Arabia Books, £12.99, 460pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

East Winds, West Winds, By Mahdi Issa Al-Saqr, trans. Paul Starkey

Mahdi Issa Al-Saqr, one of Iraq's most pioneering and prominent authors in the second half of the 20th century, was a prolific writer who published six collections of stories, five novels and a memoir between 1954 and his death in 2006. East Winds, West Winds, published in Cairo in 1998, is a strongly autobiographical novel about an aspiring writer working as a translator for a British company in the oil fields near Basra during the 1950s.

Mohammed is shy and bookish, surviving the sometimes brutal, often surreal, conditions in the Iraqi workers' camp by reading and by recording the world around him in notes towards a novel. His perspective soars high and looks at his surroundings from a great distance. "You have to imagine a bird flying high in the sky over this small patch of land, seeing underneath it two worlds crossed by the public road leading to Basra, like a long black wall... On one side, next to the desert, lives a group of workmen, while the managers' quarters nestles on the other side, between the palm groves near the banks of the Shatt al-Arab".

He also observes "with total concentration, as if (he) were venerating" this world. He recalls every small detail: the bark of a dog, an empty arrack bottle under a bed, grass growing out of a crack in the wall. Mr Fox, his manager, formerly a policeman in Palestine, is a petty sadist who rules the workforce through surveillance and paranoia. His roommates include the wily, fat informant Abu Jabbar, Hussein the unionist, and Istifan, who dies in a tragic and unnecessary accident.

The first "face" of the novel sees through Mohammed's eyes, but is often written in the second person, as though the author is speaking between past and present, to remembered and fictionalised selves. His vision of the workers' camp is claustrophobic, often squalid, and sometimes tragic; and culminates in an unsuccessful strike. Personal animosities have political consequences.

The second "face" of the novel is set in the more glamorous managers' compound, with its pretty gardens, tennis courts, pool and club. Here the British managers - and a handful of young Iraqi managers and their wives - drink, gossip and conduct extramarital affairs. The focus of this half is Husam, a fair young Iraqi engineer, who has recently returned from his studies in Britain, and his affair with Maureen Sullivan, the neglected wife of a colleague.

While Husam is a well-intentioned, if self-absorbed, young man, more concerned about love than politics, he is drawn into the hierarchies and webs of power at play. The deceptions and resentments of others have serious consequences for both Husam and Mohammed. Paul Starkey's elegant and lucid translation does justice to Al-Saqr's absorbing and subtle portrait of British colonialism in action. It shows the muted aspirations of the post-war generation of educated Iraqis with emotional and sociological acuity.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent