“a city of many rivers”

It is extraordinarily rare to read someone whose work haunts you and then becomes part of your personal canon.  That you wake in the middle of the night wanting to look at the map of his imaginary geography.  The last time this happened to me was with Roberto Bolaño.  But my new discovery, courtesy of Sinan Antoon, is much closer to home.  The word images he draws remind me of the black-and-white photographs in my parents’ albums, and send me scrambling through my own trunkful of loose photographs looking for pictures of Shatt al-Arab I shot in 1999 – from the other side of the river (unsuccessfully, as it turns out: I was waylaid by youthful pictures of beloved friends in various states of debauchery).

The writer Sinan has gifted me is the Iraqi Muhammad Khuddayir, and the extraordinary book of his that is the spectre roaming behind my eyes is his exquisite Basrayatha, first written in 1996, translated into English by William M. Hutchins, and published by American University of Cairo Press in 2007 (and Verso in 2008).  The book is a kind of memory book.  It affixes in words histories and memories and stories. It has a kind of spiral structure with every story taking you to the next story.  Khuddayir is a reliable guide and story-teller.  His histories (or at least his retelling of how histories are told) ring true and magical.  There is a bit of Calvino here, and a bit of Borges, but there are also visual modes of story-telling which better describe how this book is put together: lots of fragments, pieced together intricately and coherently, sewn together at the jagged edges with threads of word-association, and memory-association, and images, and extraordinary erudition.

First, let me get Khudayyir’s erudition out of the way: he quotes Foucault’s Heterotopia, and a half dozen obscure and famous writers in Arabic and in European languages; the latter range from Balzac to Buzzatti.  Interestingly, the Balzac reference is to a short story about the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt (as Edward Said has written, “nearly everywhere in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British and French culture we find allusions to the fact of empire”).  Basrayatha has historic footnotes, and strange little playful ones that remind one of Borges.

My favourite section, predictably enough, is the chapter about the Shatt-al-Arab and its progenitors:

Basra is a city of many rivers. Historians have counted six hundred major rivers and ten thousand side channels.  Al-Baladhuri mentioned the figure of 120,000 rivers.  The exact number of those rivers remains the secret knowledge of nature of the men who dug them (and by whose names they are known) in order to irrigate the fields and orchards granted to them as fiefs by caliphs, princes, and governors. The names of these rivers changed as the names of their proprietors changed and as their huge palaces, which were surrounded by lush gardens, crumbled.  The land-tax ledgers and those of the municipality do not reveal the true location of the Ubulla River (the largest of the ancient rivers connecting to the city of Utba ibn Ghazwan), the Abu al-Asad River, which the Caliph al-Mansur’s general excavated, the Mubarak River going back to Khaled ibn Yazid al-Qasri, or the other rivers of which traces will turn up on topographic maps based on aerial photography as faint, zigzag lines surrounded by salt marshes (p. 50).

The sense of how visual this is – but also how it draws on old histories, old maps, old stories- also comes through here:

The Ashar is one of the principal rivers of Basra and the artery of the Shatt al-Arab.  It relinquished its palms, walls, and trees to make way for the street that the governor Sulayman Nazif built in 1909.  We can reconstruct daily life at the beginning of the century from the notes of a customs official, the ledger of a moneychanger, or the records of foreign consulates.   We can similarly collect odd views of the river from faded photographs recorded by black-box cameras.  We can imagine the flow of traffic at the mule-hire station located next to the customs office as draft animals laden with merchandise set off for the city center.  Opposite the mule station was the cargo dock, noisy with workers unloading the ships anchored there.  They were supervised by customs employees and troops – leaning against the wall- from the Ottoman maritime barracks.  Here in the harbor concluded the sea voyage and days of quarantine, and then the city’s vast cloak would envelop red, yellow, and black visages of people clad in caps, pants, and hats (p. 52).

Historians would recognise the act of imagination in the remaking of disappeared places.  But so do those who have lost their cities – to exile, or to war, or to the storm from heaven the Angel of History cannot contemplate without horror.  In that passage I recognise all the ways in which I try to reconstruct homes and houses and pasts.  It is why I wanted to find the photographs of Shatt al-Arab I took in Khorramshahr.  It is why exiles cherish, depend on, live through their collections of photographs.

