Naphtalene: A Fiction of Baghdad

by Mamdouh, Alia

Seen through the eyes of a strong-willed and perceptive young girl, “Naphtalene” beautifully captures the atmosphere of Baghdad in the 1940s and 1950s. Through her rich and lyrical descriptions, Alia Mamdouh vividly recreates a city of public steam baths, roadside, butchers and childhood games played in the same streets where political demonstrations against British colonialism are beginning to take place. At the heart of the novel is nine-year-old Huda, a girl whose fiery, defiant nature belies Western stereotypes of Muslim femininity – and also contrasts sharply with her own inherent powerlessness. Both childishly innocent and acutely perceptive, Huda observes and documents the complex web of relationships in her family. Her father, a bullying police officer who works as a prison guard, treats his two children with vacillating tenderness and brutality, and drives her desperately ill Syrian mother from the house after he takes a second wife. One aunt waits in vain for a man to marry her, while another engages in a sexual relationship with a woman, but is forced to hide it.Huda must struggle to form her identity amidst this world of unfulfilled women, of yearnings, frustrations, and small tragedies. Her inspiration is her grandmother, a reservoir of strength, humour, and of traditional storytelling, who manages subversively to wield great power in her family and her community. Through Mamdouh’s strikingly inventive use of language, Huda’s stream-of-consciousness narrative expands to take in the life not only of a young girl and her family, but of her street, her neighbourhood, and her country.