Exiled dreams turn to ashes in Baghdad

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

For 27 years, exiled writer Jaber Yassin Hussein yearned to return to his native Baghdad from his adopted French home. But when he finally did, he cried with sadness. Sammy Ketz reports.

Jaber Yassin Hussein

Jaber Yassin Hussein has now spent more time in La Rochelle, in western France, than in his homeland of Iraq, which he was forced to flee in 1976. He was only able to return there after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

For the 48 year-old writer, whose works include "The reader of Baghdad", a collection of essays on the theme of exile, travelling back was to re-enter a world of recollections held still during 27 years.

"As a kid, I was enamoured with the fragrance of jasmine and the sight of bay-trees and bougainvilleas that grew on the banks of the Tigris. The dictator and his cronies have now gone, but their stench still pervades the city," said Hussein.

He fondly recalled his Baghdad family home, ocher-coloured like so many others in his neighbourhood. "I remembered a garden of bricks. What I found was a desert of bricks," he commented.

Born into a well-to-do Shiite Muslim family with leftist leanings, he joined Communist Youth aged 15 but left four years later in protest at the Communist Party's union with the Baath Party under the umbrella of the National Popular Front (NPF).

Hussein became a journalist and studied literature at Baghdad University, but was fired from both the newspaper he worked for and the university at the behest of Tareq Aziz, then information minister and now in the custody of US forces.

Jobless and unable to pursue his studies, Hussein decided to leave after a friend warned him that he was wanted.

He first tried the Swedish embassy, where he was told that an entry visa to Sweden would take 10 long days. On his way home, he chanced upon the French embassy. There his visa application could be processed in just one day.

He took the risk of leaving from the airport where, as luck would have it, he fell on a childhood friend who had become a senior officer in the border police. His passport was stamped without checking the files - which would have shown his name on a blacklist.

"I loved my country of exile," said Hussein, who eventually married a French woman and acquired French citizenship.

"When I write about the past, I do so in Arabic. About the present, I write in French," he said, recalling that he did not even know French when he first landed in Paris.

The family home in the upmarket al-Mansur district is half what it used to be - "my family had to sell (part of the residence) because it was short of money," he explained.

Hussein had vowed not to shed a tear in exile. But when he came back, he gave free rein to his tears twice: when he saw the "totally disfigured" al-Rashid street, the capital's oldest avenue, and when he visited his mother's grave in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

She died "two years too early", he said.

"I remembered her as a young woman. But although I am an atheist, I swear that I could see the old woman when I visited her grave," Hussein said.

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