Life During Wartime

February 26, 2016   •   By Michael Agresta

MAHMOUD SAEED, author of the newly translated novel A Portal in Space, is an Iraqi-American immigrant living in Chicago and the recipient of US political asylum. This last detail is pertinent because of the current climate of antagonism and fear toward Iraqi and Syrian refugees evidenced almost every day in the headlines. On November 17, 2015, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal even boasted of ordering law enforcement to “track” existing Syrian refugees, saying, “We don’t want these refugees in our state.” Meanwhile, much of President Obama’s rhetoric on the subject has centered on the virtue of compassion: “American leadership is us caring about people who have been forgotten, or who have been discriminated against, or who’ve been tortured, or who’ve been subject to unspeakable violence, or who’ve been separated from families at very young ages. That’s when we’re the shining light on the hill.” Still, the issue is seen as a political loser for Obama.

Saeed is a one-man argument for the virtues of an asylum system that offers safe haven not only to the traumatized and stateless, but also to those engaged in the difficult intellectual work of reimagining a fractured national community like that in Iraq. Saeed’s more than 20 books have been banned at various times in Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf states. He was imprisoned several times in the 1960s, escaped Iraq during the Saddam Hussein regime, and has watched from afar as his home city, Mosul, has been devastated by ISIS rule these past 18 months.

Saeed is most relevant to the asylum debate not because of whatever mistreatments he has endured, but because of what he has produced as a writer. Operating from a society where he can write and publish what he pleases, Saeed is slowly and without much fanfare carrying on a nation-building project in the form of novels, works that speak to the long-intimidated and traumatized civil society of Iraq. From exile, and by revisiting the moment when it all began to fall apart, Saeed recalls an Iraq of moderate religious life, rule of law, and middle-class aspiration.

A Portal in Space opens in 1980, the first year of the Iran-Iraq War. Our protagonist is Mundhir, an honest judge in the city of Basra, near the Persian Gulf and the Iranian border. While Mundhir’s judicial practice necessarily involves collaboration with religious judges, Saeed conjures an atmosphere of tolerance and nonsectarianism in the era before the Iran-Iraq War set Sunni and Shi’a against each other on the battlefield. When Abu Haqqi, a singer friend of Mundhir, shows off for his judicial colleagues, they ask to hear more:

As he left, the chief justice told Abu Haqqi, “This isn’t enough. There must be a party in a comfortable place with a lute and —”

Abu Haqqi, who was looking sardonically at the turbans of the Sunni and Ja‘fari judges, interrupted: “And drinks?”

They all laughed, and the Sunni judge confirmed, “And drinks.”

The Shi‘i judge added, “Not only drinks but finger-snapping.”

Meanwhile, Mundhir’s son Anwar is just finishing his studies and heading off to military service. In an early scene, Mundhir listens from another room as Anwar describes to his friends his plans to marry a beautiful girl he’s just encountered at a coffee house. Anwar boasts that he’ll build a house for her with a balcony overlooking the Shaat al-Arab, the economically crucial waterway that provided the casus belli for the Iran-Iraq War. A friend replies that Anwar will never be able to live in such a house. “Iran will shell it the very next day, because they’ll assume it belongs to some commander,” he jokes. Everyone laughs.

Finding a location for his dream house in 1980 will be the least of Anwar’s problems, as anyone who has ever read a war novel can guess. The conflict, the longest war of the 20th century, drags on for eight years, a time span that lends Saeed’s book an epic dimension despite its literal slimness. A Portal in Space does not get bogged down in the complex diplomatic and military details of the war and instead focuses on the story of a grieving family and a star-crossed pair of lovers.

In 1980, Iran was just one year into its Islamic Revolution. Some, including Saddam Hussein and his American sponsors, saw the young revolutionary state as ripe for invasion, with a civilian population that might greet Saddam’s army as liberators. They were wrong. Iran’s new theocratic leaders had inherited from the deposed Shah the world’s fifth-largest army, and besides that had captured the religious and patriotic imagination of much of the citizenry. Many of these true believers joined the Basij volunteer militias, which marched into battle lightly armed in “human wave” attacks, often absorbing huge losses. Iranian generals at times employed human fodder to clear mine fields through which more experienced troops could advance. Iran’s main foreign support came from Syria, then led by Bashar al-Assad’s father. Midway through the conflict, Ronald Reagan’s administration began secretly supplying Iran with weapons, too, as part of what became the Iran-Contra scandal.

Iraq, meanwhile, had the official support of the United States as well as the Soviet Union. This should have given Saddam a decisive advantage, but his army proved unable to consolidate gains made on enemy territory. One result of the bilateral support from both Cold War superpowers was that Saddam felt free to use weapons of mass destruction with impunity. After losing territory in the mid-1980s, he was able to fight his way back to a stalemate by using nerve gas in both Kurdistan and disputed territories on the Gulf. By doing nothing, the international community signaled its tolerance for such attacks, and, in 1988, Iran finally blinked and accepted a ceasefire.

