalist’s account of the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. This follows a battalion of First Recon Marines as they find themselves embroiled in increasingly unwinnable situations. This has also been adapted into a six-episode HBO miniseries for those interested in a more visual adaptation. Though it provides an opposing perspective of the invading U.S. forces in contrast to the Sirens of Baghdad, it nonetheless faithfully paints the same grim realities of warfare that Khadra illustrates in his novel, and does not shy away from exploring the true impact of U.S. intervention upon ordinary Iraqis.

At one point, the marines discover that one of the insurgents they killed turns out to be a university student from Jordan, suggesting that he only became a jihadist as a reaction to American intervention, mirroring Sirens of Baghdad in how it was a personal attack upon his home and people rather than Islamist ideals which spurs the narrator to seek retaliation.

There are noticeable parallels with the narrator and his fellow cell-members, in how the initial optimism and idealistic empathy of the marines in Generation Kill are gradually worn down as they contend with morally conflicting orders, incompetent leadership and mental fatigue. At one point, there is even a checkpoint in which a fatigued marine mistakenly opens fire on a civilian vehicle and kills an innocent girl. I was immediately reminded of this when Sulayman is killed under the twitchy trigger finger of a later-guilt-ridden American soldier. Both texts touch on this theme of how, in the face of overwhelming violence and war, there comes a point where every person will shut down their empathetic selves in order to complete their tasks-at-hand, and in doing so also lose sight of their purpose and self-identity.

Ultimately I think the most valuable lessons to draw from Sirens of Baghdad concerns the processes by which a person responds and adapts to their changing reality in differing ways. This is especially so when framed, as the book does, in an individual versus society manner in which one’s social relations are capable of heavily influencing one mentality, actions and subsequent impact upon that same society, a phenomenon which I find very interesting and one that I would like to further explore.

An Algerian’s Iraq in The Sirens of Baghdad

At the very end of seminar yesterday we briefly touched on the topic of appropriation and the problems (or if there are any at all) of an Algerian author writing from the point-of-view of an Iraqi about Iraqi issues.

I happened to read an article titled “Is Cultural Appropriation Always Wrong?” in the New York Times Magazine today that quoted a Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie. Shamsie wrote in an essay for Guernica: ‘‘The moment you say a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, Don’t tell those stories. Worse, you’re saying: As an American male you can’t understand a Pakistani woman. She is enigmatic, inscrutable, unknowable. She’s other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness. Write them out of your history.’’ This reminded me of a similar argument made by Simon During in his comparison of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. In brief, During writes that while Conrad’s depiction of Africans as cannibals and savages is largely inaccurate and offensive, it perhaps actually functions better than Coppola’s work which leaves the Vietnamese unrepresented. Coppola in not attempting to depict the Vietnamese is actually refusing them the right to exist, whereas Conrad acknowledges the Other. That is not to say that Heart of Darkness is an ideal in representing the Other, it is far from it, but a work of fiction/art recognizes its own limitations (as opposed to nonfiction that operates with the intention of portraying truth) and it perhaps functions not to necessarily provide an accurate portrayal of a culture but to provide a portrayal that then allows the reader to evaluate its value and limits.

In the case of The Sirens of Baghdad, the value of Khadra’s narrative is perhaps in its willingness to depict a previously underrepresented Other – a young jihadi. Near the end of the novel, there appears to be a meta-reference when the novelist Mohammed Seen talks to Dr. Jalal and says: [The Muslims need] someone capable of representing them, of expressing them in their complexity, of defending them in some way. Whether with the pen or with bombs, it makes little difference to them” (275). In a way, this could describe what Khadra attempts – allowing the Muslim identity to exist and assert itself without the violence involved in war.  

