‘The Orange Trees of Baghdad’ is the memoir of a 32-year-old woman who felt compelled by circumstances beyond reason and control to question her father’s Iraqi and Syrian ancestral roots after decades of nothing but silence coming from him. Although Nadir’s father was born and brought up in Baghdad, Iraq and had four children half-carrying the Arab gene, he never volunteered much information about his home country and was almost in denial about it, content to have initiated a new life in the West and not wanting to look back.
The tale begins when Dorothy, an impressionable young girl who hasn’t even finished her A-Level education, falls in love with the handsome and dark Iraqi engineering student Zane in a London club. Soon after, they are married with a little daughter and on their way to Baghdad with no questions asked.
It is one brave lady to open the lid onto something that is quite natural for any human being to do but that which can also be riddled with a deep well of personal or - as in the case of the Arabs – collective guilt, doubt, shame, confusion and misunderstandings.
Ben-Halim, former Prime Minister of Libya during the Senussi led constitutional monarchy, published the memoirs in 1990, when he was still living in exile under diplomatic protection in the United Kingdom. Written in both Arabic and English, it documents his ten years’ worth of experience in public office and sets the record straight on the Years of Hope – as he describes them.
Insisting his work is fictional, an adolescent Nuri loses his mother first and after experiences the unusual vanishing of his father. Alongside, there is a racy and competitive love triangle interwoven in the tale – between father, son and the amorous interest Mona.
In fact, she does not waste time on pleasantries or niceties, beginning the first chapter by the strong indictment and condemnation of the Arab culture, psychologically diagnosing it and its people with a core schizophrenia and an advanced level of hypocrisy, all down to the religious and political elements that repress and oppress any form of novel expression or creativity, that she herself won’t suffer.
Throughout my avidly looking into the plot and characters, I found it hard to guess what was so foreign, alien or so unexpected that I would sigh and nod my head to: “Wow! Here is something I really didn’t know.”