Read Mothballs Online

Authors: Alia Mamadouh


by Alia Mamdouh
Translated by Peter Theroux
Garnet Publishing
Original text © 1986 Alia Mamdouh
Translation © 1996 Peter Theroux

The right of Alia Mamdouh and Peter Theroux to be identified respectively as the author and the translator of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review

First English Edition
First published in Arabic as 
Habbat al-Naphatalin 
by al-Hay‘ah al-Masriah al-Amah li-al-Kitab, Cairo, 1986.
Series editor: Fadia Faqir
Literary editor: Georgina Andrewes
ISBN: 9781859640296
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Cover design by Paul Cooper 

Cover illustration by Peter Hay 

Typeset by Samantha Barden 

Printed in Lebanon

Typeset in 11/13 Adobe Garamond

Published by 

Garnet Publishing Ltd., 

8 Southern Court, 

South Street, 


RG1 4QS, 



During the Gulf War of 1991 my place of exile became for me a sad and lonely country. Like so many others I was against the war but powerless to stop it. As I watched the television pictures recording, day after day, the bombs falling on Baghdad, I felt the rift between my image of my own rural homeland and the western city growing bigger. Out of loyalty to the past, to the gardens with their tall palm trees, to the mother's headscarf and to the village, I chose 
as the fifth novel in the Arab Women Writers series. Baghdad was partially destroyed not only by the Allies' bombs, but also by change; this novel holds it still in a moment of time now past.

Metaphorical mothballs are sprinkled everywhere in the novel – real incidents, news items, fantasies, dreams, histories, folktales are thrown into a melting pot of reference as the author desperately, frantically attempts to preserve her memories. Mothballs are put in the wardrobe of memory to stop the moth attacking the soul.

At another level this novel reminds us of Maxine Hong Kingston's writing, in which the anthropological element is strong. Alia Mamdouh draws her world with precision. Evocative descriptions of public feasts, weddings, public baths, bazaars and folklore punctuate the narrative. Baghdad as a setting is a powerful presence in the novel. We can visualize the mighty river Tigris, the gritty neighbourhood and the family house. The writing appeals to all the senses as the smells, sounds and textures of a bustling riverside city are vividly called to mind. However, as with Kingston, the attempt to paint a unique civilization and culture with words becomes the attempt to define and preserve self and identity.

Through her rich descriptions and lyrical language Alia Mamdouh creates a ‘sweet song for the folk of Baghdad, a song for the places preserved in memory, a song for the childhood and adolescence of an Iraqi woman.'
A juxtaposition of the past and present tense and a stealthy change of narration between the first, second and third person unfold the lives of a poor Iraqi family during the 1940s and '50s in the Athamiyyah neighbourhood of Baghdad.

Huda, a fiery and feisty nine-year old, is the central character in the novel. She observes and documents what takes place in the house, the street and the country as a whole by innocently assimilating that which surrounds her. Through Huda we learn of her father the bullying police officer who works at the prison in Karbala, her Syrian mother, her devoted brother Adil, the aunt who waits for a man to marry her and give her legitimacy within this conservative society and the grandmother who is the most potent presence in the novel.

At the core of the book is a household of unfulfilled women. Huda tries to decipher this world of yearnings, frustration and tragedies. Her grandfather dies young leaving his wife to mourn him throughout her life. Her mother, who suffers from tuberculosis, loses her husband to a second wife in another city; the aunt never consummates her marriage while her other aunts are engaged in illicit gay relationships. So the household exists without men, and while much seems to revolve around them the truth is that many of these actions are mere lipservice to cultural traditions. Women are the real holders of the reins and the givers and takers of happiness and approval. Men are propped up by women, the true sovereigns of this poor neighbourhood.

Central to this power is Huda's grandmother. Through her imagination, humour, inherited wisdom and the stories of the prophets that she tells and retells she is created by Mamdouh as a reservoir of past traditions. She is the one with ultimate power to whom all look for love and approval. Huda allies herself with the grandmother, seeking strength from her to defend herself in a society essentially divided between oppressors and oppressed. In Huda Mamdouh succeeds in creating a paradoxical character who is rebellious but humble, sensuous though tough, afraid while still defiant.

preserves the past memories, while at the same time exposing the entrenched fear within Iraqi society. When asked to describe herself in one word, Mamdouh said, ‘fear'. She calls most of her characters creatures of fear. Through her writing, she explores this dark and deep human emotion in order to control it. ‘Fear inhabits the foundations and the walls, is found in cellars and domes, and between keys and locks. It always finds a shelter. No drawer or head is empty of it … Our Arab fear is a multi-headed creature … I remind myself every morning that fear and death are under my pillow … But fear extracted all the pages I have written, as if my books came out of the world to defy torture.'
Fear and the darker side of human emotion are implicit in all relations in the book. Huda's initiation into adulthood through her innocent love for Mahmoud exists in contrast to the desperate desires of many of the women in the neighbourhood and their outlet through secret and forbidden affairs. The father tries to cast fear into the hearts of his children and wife with his uniform, whip and pistol. He has an aura of false and fabricated power around him. He, the police officer, keeps his distance from his children and does not allow them to see his emotional side. He remains surrounded by fear and respect, until eventually all his repressed emotions claim and consume him.