Khadra doesn’t function under a pretense that his character is full and complete. In fact, for much of the novel the protagonist appears to lack a clear identity. This fact was discussed in the seminar. The protagonist’s name is never mentioned, he lacks understanding, and he lacks an overarching vantage point of what is occurring. Because it is a first-person narrative, not omniscient, the reader is placed at the same tier of knowledge as the narrator, thus what the protagonist lacks in understanding, the reader does too. The reader is forced to come to terms with the fact that they, much like the narrator, don’t have a clear and complete picture of the conflict. The reader is aware that though they are given an image of the Other, it still lacks clarity or resolution, thus cannot be interpreted as a totality.

We also touched on the absence of the US in the novel. The GI’s appear briefly at the beginning of the book in Kafr Karam, but there are no fully-formed, three-dimensional characters like the Iraqi characters. In addition, apart from the action at the beginning of the novel where the GI’s shoot Sulayman, much of the conflict occurs between the Iraqis, between the two sides represented by Omar and Yaseen/Sayed respectively.Through the words of the character Mohammed Seen, Khadra writes: “The West is out of the race. It’s been overtaken by events. The battle, the real battle, is taking place among the Muslim elite… Today, our struggle is internal” (274-5). My lack of knowledge on the history of the Middle East prevents me from understanding what political stance that the author is taking here.  I wonder if parallels can be drawn between this war and the Korean War as viewed by revisionist historian Bruce Cumings who wrote that the Korean War was a civil war with deep historical roots in which the Americans had little reason to intervene in. In some Korean literature about the war (for instance The Guest by Hwang Sok-Yong), the US similarly hold minor roles and is mostly absent while the narrative focuses on the conflict between South and North Korean armies. I wonder what Khadra’s historical interpretation is of the war. If Khadra is criticizing American intervention, what else is he saying about atrocities committed by the Americans versus atrocities committed by the Iraqis?

Injustice and dignity in The Sirens of Baghdad

I had never before read a fiction novel about Islamic fundamentalism from the point of view of the ‘fundamentalist’ himself.  We talked a bit in class about the reliability of the narrator and whether his account was biased or not. In my opinion, I do not think this is necessarily the right question to ask; rather we should focus on what his account of the story can tell us about his experience and motivations to join the fundamentalists. The first-person narrative affects the objectivity of the conflict especially given the fact that there is no historical context or an exploration of the American soldiers’ side of the story but it is exactly what makes the novel so powerful. We are being emerged in the protagonist’s head from the very start when he is just an innocent Bedouin who detests violence and avoids confrontation to a frustrated and angry man who is determined to  “avenge” his family and defend his and their honor. The first-person narrative thus ‘forces’ us to follow the journey of the protagonist even if we cannot or do not want to relate to him.

In class today we talked a lot about the relatable nature or lack thereof of the main character. While reading the novel, I was constantly trying to understand his motives and justify his actions, fully aware of the limits of my cultural understanding. In the end I do not think I managed to completely understand what led him over the “abyss” and why he did what he did. We talked a lot about the importance of cultural awareness and the role it needs to play in insurgency. It reminded me of an article I read in a class I took last year, “Cultures of the Contemporary Middle East.” It was about the implementation of the Human Terrain System in the U.S. Army, a support program employing social scientists such as anthropologists and political scientists to provide military leaders with advice and understanding of the local population in the regions where they are deployed. While the introduction of HTS was seen as a step forward toward more effective counterinsurgency in war zones, it faced significant backlash with accusations of harming anthropology’s reputation of being an academic rather than a military discipline and of violating basic principles of ethical research such as informed consent. Some have also argued that “counterinsurgency can never be humanitarian” and thus, such a project can never be successful. Thus, while cultural awareness is extremely important, we also need to be aware of the complexities and the ethical issues its use raises when providing support to troops and intelligence.

