Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Sirens of Baghdad

Mohammed Moulessehoul, who writes as Yasmina Khadra, is a former officer of the Algerian army, an army that for the better part of the last two decades has primarily involved itself with fighting several well organized terrorist organizations within Algeria’s borders. Some critics, including many Algerians, have accused the army of being as bad as the terrorists it professes to fight, labeling it little more than the government’s own band of terrorists. Whatever the case may be, Khadra’s experience certainly places him in the position to offer insights into the minds of those who dedicate their lives to the destruction of the West and everything for which it stands.

The Sirens of Baghdad, originally published in France, is the story one young Iraqi university student (the book’s narrator) who is almost accidentally transformed overnight from a peacefully ambitious young man seeking to honor his family by his educational achievements into a human weapon of mass destruction. When the American invasion of Iraq reached Baghdad, this nameless student was forced to return to his remote desert village, Kafr Karam, to wait for a time that would allow him to return to his studies. His home is so remotely located that for a time he and the rest of those in the village were hardly touched by the war being waged in their country.

But, of course, time would bring the war even to a village as remote as his, and direct contact with the violence of war turned him into someone convinced that there was only one worthy goal left to him in his lifetime: revenge on the people who destroyed his way of life and, most importantly, dishonored his family in perhaps the worst way imaginable to an Iraqi Bedouin like him.

First he was stunned to witness the shooting of a retarded villager by American troops who mistakenly believed the man to be trying to escape from them at a roadblock. Only a few days later, even before he could recover from the shock of that death, an American missile struck a nearby wedding celebration, killing a number of women and children. But those events alone were not enough to turn him from student to avowed terrorist.

He reached his own personal tipping point when American troops searched his home and, in the process, almost inadvertently managed to dishonor and disgrace his family by the way they treated his father. The former student knew that revenge for a disgrace of this magnitude required blood to be spilled, and he immediately walked out of his village and made his way back to Baghdad so that he could spill as much American blood as possible.

As the narrator tries to connect with terrorist organizers who can use his willingness to die for the cause to their advantage, The Sirens of Baghdad describes life in occupied Baghdad through the eyes of others like him, men and women whose only purpose in life has become to maim and kill as many Westerners as possible before they die in the effort. What Khadra describes is a vivid portrayal of the dangers, intrigues and frustrations faced by American and Iraqi soldiers and those working with them to stabilize the country.

Although Yasmina Khadra does not attempt to justify what either side in Iraq is doing, he does tell his story only from the Iraqi point-of-view despite occasionally pointing out that American soldiers often insult Iraqi customs and cultural expectations more from ignorance of the culture than from spite or anger. Books like this one offer Western readers a rare opportunity to get inside the heads of those who live only to see our culture destroyed and, despite its relatively weak ending, this is a book that has much to offer to anyone struggling to understand the mindset of those so willing to blow themselves up simply to take a few Westerners with them.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. Really liked your review on this. We are so often given one side to a situation, as are they, and it is good to try to understand a mindset so different to our own. While violence is always abhorrent to us, I believe there are always 2 sides to a story and this sounds as though it gives some insight as to why the Iraqi's hate us so much.

  2. Leah, this one will definitely make you think about the mindset on the other side of the equation. The author is in a unique position to expose that view to Western readers. I lived in Algeria during much of he worst of what went on there during the terrorist period and I found this all to be very believable.

  3. i read it in french and loved it! i give it a 5/ just memorable!!! :D

  4. I tried it in French but found that I'm fast losing my French-speaking and reading skills since leaving Algeria 7 years ago.