The novel also deals subtly with history and politics through Huda's stream of consciousness: the people's adulation for the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mahmoud's adoption of communism, the butcher leafleting against the corrupt government and the British, sympathy for the young Hashemite, King Ghazi, and the demonstrations against the British culminating in the 1958 rebellion. The novel touches on various political points but resists engaging overtly in politics.

Alia Mamdouh was criticized for her use of colloquial Iraqi dialect and for not writing a blatantly political novel. Both decisions were conscious. To compose this sweet song for Baghdad, Mamdouh draws on rich oral traditions. In the past Arab women writers used correct standard Arabic language (
), which is similar to the language of the Qur'an, to prove their linguistic credentials to puritan Arabists. The
Arab Women Writers 
series shows that a clear departure from the use of standard Arabic has taken place. Women writers now use a colloquialized
to describe the daily experiences of women. The dominant written Arabic was found to be inadequate to present sexual, religious and social experiences. To be true to women's voices meant that oral tradition had to be brought in. Consequently the dialogues are all in colloquial Iraqi in order to depict neighbourhood life. Mahmoud's awareness of the Arabian Nights, the Qur'an and the folktales is evident throughout the novel, while her ear is sensitive to the way ordinary people talk and to the rhythms and sounds of her home city.

Women in this series create a different language where the patriarch is lampooned and ridiculed, where women's daily experience and oral culture are placed at the epicentre of the current discourse. This series clearly shows how the rejection of standard perceptions about masculine language and feminine language has created a third space within the language from where they can question a culture which is based on exclusion, division and misrepresentation of their religious, sexual and political experiences. They have created a discourse wherein they can gnaw at the foundations of the societies that marginalize them.

Women are treated as a minority in most Arab countries. They feel invisible, misrepresented and reduced. Perceived as second-rate natives, they are subjected to a peculiar kind of home-grown Orientalism. A male native assumes a superior position to women, misrepresents them and in most cases fails to see them. This parallels the Orientalist attitudes with which Westerners have treated the Arab world for so long. Arab women are therefore hidden behind a double-layered veil.

Arab Women Writers 
series was started to redress the lack of interaction with Arab culture. The series aspires to open a window on the walled garden where Arab women's alternative story is being told. Out of the private space Arab women sing their tales from countries which still, to a great extent, treat them as second class citizens.

Translation is an act of negotiation. ‘A translator's job is like buying a carpet in an Oriental bazaar. The merchant asks 100, you offer 10, and eventually you agree on 50.'
This delicate balancing act entails being faithful to the spirit of the Arabic text and to its perceived English-speaking audience. The translator becomes something like a double agent, with a sense of split loyalty; the negotiation is yet more exacting in the context of the ‘third space' from which these women write.

Peter Theroux's capable hands turned this novel into a song in English. His knowledge of colloquial Iraqi made it possible for him to preserve the local colours in the translation. As a student, he spent one year in Egypt and then spent the five years, 1980–5, as a journalist in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia reporting for UPI, Associated Press and others. So he became familiar with spoken Egyptian and Gulf dialects and the details of everyday life in many Arab countries. Alia Mamdouh's novel, which depends heavily on localisms and colloquialisms, is a challenge to any translator. Peter Theroux's experience and education helped him rise to this challenge and preserve the beauty of the Arabic text. In the absence of many good translators from Arabic into English, a problem partly responsible for the absence of Arab culture from the international arena, his translation is warmly welcomed.

Now I invite the reader to open the book of Arab women's stories. This book is part of a secular project, challenging the foundations of a patriarchal tribal system. It also sets out to challenge Westerners' perception of what Arab women think and feel. If you lift this doublelayered veil, you will see the variant, colourful and resilient writings of Arab women, the fresh inner garden. You can hear the clear voices of Arab women singing their survival.

Fadia Faqir
Durham, 1996

 Latifa al-Zayyat, ‘Mothballs',
Noor Quarterly Review
, no. 3, Spring 1995.
 This quotation is taken from
In the House of Silence: An Anthology of Autobiographical Writings by Arab Women Writers
, Fadia Faqir (ed.), a collection of essays to be published by Garnet Publishing in 1996 to complement this series.
 Umberto Eco, ‘A Rose by Any Other Name' in 
Guardian Weekly
, 16 January 1994


: long black cloak covering head and body, worn by women in some Muslim countries.
Abu: title used to address men, whereby they are known by their eldest son's name. Hence Abu Adil is Adil's father.
: a mild opiate used to quieten young children.
Umm: title used to address women, whereby they are known by their eldest son's name. Hence Umm Jamil is Jamil's mother.

Reference is made on p. 75 and p. 78 to a precious flask containing hairs. This refers to the 27th day of Ramadan when people visit the Mosque of Abu Hanifa in al-A‘dhamiyya and revere the holy relic of the Prophet's hair.

Chapter 1

The clouds are over your head, and the test is always waiting for you. Just look at your father. It seems to you that he is driving a truck. Your mother is sitting in the back, monopolizing the silence and illness. The rest of the herd are playing inside the detention camp, growling a little, then falling silent.

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