The Orange Trees of Baghdad by Leilah Nadir
When the West invaded Iraq in 2003, Leilah Nadir felt as if she had been torn in two; both the occupier and the occupied coursed through her veins.
Born to an Iraqi father and an English mother, raised in Britain and Canada, she has always yearned to visit her father’s family but has never set foot on Iraqi soil. Now, as the bombs land on Baghdad and more of her relatives flee the country forever, Leilah begins to uncover the story of her lost roots. At the same time, she gets rare first-hand insight into what Iraqis are experiencing through the invasion and its aftermath. Her father is forced to look back as well, after decades of closing his eyes to Iraq’s pain.
The family home still stands intact, full of furniture, photographs and clothes still hanging in closets, all guarded by her great-aunt, who waits for someone to return and reclaim it. While American helicopters fly low overhead and suicide bombers shatter the calm, the date palms still sway in the heat of the day and jasmine continues to scent the Baghdad nights. The garden and its orange trees has changed beyond recognition, but still holds vivid nostalgic memories for the family.
Through her great-aunt and her cousins, Leilah learns what life is like in the embattled land as war becomes occupation and lawlessness takes hold. Leilah’s friend, award-winning photographer Farah Nosh, brings home news of Leilah’s family after her visits to Iraq as well as her own stories and photographs of Iraqis and their tragic stories.
And just as Leilah gives up hope of ever meeting her family, a surprise reunion takes place.
Featured in the October 2014 issue of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, including our own interview with the author!
The Orange Trees of Baghdad traces the personal stories of members of author Leilah Nadir’s family in Iraq. After the 2003 invasion, Nadir, a Canadian of Iraqi decent, reached out to her family to capture their stories and to provide an intimate and human account of war-torn Iraq. We sat down with Leilah Nadir at the Washington Report headquarters here in DC.
WR: What originally made you want to write this book?
LN:LN: Just before the invasion in 2003, I started feeling that there was no voice for the Iraqi people. In the lead-up to the invasion, we were inundated here with news reports about bombs, military buildups, Saddam Hussein, and all of that hype. This was after 9/11 as well, so all that madness you can surely remember. I was talking to my Iraqi relatives and I was getting their point of view, and there was just no connection between what I was seeing and hearing. I wanted to capture the stories of my family and what people were going through pre-invasion, during the invasion, and after the invasion for as long as I could tell those stories.
WR: What is the intended audience for The Orange Trees of Baghdad? Was it strictly Western?
LN: Originally, my intended audience was Western. No one really knew who Iraqis were and many held extreme notions of what being Iraqi meant and I really wanted to break down those stereotypes. But it’s been funny, since the book came out lots of Iraqis have read it and a lot of Iraqi men of my dad’s age, so in their 60’s, have been reading it. And they love it! It totally speaks to them because it tells their stories of growing up in a relatively peaceful situation and having access to studying all over the world. So now Iraqis are my audience too. I recently did a book launch in the UK and a lot of Iraqis were there and they were crying! They were very emotional because it was a kind of cathartic release and it brought back memories for them. There’s such a deep level of trauma that I think people don’t have any place to put it. They just obsessively watch the news and the horrors.
WR: Has this book inspired other people to share similar stories?
LN: Not directly, but one thing this experience has taught me is that if you ask people about themselves, they’ll tell you. A lot of the book is just picking up the phone and calling people and talking to them and people are willing to tell you things. I always say to people, no matter what background you are from, if you have a chance to talk to your relatives about anything in their lives, get those stories down because all of a sudden it can be gone before you even realize it.
WR: What kind of response has your book gotten from a Western audience?
LN: A lot of people say that have been watching the news and trying to understand the Middle East. People just can’t seem to understand what’s going on and I think when you’re in it, it seems fairly obvious what’s going on. It’s pretty basic. It’s an extension of imperial control and power over populations in the region for political and economic ends. But I think it gets very muddled in the way it is reported. People have said that from reading The Orange Trees, they get a sense of a narrative that makes sense with a beginning, middle and end. You get some history like what happened after World War I and how those countries were set up, and the beyond that how interactions between East and West came about and how dictatorships came into being, the relationships between those regimes and the people. And I feel like that’s important for people to understand. There is rationality. It isn’t just pure chaos, even though it can look like that. And I think that’s what part of the propaganda machine tells us, that its just chaos and you can’t figure it out. It’s just crazy Arabs. And millions of people in the region are dying because of that. So that’s one of the main messages from my book.
Interview By Kevin A. Davis and Clara McGlynn