Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Lovers of literary travel-writing will know the kind of elegant, evocative and even slightly precious book that summons up the spirit of a city. History, legend and anecdote merge into a bright blur of sights, scents and impressions. The city's mountebanks and statesman, poets and courtesans, mendicants and merchants, all have their say. Markets teem with luscious fruits and ribald tales; proud mansions whisper secrets of power, passion and treachery; down at the port, traders welcome the strangers who will add yet more shades to the urban palette... Jan Morris, who has done more than most to beautify this genre, parodied it rather brilliantly (and wickedly) in her Hav.

A newly-published book delivers all of this colourful cargo, and much more. Sumptuously written, deeply felt, it blends the author's vividmemories with historical story-telling and cultural commentary to capture the inner geography of a secretive jewel. Where can we find this treasure-house of fable and marvel? Not in Istanbul, Venice or Tangiers. Our exotic stage is set in Basra.

This week, Iraqi government troops are fighting to break the Mehdi Army's grip on Iraq's major port. Meanwhile, British forces skulk at their airport base, having failed to prevent the city's effective takeover, by Shia militants loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. But then British elite opinion both anti- and pro-war has long since abandoned any pretence of real interest in Iraq and its people.

Which is why we need to read Muhammad Khudayyir. Of the hundreds of books published in the UK about Iraq since 2003, a meagre handful touch on the culture of the country and the artistic life of its peoples. How many times have broadcasters and editors re-visited Colonel Tim Collins's eve-of-battle "mark of Cain" speech the nearest this war came to eloquence in uniform? And how many times have they asked the London-based (but Basra-born) poet Saadi Youssef a giant of Iraqi, and Arabic, literature to read or to write? The question is rhetorical. Iraqis command attention as corpses, clerics or political fixers not as poets.

Muhammad Khudayyir writes with a poet's precision and intensity, but the Basra teacher first made his name with short stories. He originally published Basrayatha: the story of a city in 1996. So its scenes of the city at war (the nights "spattered with thousands of artillery rounds and the sirens of speeding ambulances") stem mainly from the hideous Iraq-Iran stalemate of the 1980s. William Hutchins's English version (Verso, 8.99) recreates this portrait of a city made of water, sand and dream; a reverie anchored in an enduring landscape of desert and date-palm, of boats and souks.

From bicycle races along the Corniche to the honoured role of beggars and the haunting lore of river, harbour and lighthouse ("the last landmark on the road to India"), Khudayyir unites his city of memories with the magical mirage conjured up, by poets, travellers and story-tellers. Its prose may float rhapsodically above the earth, but this book on every page reveals a glimpse of human truths that five years of war reporting have overlooked.

The British faint-hearted occupiers of Basra once again may ignore Iraqi writers, but Khudayyir prefaces his glorious chapter on the Shatt al-Arab waterway with a passage from TS Eliot's "The Dry Salvages". The valediction asks that his book should "pave the way for the stories that come after it". Will future accounts of Basra ever pedal as tolerantly as this one between Eliot and Calvino, Ibn Battuta and the Thousand and One Nights? Not if al-Sadr's zealots have anything to do with it. And, if they do, those occupiers will know where to find the mark of Cain. In the mirror.