Khudayyir describes the making of bridges across Ashar River:

Over the first bridge rose the dome and minaret of the Maqam Ali Mosque.  Over the second bridge was a clock erected by an Armenian citizen named Suriyan. The third bridge separated a hotel with many wooden balconies from the palace of Government… The largest coffeehouses leaned against the entrances of the three bridges, whereas the other ones between the bridges began to go out of business.  Then all of them were removed when new streets were opened on the north bank and the old wooden bridges were replaced with concrete ones.  As the river’s commercial activity decreased, it developed into more of a focal point for the city.  The ports inside the city were deserted and the boats moved to the banks of the Shatt al-Arab (pp. 53-54).

As the book beautifully traces the transformations of port cities – of the shifts of commercial ventures outside cities as cities become places of pleasure (and leisure economies)- it weaves and brings together ancient and modern histories, and its recitation of beautiful historical names, its stories of Basrans, “children of the rivers”, builds a beautiful edifice, a wooden bridge, complex and intricate, between the Basra of imagination and the Basra of history and the present.

There is so much else to love about this book…  He loves not just the river, but also trains:

A passenger on the night train confronts the riddle: did cities and their train stations create trains – or did trains create cities and their stations? … The train created unbreakable fraternal bonds between me and those strangers -brothers of the night and travel, brothers of the unknown life that settles in one place only to depart for somewhere else.  Anyone who  -like me – has felt ties dissolve among the brethren during our long nights when trains thunder forward plucks these ties back from the silent night by force (pp. 111-112).

And bicycles.  The lovely descriptions of cycling, of bike races from villages to Basra, of the delight in owning a bicycle (pp. 71-72) feels rich and gently humorous and full of sodade (I can’t think of an English word that conveys that feeling).

And the “flares of natural gas from the refineries” (p. 113).  And ships arriving in Baghdad in 1831, to a city beset by the plague, boats arriving “by the sea route” gliding towards “the lifeless, walled city by the river fort, and the ships moored before it, while clouds of smoke billowed above them” (p. 23).  And the beautiful description of the river as “a route for comfort and punishment” (of sieges and commercial goods, p. 48).

And the British invasion in 1914, when the “Indian Expeditionary Force “D” left its forts on the island of Bahrain, after a rest break during which they took supplies and an additional number of guides, mercenaries, horses and mules” before “enter[ing] the Shatt al-Arab and proceed[ing] past rows of interlocking palms until they established a base in the Basra basin with all of its facilities for spices, dried fish, apes, whiskey, malaria, grimacing nightmares, and screams of sexual bondage” (p. 49).  How could you not love the pungent smells wafting from this description, with its strange Borgesian categories of objects one finds on military bases?

There is a long chapter on the war between Iran and Iraq.  So much about this chapter feels raw, less meandering, less playful, even a bit more nationalist (but maybe I say that because I am Iranian and remember the war?). There is passage after passage I have marked in my book where the words lacerate.  But the most haunting is the image of driving through a war-mangled landscape at high speed:

We were cruising along at a hundred kilometers and hour, and the car was like a large eraser, rubbing out all the scenery around it. The cleared space pushed other scenes toward us, but the car quickly erased those in turn. We crossed the Ashar River, and signs for places we knew began to whiz past. We did not notice until after our fleeting passage, when we were beyond them, that their large, glass facades were smashed. They were different now. Their forms were new. Signboards were askew and doors were torn away. (I should erase and draw: erase a restaurant and draw a burned-out structure. I should  erase a cinema and draw an abandoned building.  I should erase a coffeehouse and draw a closed business.) (p. 155).

It is the parenthetical litany of “shoulds” that serrates, gashes, burns through the skin.  Read it.  It will haunt you in that way that only great and ambiguous books telling stories in memorable spirals can.  Like smoke, like a river with a hundred thousand canals, like the flames from the gas flares that heat the oily landscape of that corner of the world, Basrayatha coils around itself, unwinds, and rewinds.  And through you.