A debut collection of short fiction set in the Middle East and Europe with annotations to help readers understand Iraqi culture.
Dark events lie at the heart of much of this book. A “devastating cholera epidemic” is occurring in the marshes of southern Iraq in the novella-length first piece in this collection, “Event in the Marshes.” The story opens with the mysterious Zaira Tiswahen, a “boat peddler,” rowing to Haj Raisan village. On her arrival, she meets a woman whose daughter, Hasna, has grown gravely ill. The villagers are desperate to save Hasna from death: A clergyman suggests that a miracle—the apparition of a wali, or holy person—may heal her, but her fiance, Hameed is skeptical of the idea and sets off on his own quest for a cure. In “Woman with a Bike,” the male narrator introduces himself to a woman whose bike has a flat tire and unexpectedly hears about “the greatest tragedy” of her life, the death of her husband on their wedding night. And in “Sorrow on the Banks of the Southerly River” a man ruminates about being a conscientious objector to serving in the Iraq War. Even the somewhat incongruous “Two Worlds,” an exploration of one diner’s fleeting attraction to another at a Brussels brasserie, ends with disillusionment. The collection opens promisingly with a rich description of an Iraqi marsh. Careful annotations in the form of detailed footnotes explain aspects of Iraqi culture. However, Lateef’s writing is off-puttingly wordy: “In such an unpleasant, creepy setting where myths and solid reality merged and became one, where actual fears with auditory and visual components intermingled with invisible horror that mimicked morbid hallucinations and the icy breath of formless danger, the metamorphosis of this isolated, untrodden swampy realm into a consternating, haunted world was an appalling mental experience.” That kind of verbosity draws out the stories to needless lengths, causing interest to wane. Although the author takes the reader into potentially new and exciting worlds, and his plotlines are mildly compelling, a significantly pared-down style would have helped to sustain the reader’s interest.
Tales that are informative and occasionally evocative, but tediously long-winded.