Another interesting idea we brought up in class today was the idea of the enemy as this amorphous entity which is not clearly perceived by the main character. When he inadvertently becomes a witness to his father’s humiliation and decides to go to Baghdad and join jihad, he does not have a plan. He is angry at the American soldiers but at the same time agrees to go to London and execute “the greatest operation ever carried out on enemy territory” (11). The uncertainty of where or what his anger is directed at reminded me of a Mercy Corps report I read this summer when I was interning at their regional office in Tunis, Tunisia. The report, titled Youth & Consequences: Unemployment, Injustice and Violence, had just been released and explored the relationship between poverty and violence. Its main argument was that not joblessness but rather injustice provokes youth in conflict-torn regions to join rebel-armed groups. The youth is most susceptible to recruitment because of their social, political and economic marginalization. The report provides plenty of evidence that counters widespread beliefs that unemployment and lack of opportunities lead young adults to support political violence: “Violence makes people poor, but poverty doesn’t appear to make them violent” (17). Instead, what makes people angry is corruption, discrimination and being cheated or humiliated.

“Unemployment most could accept – as circumstance, poor luck, the will of God. ‘Those are not things you fight against,’ said a young Afghan man…Early experiences of violence – being roughed up by security forces, for example – are associated with pushing young people into violent groups…Dignity matters, not dollars.” (23)

The report went on to give recommendations for policy-making and development approaches to focus their efforts not simply on vocational trainings but also on fighting corruption and building more just and inclusive societies. While The Sirens of Baghdad is fiction, I can see a lot of parallels in the main character’s motivations and the arguments made in the report. It is not his inability to continue his education that pushes him to go to Baghdad but rather the humiliation he experienced when soldiers raided his home. In the end he realizes that his frustration is not directed at the American soldiers but at the injustice in the world which strips him away from education, love and a normal life. All of that was taken away from him by a bigger force. Who was he to take that away from other people? He does not follow through with his mission, aware that this decision of his would later seal his death sentence. While the message is not one of hope for humanity, there is some optimistic note to take away from the book’s ending; that is, while one cannot change the injustice in the world, one can change how one reacts to it.


Sirens of Baghdad: Silence and Song

As you all may have noticed, I was slightly quieter than usual in class today- like I noted, I find it very difficult to contribute to a discussion when my experience and my knowledge of the subject is so limited. That’s not to say I can’t academically approach the Middle East, and American involvement or terrorism, as I would anything else, but more to say that in this case, I know that I don’t know much at all.

To me, reading Sirens of Baghdad brought up several issues and one major set of inter-texts I had almost forgotten about until I started thinking about my understanding of the Middle East and its history.

I first want to unpack the title further, as we started to do at the end of class. I found it incredibly interesting that we discussed two quotes in which the word ‘siren’ is used. Sirens sound alarm. They disarm and alarm simultaneously. Sirens disconcert and can create chaos. He describes, “I watched ambulance drivers picking pieces of flesh from sidewalks, cops interrogating the neighborhood residents… While the victims’ relatives raised their hands to heaven, howling out their grief, I asked myself if I was capable of inflicting the same suffering on others… I strolled calmly back to the store and my room” (179-180). An ambulance would surely have a siren, although in this case, the siren signals the aftermath of a terrorist event. His nonchalance in the face of this alarm is telling of his characteristic absent personality. The chaos does not seem to disturb him despite the carnage visible.

In addition, I wonder if the second definition of siren could be a metaphor throughout this book. In mythology, a siren could lure a sailor to his “destruction by seductive singing”. This seems a possible meaning for the title of the book, as lyrical terms are discussed throughout the novel in relation to places. He writes of the village, “Halfway between Kafr Karam and the Haitem’s orchards, the plateau made a sudden descent, and a vast dry riverbed strewn with little sandstone mounds and thorny bushes split the valley for several kilometers. The wind sang in that spot like a baritone” (70). I find it telling that he described it as a baritone- a low, usually smooth and dulcet tone pleasing to the ear. This would draw someone in- a soprano tone would usually repel all but very few; alto would get lost in the chaos of harmony; bass would become too low a murmur to notice. Maybe it is my singing training taking over, but I can see the appeal and beauty of this scene described lyrically. He is simultaneously taken in and repelled by this siren song; the metaphor works both ways.

