Wednesday, August 06, 2014

You can't take Baghdad out of the girl

Samantha Ellis is homesick for Baghdad.  Except that  Samantha has never been to Baghdad.  She will never be able to go there. And yet, like in the song Hotel California,  she can never leave. Lyn Julius reviews her 'bibliographical autobiography' for the Sephardi Bulletin:

In How to be a heroine, Samantha Ellis, author and playwright, born in London and is still only in her thirties,  internalises the emotional scarring suffered by relatives who fled Iraq in the early 1970s. A cousin was executed. Her mother transmits to Samantha her fear of having her hair touched, and her dislike of watermelon.  Both reminded her mother of her interrogation in jail after she was stopped at the penultimate checkpoint on her escape from Iraq. Samantha’s grandfather, moping around his London home in his pyjamas, is perennially ‘sad, because of what happened in Iraq.'

 Growing up, Samantha is torn between two worlds: the suffocating, sheltered Iraqi-Jewish world, and what lies beyond her Wembley doorstep: a world tugging her towards freedom, feminism, a career as an artist. Her closeted Iraqi-Jewish community expects her to be a good girl, a dutiful daughter, a domestic goddess and wife. "I didn't want to win my community's game, I didn't even want to play it," she writes.

 In How to be a Heroine, Samantha Ellis has hit on a ingenious literary device :  this is an autobiography told through the book heroines who influenced her as a child, whom she re-visits as an adult. Each heroine corresponds to an aspect of her character, a particular stage or need in her life. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights (Cathy Earnshaw) Pride and Prejudice (Lizzy Bennet), the Little Mermaid, Gone with the Wind (Scarlett O’Hara), Romeo and Juliet, Anne of Green Gables, parade like a recommended reading list for 12-year-olds. Sylvia Plath, Germaine Greer and raunchy feminist characters later shape Samantha as a young adult. Each inspires Samantha to be independent, assertive, and choose her own man  - or remain single.

One by one Samantha breaks every taboo: goes away to university, eats a prawn, has boyfriends her parents would not have approved of, decides to make her life in the theatre. But Baghdad keeps tugging her back. Her relationship with a Kurdish oud player, with its 'frisson of star-crossedness'  ‘felt like home'. She writes a play about Gertrude Bell, who fell in love with Iraq.

 In the last chapter Samantha arrays her cast of characters: who will be her heroine of heroines? She chooses Sheherazade – Middle Eastern, a storyteller, a feminist. Not a born heroine, she becomes one. But Samantha pays her final tribute to her refugee mother, who managed to re-write the story of her uprooted life.

 If this funny, brilliant book suffers from a drawback it is that How to be a heroine at times reads like a Cambridge Lit Crit essay. Samantha Ellis is forced to give a sometimes irksome summary of the plot of each book for the benefit of readers less well-read than herself.

But those who share her background will chuckle at Iraqi-Jewish foibles described with wit and zest. For instance, the temperature in her family home (“we were not big on the outdoors”) was kept “Baghdad-hot.”

 " In a five-minute call about yoghurt my grandmother (using the Iraqi-Jewish endearment Fudwa – ‘I will die for you’) will offer to die for me ten or fifteen times.”

Samantha Ellis mocks her mother’s superstition of sewing packets of salt into her clothing for luck. Yet she stuffs salt all about her, including her bra, in preparation for a crucial interview.

You take the girl out of Iraq, but you can’t take Iraq out of the girl.

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