The Poet of Baghdad: A True Story of Love and Defiance tells the epic story of the Yasin family — beginning in 1954 (before the Ba’ath Party began its near-half-century reign in Iraq) up until 2004, when Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime had been overthrown at the hands of the U.S.-led occupation. Central to the story is the family’s third-born son, Nabeel, a poet who had been labelled an ‘Enemy of the State’ by the Ba’athist government and who had been living in exile in Europe with his wife and children since 1980.
In an attempt to clarify some confusion, it appears the book was originally published as Nabeel’s Song: A Family Story of Survival in Iraq. I am not sure why the title was changed, and unfortunately I could not find a large enough image of either book to share in this post.
Like many recent works of narrative non-fiction written by a third-party, the author, Jo Tatchell, has completely removed herself from the story. The book reads like a novel, and although recounting real life events, the author has done an excellent job of creating likeable characters, building tension and developing the plot. As in my reading of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I was left wondering about the author’s research methods in creating this book, and whether it was 100 percent factual or fell prey to occasional artistic license to move the story along.
Nabeel Yasin grew up in a family that valued education for all its children, regardless of gender. Both of his older brothers were politically active against the Ba’ath Government, with one of them frequently imprisoned for being a Communist. With his family already noted as being political dissidents, while in his early 20s, Nabeel himself was captured and brutally beaten by the Ba’ath Party’s Secret Police after a public reading of his politically-charged poem The Poets Satirize the Kings. One of his sisters goes on to become a doctor, and despite being one of the top students in her medical school class, is frequently discriminated against in her profession based on her family ties. A younger brother, Tariq, is conscripted into the army during the war with Iran, and given an assignment in the Scout Advance Party because of his family’s defiance — he is to walk on the front lines to detonate any landmines that may pose a danger to Iraqi soldiers.
The book is approximately 80% the story of the Yasin family through the decades, their defiance of Saddam Hussein’s (aka His Excellency the President the Leader God Placed Him) treacherous rule, their struggles to survive despite their growing dissidence, the emotional toll they face as some children are forced into exile without the ability to effectively communicate with family members in a war-torn Iraq. The other 20% delves into the background of Iraq’s totalitarian government, its Secret Police, the wars with Iran and the United States and the suppression of art and culture. In this 80-20 balance, I think the author was fairly successful at keeping me entertained as well as educating me about Iraq’s recent history and the impact on its people.
Throughout my reading of The Poet of Baghdad, I was frequently reminded of the resemblance between Iraq and the totalitarian government of North Korea, and the book’s similarities to other recent narrative non-fiction works such as The Bookseller of Kabul and Reading Lolita in Tehran. Now it comes as no surprise to me that one of the first things that oppressive governments censor is literature, and some of the people they demonize the most as criminals are authors and those who promote literary works.
But as Nabeel’s mother Sabria tells her son, “Whatever you may think of the world, little Nabeel, you cannot spend your life at odds with it. Think about those things you want to change, then speak” (page 73).
A special thanks to blog reader Amber for sending me a copy of this book!