A Sky So Close
Khedairi, Betool. New York: Pantheon Books. 256 p., $13.00, paperback. ISBN 0385720785.
A Sky So Close, an unusual coming-of-age novel by Betool Khedairi, begins in the dusty landscape of Zanfraniya, a small village outside Baghdad, Iraq. The narrator, whose name we never learn, is a victim of sorts. Not of her own oppressive government; not of neighboring Iran or even the United States, though war-time violence will certainly affect her life; but of the constant culture-based battling of her parents. The narrator's mother, who insists that she attend the School of Music and Ballet and forbids her to play with the shoeless neighbor children, is English. Her father, with whom the narrator identifies more (she refers to him as "you," as though writing the story to and for him), is Iraqi. The narrator is constantly pulled first in one direction then another, never knowing which language she should speak to stop her parents' yelling; aware as she matures that she is somehow a pawn in their east-meets-west conflict. It is a struggle Khedairi must be familiar with, as her own mother is from Scotland and her father is from Iraq.
The first argument witnessed by the reader involves the narrator's enrollment in the School of Music and Ballet. Her father insists that she will become spoiled, to which her mother retorts: "But the schools here are so deprived." Although attending the school does awaken a love of dance in the narrator, at the age of six, all she cares about are the forbidden hours of play with her beloved neighbor and best friend, Khaddouja. For several years the troubled family continues life on the small farm, the mother becoming slightly more acclimated to life in Iraq and both parents placing more emphasis on their daughter's education. Then, a turning point: wading barefoot in a stagnant river causes Khaddouja to become critically ill. With the death of her best friend, her father's failing health, and the family's move into the city of Baghdad, the narrator begins to change from a girl into the person she will become.
As her father's health continues to decline and her mother spends more time with her English friend David, the adolescent narrator begins to learn her father's trade, which has to do with naming food flavorings and scents. Her mother drifts further from her family until finally her husband cannot handle her western indiscretions and begins trying to impose restrictions, claiming he's given her "too many liberties." One evening, after lessons, her father says: "My daughter, there's something very important you must know about."
"You're getting a divorce?"
"No, a war with Iran has started." And so it begins, filling life with blackouts, supply shortages, "volunteering" toward the war effort, and the constant fear of bombing raids. Although many students at the School of Music and Ballet leave to attend "real" schools, art having become superfluous, the narrator stays to study with a ballet dancer referred to only as Madame. Madame becomes a mentor and driving force in the narrator's life, and even introduces her to a man who will become her first lover.
The third stage of the novel takes place after the narrator has gone to university and her father has died of a heart attack. Her mother, having lost her husband and her lover as well, is now sick herself, with breast cancer, and wants to return home to England. This is the point where the detached, impersonal tone of the writing begins to become, in my opinion, a flaw in what is otherwise a beautiful novel. The narrator moves to England to be with her mother in her illness, and it is clear that she is not content with the decision, though she never says why. We are left to guess at her motivations and feelings as her mother does not get any better and the United States begins bombing Iraq in the Gulf War, a conflict that this time the narrator is only aware of through news reports and Madame's sporadic letters. We do, however, absorb the feeling of melancholy and helplessness through the narrator's failed English trysts and friendships, and the relentless gray and rain of the country where her mother was born.
While Khedairi's writing is impersonal, it is never mechanical, and her concise chapters read like poetry. Her depiction of the land surrounding her is substituted for descriptions of feelings, and most of the way through it feels like a fair exchange. With Iraq being George Bush's next target in his War on Terrorism, A Sky So Close is an interesting and timely look at the life of one woman in a country oppressed by the ideologies of hegemonic nations: most notably, and unfortunately continually, those of the United States. More than that, however, the novel represents a microcosm of the east-meets-west battle, a tiny and personal war which, in this story, has no clear winner.