Naphtalene by Alia Mamdouh
A Novel of Baghdad (Women Writing the Middle East)

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Seen through the eyes of a strong-willed and perceptive young girl, Naphtalene beautifully captures the atmosphere of Baghdad in the 1940s and 1950s. Alia Mamdouh vividly recreates a city of public steam baths, roadside butchers and childhood games played in the same streets where political demonstrations against British colonialism are beginning to take place.

At the heart of the novel is nine-year-old Huda, a girl whose fiery, defiant nature belies Western stereotypes of Muslim femininity. Both childishly innocent and acutely perceptive, Huda observes and documents the complex web of relationships in her family. Her father, a bullying police officer who works as a prison guard, treats his two children with vacillating tenderness and brutality and drives her desperately ill Syrian mother from the house after he takes a second wife. One aunt waits in vain for a man to marry her, while another engages in a sexual relationship with a woman but is forced to hide it.

Huda must struggle to form her identity amidst this world of unfulfilled women, of yearnings, frustrations and small tragedies. Her inspiration is her grandmother, a reservoir of strength, humor and of traditional storytelling, who manages subversively to wield great power in her family and her community.

Through Mamdouh’s strikingly inventive use of language, Huda’s stream-of-consciousness narrative expands to take in the life not only of a young girl and her family, but of her street, her neighborhood and her country.

Alia Mamdouh is a journalist, essayist and novelist living in exile in Paris. Long banned from publishing in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, she is one of the leading figures in contemporary Iraqi literature. This release of her most widely acclaimed and translated work, as the first novel by an Iraqi woman to be published in English in the United States, stands as a major literary event.


About Alia Mamdouh

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Alia Mamdouh was born in Baghdad in 1944 and has been a journalist and writer for over thirty years. She has published four novels, two collections of short stories, and numerous critical essays in Arabic. Since going into exile in 1982, she has lived and worked in London, Cairo, and Beirut. Currently, she resides in Paris. Hélène Cixous is one of the most prominent cultural and political thinkers in the world. Her work has transformed both feminism and literary criticism. In Paris, she sits as chair at the Centre de Recherches en Etudes Feminines, which she founded.
Published August 31, 2013 by The Feminist Press at CUNY. 226 pages
Genres: Literature & Fiction. Fiction

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Kirkus Reviews

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Despite his happy involvement with his new family, his career is failing and the story ends in flames and disruption, with Huda and her relatives uprooted to a new home.

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ForeWord Reviews

Mamdouh describes women gathering at the mosque: “their black cloaks undulated over their statures, rose and fell.” The author avoids flowery language and languorous prose, giving her novel a strong atmosphere of nonfiction.

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