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“Read My Lips”: Genre, Rhetoric, and the Baghdad Diaries of Nuha al-Radi

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 27, Number 2, Winter 2012
pp. 316-337 | 10.1353/abs.2012.0017

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This analysis of Nuha al-Radi’s Baghdad Diaries, and briefly, the online diaries of Iraqi blogger Riverbend, explores the effect of genre in the circulation of contemporary war narrative from Iraq and argues that diary functions as a particular and very powerful rhetorical position through which to speak of this experience.

Tragedy. I thought there was something wrong with the film in my camera that never seemed to finish. When I bravely opened the camera in the dark, there was no film. What sorrow and horror! How am I going to get to another war again? On second thoughts, at the rate we’re going, we may have another quite soon. We have no proof of what we went through now. All those unbelievable images. Gone.

—Nuha al-Radi, Baghdad Diaries: A Woman’s Chronicle of War and Exile

Commencing her record as so many war diarists do, in response to a situation of crisis, as a way of preserving images that will soon be “gone,” Iraqi artist Nuha al-Radi writes “to keep some kind of record of what is happening to us” (Baghdad Diaries 10).1 It is January 19, 1991 and “the third day of the war” before her diary begins, the delay because “it has taken [her] that long to realize that the war has actually begun and [she is] not dreaming it” (10). While US and allied forces bomb Baghdad, al-Radi’s diary ebbs and flows in accordance with the dramatic reshaping of the intimate and domestic spaces of her world by the urgency and trauma of conflict. She performs wry cultural translations, preserving her insights: “only we would escape from a war carrying freezers full of goodies. Iraqis have been hoarders for centuries. It’s a national habit” (14). Her Baghdad home has become a refugee hub for various relatives and friends, and she ironically renames it “Funduq al-Saasa, or Hotel Paradiso.” Entries recount indignities, absurdities, and dangers. Days that are conflated or passed over reveal a flattening trauma in the ongoing situation: “Days 24 and 25. I tell you, there is this sameness. Even war becomes routine” (31). The “guests” at Hotel Paradiso have their own individual coping mechanisms, “funny thing,” writes al-Radi, “since the war started I have not been able to read a word, not even a thriller. Instead I’m writing this diary, not something I normally do” (17).

Al-Radi was born in Baghdad: her family travelled widely, given her father’s job as Iraqi ambassador to Iran and subsequently India. She studied at a university in Switzerland and then at another, in Lebanon, before pursuing a vocation as a ceramicist at an art school in London. She is known primarily for her ceramics. The consequences of war in Iraq eventually impel a political dimension to al-Radi’s art, something she develops through politically astute sculptures. Her experience with Western culture complicates and deepens her response in her diary to US-led conflict in Baghdad; after the first ten days of “shock and awe” over Baghdad, she is in despair: “I don’t think I could set foot in the West again. If someone like myself who is Western[-]educated feels this way, then what about the rest of the country?” (18).

Al-Radi’s register of reference in her diary is cross-cultural, often elite; the new Iraqi anti-aircraft gun makes a sound such that “it is almost possible to fool oneself into thinking that one is attending a Philip Glass-like opera with an overlay of son et lumière” (41). The grim Iraqi resilience she sees everywhere reminds her of Peter Sellers in The Party, “refusing to die and rising up again and again, another last gasp on the bugle” (47), and “Ma says she feels like Scarlet[t] O’Hara in Gone with the Wind” (29). It is a cultural fluency that she realizes is mostly one-sided: “Sheikha says that the only thing the West knows about us is the fable of The Thief of Baghdad” (52). While many entries in the diary reveal a kind of mundane or banal reality, albeit of the most surreal order, others...

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