This book also made me think back to the course I took on the Middle East, called “Gender, Empire and Nation: The Making of the Muslim Middle East” a history course that focused on issues of gender, identity, and religion in post-colonial Iran primarily. It was fascinating reading the commentary of scholars regarding the development of the national borders of Middle Eastern countries; watching a documentary about Tehran; getting a very basic insight into a region I had previously never studied. This course forced me to entirely reevaluate everything that I had learned about the Middle East, and about the American response to 9/11 and subsequent ‘conflicts’ or ‘operations’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The war in Iraq is especially difficult for me to respond to because I do not have the same immediate response to September 11 and intense nationalist feelings that I’m sure many people in this course do. I was living in Indonesia when the September 11 attack happened, and remember staying up late that night to watch the events unfolding on CNN from my stairwell because my parents did not want to worry me. I didn’t understand why they were so concerned- in my mind, I wasn’t an American; I had lived abroad the entire time I was able to remember. We were evacuated back to the United States shortly thereafter, but it took me years of remembrance and learning to fully understand the impact that September 11 had on the United States. In Indonesia, a good deal of my friends practiced Islam, and hearing the call to prayer was a normal part of my day. When I moved to Tennessee, I was confronted by an extremely hateful racism; not only was there fear of Muslims, but outright aggression. This is all to say that my experience with this conflict has been one of information, misinformation, and overall confusion.

In my Ugly American post, I discussed one of the most important books I’ve read in my time at Brown: Lila Abu-Lughod’s Do Muslim Women Need Saving? However, and for anyone who was questioning the bond relationships described in this book or looking for more insight into Bedouin culture through an ethnographic lens, I highly recommend Abu-Lughod’s other works. I wrote a historiography of her collected writings, and found her description of studying and living among Bedouin groups extremely compelling. The two books most relevant to this topic are Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin  Society and Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories. She describes the poetry of the women, describes needing to find a “father” in the bedouin group she was living within in order to be trusted as a lone, female researcher. These insights are in part due to her background and familial connections to Egypt; perhaps they can offer some insight into this story as well.

Biases from the “War on Terror”

When I began reading The Siren’s of Baghdad, I immediately took the defensive position that I believe many America’s take when thinking about the war in Iraq. Having grown up and spent my entire life living in the U.S. it has made me defensive of my country’s reputation abroad. However, I am not saying that I agree with a lot of the intervention that has been taken, especially in the post 9/11 world, but I still feel a loyalty towards my home. That being said, I was apprehensive to read a book that is written from the viewpoint of someone who I have been indoctrinated into thinking is the enemy. The narrator stating, “I don’t know what my mission is. All I know is, what been planned will be the greatest operation ever carried out on enemy territory, a thousand times more awesome than the attacks of September 11…” very early on in the book made me think about all the violence that has been propagated in the previous 15 some-odd years. That is where my biases originated, and that is where I began my reading of The Siren’s of Baghdad, but I think that Khadra did a phenomenal job of delving into the psyche of this narrator to explain truly what it is that drives him.

After the opening I approached the book with an air of what this narrator is doing is wrong, which admittedly, is not how anyone should approach another culture. However, the first encounter with Americans and the death of Sulayman quickly changed my opinion of the narrator and of the Americans. My defensive posture switched to one of shame. I was shamed that death comes so easily to these soldiers, and they seem like the only course of action is to shoot first, and ask questions later. Of course this book is fiction, but I don’t doubt for one second that something exactly like Sulayman’s death occurred during the American occupation of Iraq.

Within a short time in the novel, shame comes to be the reason behind the narrator’s anger. When I first read the passage that depicts the narrator seeing his father’s penis, it caught me off guard. It didn’t even occur to me how horrible that event is in his culture. In so many words he even describes it as the ultimate shame, not only to him, but also to his family. I for one was shocked. Sure, it would be uncomfortable if that happened to me and my dad, but there’s no way it would lead me to so much anger.

