Alia Mamdouh: حبات من النفتالين (Mothballs; later: Naphthalene)
Mamdouh’s first novel translated in English tells the story of a young girl growing up in Baghdad in the 1940s and 1950s. Mamdouh has claimed that the novel is not autobiographical but there are clearly many similarities between Mamdouh and Huda. Like her creator, Huda is primarily brought up by her grandmother. Her mother takes ill and dies, though Mamdouh’s mother died when she was three, while Huda is much older when her mother dies. Huda’s mother is Syrian, like Mamdouh’s. Both have a younger brother, of whom they are very fond. The novel has been hailed as feminist work and it clearly shows the travails faced by Iraqi women of that time. Huda is something of a tomboy and likes playing with the boys in the street. However, as she approaches womanhood, this pleasure is denied her. Her father catches her playing in the street and beats her, forbidding her to do so again and making her wear the traditional cloak. We see the women suffer – the neighbour who is beaten by her husband who gambles away all the money she earns or Huda’s Aunt Farida who is engaged to her cousin, Munir, who has inherited money but is only interested in spending it and who marries Farida but never consummates the marriage. Munir is an object of contempt for all the women of the family and he will pay the price in humiliation at the hands of Farida.
Huda’s father is a police officer who works at the prison. He is something of a distant figure but, when he does come home, he is prone to rage, so much so that Adil, Huda’s brother, bursts into tears whenever he sees him. His wife, Huda’s mother, is ill with tuberculosis (and there is a suggestion that Huda may have it slightly) and suffers a lot. One day, Jamil, her husband, casually announces that he has got a nurse pregnant and plans on marrying her because Iqbal, his wife, cannot produce any sons. She is naturally furious but there is little she can do about it. Her condition steadily worsens and eventually she returns to Aleppo and dies. Fortunately, Jamil’s mother, does not have a high opinion of her son and it is she who brings up the two children. Huda gradually becomes a woman. She has a best friend Firdous, who is lame, and Huda and Mahmoud, Firdous’ brother, become interested in one another.
The story is told against a political background. The British influence is strong, particularly on the royal family, though the young king is much loved. The British are hated and the rise of Arab nationalism, with references to Palestine and Nasser, is very much to the fore. But though Huda is aware of this and even attends a mass anti-British demonstration where she learns that Mahmoud is a communist (a word she does not understand), it is the family life of Huda and her life as a girl becoming a woman which makes this story. Mamdouh writes with a vivid intensity which gives the story a heightened sense and makes it one of the most fascinating accounts to come out of the Arab world.
First published in 1986 by al-Hay’ah al-Miṣrīyah al-‘Āmmah lil-Kitāb
First published in English by Garnet, Reading
Translated by Peter Theroux