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Scattered Crumbs by Muhsin Al-Ramli, translated by Yasmeen Hanoosh (University of Arkansas Press, 126 pages, $16.95) If you’re going to read Scattered Crumbs, the latest novel by Iraqi expatriate Muhsin Al-Ramli, you may as well read it twice. This little jewel of a novel weighs in at only 126 pages, and the rich complexity of Al-Ramli’s prose benefits from a second go-around. Set toward the end of Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran in which an estimated one million Iraqis died, this tale of a family and town ravaged by the Saddam Hussein regime has particular resonance today. As the story opens, our unnamed narrator has left his village on the Tigris to follow his cousin Mahmoud. He finds himself “a lonely foreigner among foreigners” in Madrid, Spain, with no idea where Mahmoud might be and with no news of his family in Iraq. “Sad stories become monotonous in Iraq because of their abundance,” he tells us. Al-Ramli tells his tale instead with tenderness and subtle, subversive humor. He falls into a reverie about his narrator’s village, Mahmoud’s siblings and overbearing father, Ijayel, and the devastation of war. It is a stream-of-consciousness tale that pivots with Ijayel’s house in the village as its base over decades and space. With a sympathetic and wry smile, Al-Ramli reveals the folly of blind nationalism and the mundane horrors of war through the lives of the Ijayel clan. “People were born in that village, and they died there. What hurt was having the war make some of them die far away,” Al-Ramli writes. In translating the text from Arabic to English, Yasmeen Hanoosh has rendered what to this non-Arabic speaker seems a very graceful translation. Her work earned the Arabic Translation Award, awarded by the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas and the University of Arkansas Press, which published the book. Occasionally, there are moments of inscrutable metaphor that reach too far. “On the peaks, the white snow glimmered like silvery hats the size of a dream.” On the whole, though, Ramli’s evocative language and the long lilts of his sentences lull the reader into full engagement in the story. His rendering of an execution scene, for example, is wrenching. This is the memory of a man who has witnessed the execution of a friend. “Colors and frowns and confusion and dry impossible commotion. Yellow faces, pounding pounded hearts, voice boxes that lost their voices, throats that quit swallowing, parched, surfeited with the taste of desert sand and the smell of blood, salt, tears � or no tears.” In the world Al-Ramli reveals, old men die of grief, a young man has sex with a donkey, another boy sleeps in a grave and howls like a wolf, and an artist falls in love with the white-skinned arm of his hot-tempered cousin. Ijayel is the rabidly nationalistic patriarch. On people and things that have earned his respect, he bestows the term of honor “nationam,” his barbarized pronunciation of “national,” a word learned in his youth from the old men who described the exploits of his own father, who once killed a British officer. Ijayel’s scratchy voice is another reminder of his youth, caused by the hedgehog needle lodged in his throat since boyhood. Of Ijayel’s children, first there is the radiant, only daughter. She is the muse that drives our narrator from home, inspired to do something brave and honorable. Then there is Qasim, our narrator’s favorite cousin. Al-Ramli writes: “Qasim tried to learn English in his youth, but grew to hate it after he became engrossed in Arabic calligraphy. The aesthetics of this art took him as far as inventing what he called ‘Qasimicalligraphy.’ I must say he surprised me with the paintings he showed me, crowded with words in circles and domes, so I asked him to write in the Qasimistyle the epitaph on the grave of my father, who, anguishing of the death of one of my cousins and over another missing in action, himself died in the second year of the war.” The only thing Qasim can’t bring himself to paint is the image of Saddam Hussein, who is referred to only as “the leader.” And then there are Saadi and Abood. When Abood was born, he was the most beautiful child anyone had ever seen. By the time he turned 10, however, he underwent a “menacing metamorphosis” into a gray skinned, long armed creature who bangs his head against the wall, bleats like a goat, and howls at the moon. His fate is the surprise of the book and seems to encapsulate Al-Ramli’s views about the Saddam Hussein regime. Both Al-Ramli’s narrator and Mahmoud are all but absent from Al-Ramli’s story. At its heart is the great conflict between love of country and love of family. Qasim’s sister insists that he tell her about “the leader” � Saddam � who stares darkly from the picture hanging in her father’s living room and who has driven a wedge between her father and brother. She says to Qasim: “But he doesn’t know either of you. Leave him on his throne and make up with Father. . . . Who is he, Qasim?” “He is a bloodthirsty creature, a vampire; that is, a monster,” Qasim finally tells her. “He will slay us if another man does not rescue us from him.” Reporter Siobhan Roth covers Northern Virginia for Legal Times.

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