Monday, January 30, 2012

khalid kishtainy's saucy tales of iraq and 'baghdad-on-thames'

The Iraqi satirist, journalist and artist Khalid Kishtainy – for many years a luminary on the Arab-British cultural scene – has long delighted readers and friends with his irreverent, often spicy, stories and columns. Now Quartet Books of London has published a collection of his stories under the title Arabian Tales: Baghdad on Thames. The 19 tales are by turns comic and tragic, and are often ribald with a devil-may-care quality. The stories’ explicit nature may not be to the taste of every reader, but they are generally entertaining.

The book’s cover illustration is by the renowned Iraqi artist Faisel Laibi Sahi who is, like Kishtainy, a member of the sizeable community of Iraqi creatives in the UK. The text of the book includes a further five illustrations by Laibi; there are also several drawings by Kishtainy whose academic training embraces both art and law.

Kishtainy was born in Baghdad and graduated from Baghdad University’s Faculty of Law and the Academy of Fine Arts. He moved to England after the 1958 revolution and has lived there ever since. He worked first at the BBC and then as a freelance writer, journalist and translator. For the past 18 years he has been a widely-read columnist on the pan-Arab daily newspaper Ash-Sharq al-Awsat.

Kishtainy is the author of a number of books in Arabic and English, fiction and non-fiction. The New Statesman and the Middle East (Palestine essays) was published in 1972 by the Palestine Research Centre in Beirut. Quartet published Arab Political Humour in 1986: the late Professor Fred Halliday was a particular fan of the book, and often recommended it.

In 1997 Kegan Paul International published Kishtainy’s bawdy fictional memoir Tales from Old Baghdad: Grandmother and I. In September 2003, Elliott and Thompson published Tomorrow is Another Day: A Tale of Getting By in Baghdad, a picaresque novel set in Saddam’s Iraq.

In 2008 By the Rivers of Babylon was published by Quartet. One of the main characters in the novel is an Iraqi Jewish gynaecologist who ends up in Israel. A Muslim man he knows from Baghad also finds himself in Israel, as a prisoner of war.

Kishtainy has warm memories of the days when Baghdad was a city where “Muslims of all sects, Christians of all denominations, Jews, Arabs, Kurds and Assyrians lived together in perfect harmony.” In one story in Arabian Tales, entitled Through a Hole: A Muslim-Christian Dialogue a Shia family and their Christian next-door-neighbours are on such good terms that they make a hole in the wall between them to pass dishes of food to each other. They resort to a similar method to protect a child from the Shia family from the British-imposed smallpox vaccination that his mother is convinced may kill him. The child is named Musa “to ensure the blessings and strong protection of the champion saviour of the Jews.”

Kishtainy is a born storyteller and his well-crafted stories with an economy of style show a keen eye for the absurdities of life. He has an instinctive sympathy for the unlucky and the underdog and frequently mocks authority figures and their pomposity. In the story A Handful of Rubbish, an Iraqi émigré professor travelling back to Iraq for a conference on Arab Solidarity is asked by an Iraqi friend to bring back for him “a clean and pure piece of Mesopotamian soil from our homeland.” The professor’s quest for this handful of earth arouses the suspicion of peasants, and the derision of officials at Baghdad airport.

There is poignancy in The Orange and the Ball, the story of the young son of an impoverished war widow. The boy has an unusual talent for football despite his mother being unable to afford a rubber ball for her children to play with. During his first match against a rival school the half-time oranges given to the team take on a special significance for the lad.

In At the Government Expense set in Baghdad in 1938 there is an emergency when the rising level of the River Tigris threatens to flood the city. The police are desperate to stave off the flood and round up women and their clients from the Kalachia red light district to work through the night digging and dumping earth to shore up Baghdad’s flood defences.

Several of the stories are set in London, Kishtainy’s 'Baghdad-on-Thames'. They include The Handkerchief, in which a delegation from the Iraqi Revolutionary Women’s Federation visits the British capital. The women have been issued with handkerchiefs embroidered with portraits of the Sole Leader, and due to a slapstick mishap on the underground one such scented handkerchief finds its way into the trousers of the British managing director of Royal Deodorants Consolidation.

There is tenderness in The Cost of Old Sins in which an elderly London man is invited to supper at the home of his aged and now lame former lover. The two reminisce about the wild exploits of their youth and joke about their physical decay.

Write a paper and F**k the World explores the opportunities for carnal escapades offered to Middle Eastern academics by international conferences. In A Woman in Metamorphosis a young Muslim diplomat posted to London, and in need of a male protector, hastily marries a callow junior clerk from the Land Registration Office who has never been abroad. While she is at work he drifts between cafes within the "Arab-land” of London stretching from Edgware Road to Queensway and Earls Court. “There, he met many of his compatriots in a likewise life of idleness: refugees, asylum seekers, failed students, drug dealers and high-class pimps. They sat and discussed ad infinitum their two branches of knowledge – sex and politics.” He has weekly assignations with a Danish "practitioner" in Soho but his wife is able to turn the situation to her advantage and to embark on discoveries of her own.
Susannah Tarbush

Arabian Tales is launched at 6.30 pm on 10 February at the West London Trades Union Club, 33-35 High Street, Acton London W3 6ND. The event is organised by ARK, the community arts space founded in 1998 by Iraqi artist Yousif Naser and the late Iraqi sculptor Dalal Al-Mufti.

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