The Tobacco Keeper, By Ali Bader

A fascinating tangle of multiple identities and forgotten histories
  • @

Shortly after the second Gulf War, the narrator of Ali Bader's novel, an Iraqi pen-for-hire who ghosts reports for foreign correspondents (and who will never forget being introduced to the "famous international journalist Robert Fisk"), is asked to write up the life of the composer Kamal Medhat, whose body has been discovered floating in the River Tigris.

Medhat's death reveals a startling secret: he started life as the violinist Yousef Sami Saleh, who was forced to emigrate to Israel in 1950 when Iraqi Jews were stripped of their nationality; had then assumed the persona of an Iranian Shia after finding the nascent Israeli state a cultural wasteland "compared to the sophistication of Baghdad"; and had finally managed to return home from Tehran after the Iranian Revolution as a Sunni Muslim whose skilled musicianship earned him the favour of Saddam Hussein.

Throughout his life, he had been a man given to the pleasures of drinking, smoking and the flesh. There were many women, among them three wives who bore him sons retaining the nationality and faith their father had adopted at the time of their births: Meir leaves Israel for America and returns to Baghdad as a Major-General in the US Army; Hussein visits from Tehran, revelling in the liberation of the Shia in Iraq; while Omar bitterly resents the Sunnis' loss of power. At 80, Medhat is bewildered by their separation of narratives he has happily contained and overlapped in many countries and among people of differing beliefs and ethnicities.

That he had been able to do so was because of the existence of a tolerant, liberal, internationalist class across the Middle East to whose passing The Tobacco Keeper is in many ways an elegy. It is also a corrective to the impression that there wasn't any more to Iraq than decades of brutal Baathism, that all Iran wholeheartedly embraced the rule of the ayatollahs, or that Israel was the sole beacon of civilised values in the region.

The unravelling of Kamal Medhat's lives takes the reader on a deeply satisfying tour through the histories of Iraq, primarily, but also of Iran, Israel, and Syria from the 1920s onwards. We come to sympathise with Medhat's "considerable hostility towards the mob, the masses and the populace in general". The mob "moved with tremendous force to destroy everything" – as he witnessed as a young Baghdadi in 1941 when the Farhud pogrom was unleashed against the Jews; in the numerous populist coups and massacres in the subsequent years; and again in Iraq in 1980 when warlike national fervour was used to justify deporting Iranians without notice and dispossessing them of their property. The "escalating frenzy of the masses", so frequently and easily whipped up by their leaders, meant "hundreds of people who were essentially different from each other suddenly became copies of each other, clones."

Bader's tale interweaves the multiple identities and philosophies that have characterised the region for millennia but which have been obscured by the ahistorical reductionism that leads much discussion of these countries to be simply about which one should be bombed next. The publisher has done English readers a great service by translating this novel from the Arabic. So rich and wryly described is The Tobacco Keeper that on nearing the end I only wished for another 300 pages on which this enthralling tapestry could continue.