REVIEW by Megan Jones

NWR Issue 100

Between Two Rivers

by Dorothy Al Khafaji

Due to a bombardment of unsavoury media coverage, the majority of British people struggle to picture Iraq as anything other than a warzone. Yet this isn’t how British-born Dorothy Al Khafaji remembers it. In her touching memoir Between Two Rivers, she reveals the country behind the headlines, in a time when Saddam Hussein was only just finding his feet and ‘most Europeans didn’t even know where Baghdad was’. Dorothy’s memoir spans two decades, taking us from the moment she meets her husband to her eventual return to the UK in 1980; when Iraq’s blood-curdling antics were beginning to work their way into the British tabloids.

In 1962, twenty-year-old Dorothy Al Khafaji made the life-changing decision to follow her husband to Iraq. Together with their 6-month-old daughter, they embarked on the journey of a lifetime; a 4000-mile road trip from England to Baghdad. Cocooned in a brand new Mercedes Benz, they made their way through Holland, Bulgaria and Turkey (amongst others) experiencing break-downs, language barriers and a series of near-misses before arriving safely in Baghdad.

In spite of all this, however, Dorothy’s adventure was only just beginning. Upon arriving at her new in-laws’ house, she quickly found herself submerged in an alien culture, where even the most trivial mishap could be dubbed ‘ebb’ (an all-encompassing Iraqi term for any behaviour deemed inappropriate and shameful). Unsurprisingly, Dorothy’s stories evoke a lot of sympathy from the reader as she recounts her experience of juggling her growing brood and unreliable husband with the expectations of her volatile in-laws. Yet all of this becomes suddenly trivial as Iraq’s political state worsens.

Saddam Hussein’s rise to power created an array of new problems for Dorothy to deal with, including the challenge of feeding and clothing her family when resources were scarce. Above all is the chilling realisation of how closely the lives of Dorothy’s family were intertwined with the relatives of Saddam Hussein. The most notable being her son, Ali, who attended the same school as the tyrannical leader’s son, Oday. As she reflects on this time, we learn that her son’s best friend was “taken care of” for standing up to Oday in the playground, and just how brutal and uncompromising Saddam Hussein’s influence was in Iraq. Whilst this incident is horrifying in itself, it provokes deeper concerns for Dorothy as she ponders ‘how do you tell your twelve-year-old son that one of his best friends has almost certainly been murdered and that nothing would be done about it?’

The appropriate answer, as Dorothy painful acknowledges, is ‘you don’t’. Like so many other families in Iraq at that time, Dorothy knew it was best to keep her children in the dark about such issues, as a careless slip of the tongue could compromise the safety of the entire family. This incident is one of many which serves to highlight the fear and distrust which Dorothy and her fellow Iraqis lived with in their day-to-day lives, and presents a stark contrast to the safe and community-driven country she had arrived in barely years before.

There is a casual, conversational voice holding the narrative frame together. This works fantastically well given the nature of the content, as it feels almost as if Dorothy is divulging her life story to you over a cup of coffee. There is unfortunately a drawback to this more casual form, however, as Dorothy frequently goes off on a tangent, veering away from the story she initially introduces (often jumping to other times and places) before eventually looping back to where she began. Whilst this interwoven background information does help to illuminate her stories, at times it can be quite confusing to follow. Furthermore, whilst Between Two Rivers is rife with vivid description (for example; ‘the shrine [...] was ornate and beautiful in a delicate and unpretentious way’), an insert of some family photographs would have helped to reinforce the setting of her story.

In spite of the drama surrounding her domestic life and the difficulties brought on by Iraq’s political problems, Dorothy’s memoir has a happy ending; with all of her immediate family members retreating to the UK as Iraq lay on the cusp of war. Yet an inescapable sadness lingers over you long after you turn the last page, a grief almost, for the Iraqis left behind; a spirited group of people whose lives were turned upside down in the course of one man’s pursuit of power.

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