Nadje Sadig Al-Ali, 'Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present' and Haifa Zangana, translated by Judy Cumberpatch, 'Women on a Journey: Between Baghdad and London'

IssueOctober 2007
Review by Emma Sangster

These two books are moving and compelling explorations of the lives of Iraqi women. One is a work of fiction; the other an oral history. While the narrative forms allow an intimate and detailed view of individual lives, both books are suffused with an understanding of how the political situation of Iraq has always gone to the core of how life is experienced.

Haifa Zangana weaves together the stories of five women exiled in London during the late 1990s. Despite differences of politics, background and age, the women are drawn to each other, united by their identity as Iraqis and the struggles of living in exile. The unfolding of their individual histories tells of the rise of the Ba'ath party, the work of the Communist party that formed such a major part of radical politics in Iraq, the impact of the Gulf War and the devastating economic sanctions and bombing during the 1990s. Yet, despite the violence, tragedies and loss each suffer, there are sources of hope and warmth in the women's lives, as they each search for peace in their own way. Reading the book inevitably informs our understanding of the recent experience of Iraqis, although the current state of destruction of the country was perhaps inconceivable when the book was originally published in Arabic in 2000.

Nadje Sadig Al-Ali has collected the oral histories of dozens of Iraqi women across generations, countries and situations, including her own and members of her family, and contextualised them with an informed and detailed understanding of the social and political history of Iraq. Many of the women have been displaced from the country at different points during the last turbulent decades. The interplay of the personal and the political and the workings of memory and identity creates a complex narrative in which differences in experiences and perception are given full rein while the wider forces that affected all are fully recognised. The feminist understanding of inequality, charting how women's rights in Iraq have been won and, particularly since the 2003 invasion, increasingly lost, is a valuable history in itself.

The voices in these books are of women talking about their lives, experiences and country in their own words. They have the power to help create an understanding that breaks down bridges between people and cultures and make violence inconceivable and solidarity the only option. We must hear these voices.

Topics: Iraq, Women
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