This is where the idea of cultural misunderstanding comes in so strongly. It doesn’t seem like the American’s were trying to so deeply offend the narrator, but they do and it sends our narrator on a path towards revenge via jihad. It seems to me that many of the shortcomings in American intervention (whether justified or not, although it rarely is) is this idea of cultural misunderstanding. I think you could even go so far as to say its not just a misunderstanding, Americans have a habit of believing that our culture is the best in the world and should be mimicked. It was evident in The Ugly American many times over, but most specifically when talking about the ad for Americans to work overseas in embassies and live in a pretend world, separated from the rest of the nation they are in. When I saw it was that pushed the narrator into the arms of the insurgents, it surprised me, but also made me step back and think about culture on a larger scale. I did not start the book thinking that I would be able to empathize with someone who I thought was an enemy. However, taking time to actually understand what it was that so deeply affected the narrator lead me to a complete change of heart.

I know it seems closed minded of me, but part of learning is admitting one’s own shortcomings. I thought that jihadists were the enemy of my country, but reading of this book really helped add some perspective. I might even say, that while I do not agree with the means, the violence caused alone is deplorable, the rationale behind this one narrator’s story makes sense, even to a westerner who has never felt shame like it is described in the novel.

Reading Deep Rivers in the Context of Testimonio

As everyone now knows, my field of focus for International Relations is Latin America. Unfortunately for the context of leading the Deep Rivers discussion, I have neither traveled to Peru, nor studied the country in depth. However, I wanted to add a nuance to how we approach Deep Rivers, especially following the conversation in seminar. I am also a History concentrator, and am currently enrolled in a great course called “Latin American History and Film: Memory, Narrative, and Nation” in which we discuss the way that historians and filmmakers discuss and represent Latin America on film.

Today, and sadly too late to discuss in seminar, we learned about a fascinating concept called testimonio, which illuminated several intertexts to our story. The basic concept is that a working class or otherwise marginalized person will describe their story to an interlocutor, who writes it down as a distinct type of historical narrative. In this case, the witness or testimonialista is both the object and subject of the writing. This article on Jstor (requires a Brown log-in for full reading) by George Yudice provides a good summary. He states, “The testimonio has contributed to the demise of the traditional role of the intellectual/artist as spokesperson for the ‘voiceless’…as the subordinated and oppressed feel more enabled to opt to speak for themselves in the wake of new social movements…there is less of a social and cultural imperative for concerned writers to assume the grievances and demands of the oppressed” (Yudice 15). This speaks to one of the central conflicts that we discussed- the idea that such a seemingly autobiographical story could illuminate issues relating to the Quechua people in a way that authentically spoke to their concerns. While Deep Rivers was written about a decade before testimonio became a widespread historical form, I believe that using testimonio may have been a more effective way to communicate this story.

The history of nearly every Latin American country includes a mass killing of indigenous people; however, one of the most recent and traumatic was that of the Guatemalan genocide in the 1980s, which largely targeted indigenous people of Mayan ancestry. Much like the Quechua in Peru, survivors continue to fight for recognition by the government through language and culture. One woman, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, survived the genocide and propelled the testimonio historical genre into the spotlight when she told her story to Elizabeth Burgos Debray in 1983. The resulting book, I, Rigoberta Menchú (title translated to English) is an excellent example of the illumination of an indigenous conflict by an indigenous person, as dictated to a writer. To me, this form of storytelling and activism seems much more authentic than that of Deep Rivers.

I have to question how much of this distinction, however, is the result of my training as a white, Ivy League educated student of anthropology and history. Much of what I have studied has centered on post-colonialism, on always looking for and seeking out the lived experiences of those I am studying and representing. I have been told never to conflate narrative with ethnography, to always check my narrative bias when approaching any topic.

