Categorized | For the love of books

Book review – The American Granddaughter, by Inaam Kachachi

Posted on 02 November 2011 by Alice

Review by Alice Johnson

When Iraqi-American Zeina Behnam hears that the FBI is recruiting translators, she doesn’t hesitate to apply. Having watched the Twin Towers collapse on her TV screen right in front of her eyes in her living room, she feels a mixture of excitement and vulnerability. What could she do to help her country, her America?

The American Granddaughter

Zeina is sent back to her roots in Iraq, to Tikrit – the home of Saddam Hussain himself – to start work translating during army raids, during interrogations and helping local Iraqis with their claims for compensation. But a horrible conflict arises in her when she visits her maternal Grandmother Rahma Saour in her native Baghdad. Torn between her Arab origins and her adopted American freedom, Zeina tries to convince her Grandmother to accept her in the helmet and desert combat fatigues of a US soldier.

This isn’t the only conflict that awaits the Americanised Iraqi, who emigrated 15 years before, however. When she sets eyes on her grown-up ‘milk-brother’ Muhaymen, things become even more complicated than before. Although she’s aware of the risks, falling in love with a member of the Mahdi Army starts to make her question her adopted values.

With this tale of a young second-generation American-Iraqi, whose parents fled their homeland because of torture and abuse, Inaam Kachachi has captured the unspoken situation that many immigrants find themselves in: what happens when those who fled return, holding the passport of the ‘invaders’.

This is one of the main issues addressed by Kachachi, who was born in Baghdad in 1952 and moved to Paris in 1979.

‘…things were still unclear during those chaotic first few months. People were still recovering from the earthquake-like shock, still unsure whether to welcome those who’d arrived in tanks or to spit on them,’ she writes as Zeina is reunited with her grandmother.

The conflict arises in Zeina particularly as she’s asked to be present during a number of night raids. In one scene an Iraqi teacher, pinned to the ground as a suspect by an American soldier, pleads with her in the Iraqi-Arabic she knows so well.

Reading ‘The American Granddaughter’ with ease, it’s easy to see why the novel was shortlisted for the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). Kachachi’s prose is full of memories, reminiscence and heartache that can almost be tasted throughout the book.

‘The men were gone, and the women left behind beating their chests. Still the winds of righteousness kept blowing between the Tigris and Euphrates, endlessly roaming the land. The breaths of people like Rahma came out under the cover of darkness to blow on the wounds of our souls, to heal the fissures with a secret ointment that was said to be inherited from the days of Babylon and Assyria.’

Her poetic language carries the novel from one chapter to the next, encouraging pages to turn and readers

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to absorb themselves in its folds.

Kachachi regularly contributes to a number of Arabic newspapers, having worked as a print and broadcast journalist in Iraq. Her first novel ‘Streams of Heart’ (Sawaqi Al Quloob) was published in 2005 and she has also published two non-fiction titles: ‘Lorna, Her Years with Jawad Selim’ (a biography of the English painter Lorna Hailes, 1998) and ‘Paroles d’Irakiennes: Le Drame Irakien Écrit par des Femmes’ (Iraqis Speak: the Drama in Iraqi Women’s Writing, 2003).

The novelist also has a PhD in Islamic Civilisation from La Sorbonne and worked as the editorial director of the Arab edition of Marie-Claire.

‘The American Granddaughter’ has been published in English by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, Doha.

©Alice Johnson

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One Response to “Book review – The American Granddaughter, by Inaam Kachachi”

  1. Frah Dhagir says:

    It is amazing, and that reminds me of The tobacco keeper a novel written by Iraqi writer Ali Bader, it treats the same time, but more subtle and intelligent…Thanks a lot Alice …