"Absent" is an affectionate, wry, funny portrait - sometimes darkly so - of the inhabitants of an apartment block in central Baghdad, juxtaposing the days of plenty that Iraq experienced in the 1970s and the tragic state of the country during the period of wars and sanctions. Most of the protagonists are female, highlighting the absence of men in their society as a result of the exceptional conditions it suffers. As sanctions and political unrest intensify, each character must look to their own resources. They barter, bee keep, tell fortunes, collect buttons, and talk. All the characters stumble through in a Dadaesque collage, recounted through an eclectic mix of realistic narrative and surreal hallucinations, while the infrastructure and consequently the social fabric of the community crumble. Transcending its underlying layer of betrayal and mistrust, this is a novel about people's quirks, their enduring emotions, and about survival.
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(238mm x 162mm x 22mm)
The American University in Cairo Press
Publisher: The American University in Cairo Press
Country of Publication:
US Kirkus Review »
An intimate picture of life in a Baghdad apartment building during the perilous 1990s (following the Gulf War) is gradually assembled in this colorful novel, originally published by a university press in 2004.Iraqi-Scottish author (A Sky So Close, 2001) and now Jordanian resident Khedairi presents her story as the arduous "education" of its narrator Dalal, a young woman raised by her aunt and uncle after her parents are killed by an exploding landmine. It's a compact saga of struggling to survive despite ongoing sectarian enmity and violence and a ruinous economic blockade. Attention focuses first on Dalal's childless Aunt Umm, a frequently choleric seamstress, and her Uncle Abu Ghayeb. The latter is a memorable comic character: a failed artist who surrounds himself with treasured oil paintings and reels from one impractical moneymaking scheme to another, eventually choosing to prosper as a beekeeper. Neighboring characters, all of whom lament the long-ago "Days of Plenty," include sagacious fortune teller Umm Mazin (who "reads" dregs in coffee cups, and counsels distraught women who have lost their husbands' love); gentle diabetic Uncle Sami, going blind because of the difficulty of procuring insulin; and their building's secretive new owner Saad, who supervises Dalal's pursuit of formal education, and in effect facilitates the loss of her innocence. Images of looming threats (notably, the sight of children playing with "leftover shrapnel" in the street) aside, the novel is primarily pictorial and virtually devoid of tension or plot until its closing pages, in which the presence of an informer in the building occasions a violent flurry of transformative events. Khedairi makes brilliant metaphoric use of a "war" among Uncle Abu's bees, begun because "I must have distributed the food unequally amongst the different colonies."Initially sluggish, but not without rewards. (Kirkus Reviews)
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Author Biography - Betool Khedairi
Betool Khedairi was born in Baghdad in 1965 to an Iraqi father and a Scottish mother. She received a B.A. in French literature from the University of Mustansiriya and then traveled between Iraq, Jordan, and the United Kingdom, working in the food industry while writing her first novel, A Sky So Close, published in Arabic in 1999 and now translated into English, Italian, French, and Dutch. She currently lives in Amman. Muhayman Jamil was born in Baghdad. He is currently an associate specialist in palliative medicine in London.