However, I have to wonder if we should be so harsh as to hold Arguedas to those standards when discussing this book. Clearly we, as an audience in 2015 at Brown University, cannot speculate as to the lived experience of Arguedas which led to the story in this book. However, as a fictional piece with the goal of illuminating Quechua culture, I feel that Arguedas succeeds in presenting a compelling if limited understanding of Quechua culture for us. While I feel more comfortable with the format and means of testimonio, it simply hadn’t been developed, much less institutionalized, as a storytelling form until at least a decade after Arguedas wrote.

In addition, I have to wonder if testimonio would incorporate all of the beautiful linguistic aspects that made Deep Rivers so compelling- not to mention, a Quechua subject and object would likely have not incorporated as nuanced of a portrayal of the race relations in Peru at this time. Because of the way that Ernesto flows between Spanish and Quechua worlds, the audience gets a ‘fuller’, if perhaps less accurate understanding of the situation portrayed.

Overall, I feel that looking closer at Deep Rivers in the context of a testimonio would be compelling and would give the story another layer of meaning. For us as current readers, a testimonio reading would provide answers to some, if not many, of the questions posed in class that we spent considerable time grappling with in context.

Deep Rivers: Questioning Privilege, Ethics, and Accuracy

In our discussion of Deep Rivers yesterday, Celina brought up a really interesting point on the accuracy of Arguedas’ portrayal of the Quecha people. I think this brings up a lot of important aspects when we are talking about reading fiction that may be written from the perspective of a more privileged individual talking about marginalized peoples.

First, I think when interrogating how “accurate” a work is, it is important to note that a piece is fiction. The author is not obligated to make all of the cultural aspects in their work completely factual, as one takes on such creative license when they call their work “fiction.” That said, in a class such as this, one can most likely assume that the characters (if not the actual cultural elements) are most likely based in truth, and so there is still merit in viewing these works through an academic lens, even if they are not necessarily meant for a strictly academic audience.

Second, I also think it’s important to study the author’s background when questioning the validity of a work and how that may influence the work. Looking at Deep Rivers, I would say that if Arguedas was struggling financially then there may be more incentive for him to exaggerate the actual events/cultural elements that occurred in the book, as, unfortunately, when marketing to a wealthier, Western audience – exotic sells. Of course, I don’t think Arguedas wrote this book for cultural tourism or appropriation (i.e., trying to make money off of the Quecha culture); I personally think that his integration of the Quecha language and level of nuance with which he handles many indigenous issues points to Deep Rivers as a genuine portrayal of the Quecha people – one that may be meant to start conversation, as opposed to make money.

However, as we also mentioned in class, despite his nuanced treatment of these issues, Arguedas is still mestizo – subjugated only to racial prejudices from some White Spaniards. He is the middle “caste” in this Peruvian racial caste system. His portrayal of the Quecha people cannot be 100% accurate because he lacks the lived experience of the people to inform his perspective. Certainly he has seen his friends’ struggle, but he himself has not experienced it to the fullest degree. So – should Arguedas try and discuss the Quecha people at all? When Arguedas wrote the book, he received awards and (presumably) large royalties based on the book’s popularity, potentially raising questions of whether or not he benefitted from the story of the Quecha people, without actually having to shoulder the burden of being Quecha in Peru. This is certainly an ethical dilemma. However, is a better solution to wait for an indigenous person to write a novel and thus shine light on these important issues?

In my opinion, not necessarily. There’s the issue of whether or not anyone would even listen to a Quecha writer if they wrote about their experience. If Quecha communities are so marginalized in Peru, what makes anyone think that a Quecha writer’s opinion would be any more respected? We see the same issue in America. While there have been many Black prison narratives over the last century, it wasn’t until Piper Kerman wrote Orange is the New Black for the conversation on hyper-incarceration in America to jump off (for which she has garnered much criticism). So – what’s to be done?

This is a complex question, and I welcome disagreement on this. In my personal opinion, if a person with privilege, such as Arguedas and Kerman, can write with some accuracy on the issue (without centering the conversation on them!), then they should use that privilege to do so.