Baghdad is not a city readily associated with Christianity. Nevertheless, a small (and shrinking) community lives there. This brief but resonant novel describes the discrimination and abuse they suffer for their faith as well as offering an important insight into how intolerance (of any religion or lifestyle, not just Christianity) can escalate into violence and even war.
The action covers just one day in the life of Youssef, an elderly Iraqi Christian who has been living alone in the family home since his wife died and other relatives left the country. He has invited a younger, distant cousin, Maha, and her husband, Luay, to lodge in the empty upper storeys of the house after a car bomb destroyed their own apartment.
The three co-exist happily until the evening, on which the novel opens, that Youssef and Maha argue about whether the death sentence handed down on former Saddam Hussein-era foreign minister Tariq Aziz is justified. Maha believes he has been condemned because he is a Christian. Youssef takes the wider view that it is part of a political power struggle, not just religious issues. Maya violently disagrees, accuses Youssef of living in the past and flounces out.
The rest of the book focuses on the next day and its events. They (and the novel) terminate, somewhat inevitably, in a sectarian attack on the Christian church where the three protagonists, their quarrel unresolved, are attending an evening service.
Using flashbacks and a gallery of family photos, author Sinan Antoon manages to squeeze a great deal of back story into his 24-hour structure. We see Youssef growing up in a peaceful, prosperous Iraq, albeit one where the rot is setting in. For example, Youssef’s student friend is expelled from the country for being a Jew and Youssef himself is unable to marry the love of his life because she is a Muslim.
Maya’s experience is very different. A life-long victim of religious persecution at school and university, she loses her unborn child in the car bomb incident. Her attitude is resolute, despite the fact that the teachings of Jesus dictate a different approach. She says:
You commanded us to love our enemies, I’d pray silently, but I can’t. I cannot love them. I don’t understand them and I cannot curb the hatred and the revulsion I feel toward them.
So this is the level to which Iraq has sunk, Antoon seems to be saying. Youssef’s hopeful attitude—“as soon as things settle down, life will be good again”—is dying out. This point is underlined by Youssef’s murder in the church attack. What is left is Maya’s nihilism. Her hatred for the bigots runs as deep as their detestation of her. As she sees it, the only solution is a one-way ticket to a more welcoming nation such as Canada. And this is no platform on which to build a new country.
Antoon offers an answer to this stalemate: acceptance. Maya is interviewed after the attack and sets out the case for ending discrimination against Christians. She points out that the religion and its followers have been in the country for centuries and are not a recent, foreign imposition. She adds:
We’ve never had political ambitions. And we are not the ones looting, murdering, and firebombing places of worship. All we want is to live in peace. Our religion is one of peace.
Such reflections apply further afield than Iraq. Maya’s plea can also be read as a manifesto for tolerance across all kinds of differences. The message of this book is that we have to find a way to live together, despite our opinions or choices. Otherwise, brutal chaos ensues.