A Portal in Space never quite makes it as far as the battlefield, though Mundhir does visit the trenches near Basra in search of his missing son. Saeed conveys a sense of the guilty Iraqi conscience vis-à-vis the nerve gas issue, when Mundhir remarks to his wife,

War is a device as blind as a cyclone, an earthquake, or a wildfire that consumes everything in its path. No one escapes. Even the victor feels defeated inside. Do you think Khomeini or Saddam will win? That either of them will feel happy if he is victorious? No, they will both feel defeated, inside, till they die. Soldiers with truncated consciences advised Truman to drop an atom bomb each on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So he did. He dropped those two bombs, and Japan was defeated. America won, but Truman was haunted by defeat till he died.

Still, Saeed’s main subject is not the conscience of Iraqi leaders, but the suffering of the Iraqi people during the war and the breakdown of the social order. We’re caught up in this drama from the very first paragraph, as an aerial bombardment interrupts the family’s breakfast. Mundhir’s children display a practiced knack for determining by ear where in the city each bomb falls. Later, after Anwar’s disappearance, Saeed showcases a Flaubertian knack for conveying sentiment, in this case the horror of wartime, through restrained observation:

Three days after the battle began, the hospital began to receive cold storage units. The first was huge — forty feet long. They wondered what could be in a refrigerated unit this large. The sun’s rays reflected off its aluminum sheets with an intense gleam that stung the eye. Then the number of these cold storage units increased like amoebas dividing till there were more than fifty of them. A rumor spread that they held the bodies of young men and that these cold storage units would remain there till all the corpses were unloaded. By now Umm Anwar could not count them all. She just stared at them and wept.

The war brings not just death and loss but also a reevaluation of principles. Mundhir is shaken by the realization that he could have paid a small bribe to secure a safe position for his son at the back lines or the military hospital. He berates himself for his aloofness from petty, everyday dealings, for putting his faith in the rule of law, scorning ambition in politics, and giving his attention to the life of the mind. “You have remained an ordinary judge, one who is known for his integrity but who doesn’t loosen or bind, who is like a fish that dies as soon as it leaves its ocean,” he thinks to himself. “And here’s the result: a young man who is worth the world and everything in it has been sacrificed on the altar of your principles.

In this mood of questioning his moral assumptions — the same assumptions that provide the structure for the idyllic family life and functioning multi-sectarian state glimpsed in the opening chapters — Mundhir begins making regular trips to the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad to check the posted lists of Iraqi prisoners of war in Iran. He meets a woman there, Zahra, who captivates him with her beauty. Suddenly, Mundhir becomes a participant in the disorder all around him.

The reader can’t help but be complicit in Mundhir’s infatuation, hoping that he can somehow find an escape from his wartime misery. A Portal in Space becomes, in its second half, a sort of Iraqi rewrite of The End of the Affair, as religion and erotic love battle it out against the backdrop of a literal aerial bombardment. The difference is that, in Graham Greene’s novel, the Blitz is an exceptional circumstance capable of giving rise to a religious conversion — a foxhole where atheism is snuffed out. In Saeed’s book, war is the new unbearable normal, and the romantic protagonists rush toward adultery as a sort of social suicide, telling each other, “Death with you is life.”

In this sense, the novel is a tragedy, albeit one in which a few characters are able to catch at least a glimpse of self-renewal. As in any good tragedy, there is a sense of catharsis, if not for any one character then for the country; we are left with a promise of renovation through collective mourning. One of the book’s most memorable images is of Mundhir scanning the sea of people who come to the United Nations building in Baghdad to check after missing relatives:

He frequently wished he had studied the arts that he had loved since childhood: photography, drawing, calligraphy, and decorative design. If he had possessed even a slight talent, he would have recorded these different specimens with lines. He had never known there were so many different types of headbands and head cloths in use, and so many styles! If he had known how to draw, he would have depicted all the different varieties of headbands […]. These men were government employees, retirees, breadwinners, and the unemployed. They all dissolved into an undulating ocean in which women’s somber abayas and mourning clothes predominated.

Mundhir might not be an artist capable of capturing such an image of his countrymen brought together by trauma, but Saeed is. Though the prose can feel clunky at times in translation, A Portal in Space lives up to its challenge. It takes in all the bloody bleakness of wartime Iraq and infuses it with the vital breath of characters who feel real and whose fates matter to the reader. If the book can’t find a hopeful note to end on, that’s in keeping with recent Iraqi history. Saeed locates his hope in the prewar past and allies himself with those who believe in new beginnings.

Saeed’s novel arrives at yet another dark moment in Middle Eastern history. A terrible war rages in Syria with no end in sight. Two regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, face off there and in Yemen in proxy wars that may foretell a broader regional calamity. Sunni versus Shi’a sectarian bloodshed has metastasized into a region-wide phenomenon.

The Iran-Iraq War is crucial history for those concerned about current Middle Eastern events, and Saeed’s version of that history is deeply edifying, urging sectarian tolerance and hesitation in the rush to war. It’s no coincidence that he’s also an American refugee. His work is yet another example of what makes our asylum system great, even as recent attacks on asylum seekers are a troubling reminder of the religious intolerance and thuggishness that haunt our own American politics.


Michael Agresta is a writer and critic based in Austin, Texas. He has received grants, fellowships, and residences from the MacDowell Colony, Lighthouse Works, Blue Mountain Center, UCross, and the Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin.