Page 45 Review by Stephen
Guy Delisle fans, you will adore this book. So many absurdities encountered!
In the early 1970s the Iraqi government supplied famers with wheat seed coated in red, insect-resistant pesticide, claiming it to be of the highest possible quality, but instructing that it to be used strictly for planting only.
Instead the farmers fed it to their cattle, which died, and ate it themselves, and died. In disgust, they dumped the rest into rivers. The fish all died.
I open with this nugget of information gleaned from Brigitte Findakly's family memoir about growing up in Iraq during the mid 20th Century because a) I found it funny (sorry, but I did), b) it is exactly the sort of fascinating, recondite history you'll be treated to, and c) because it so accurately reflects the nature, cameo style and the overall story which Findakly tells so successfully: the gradual extinction of her treasured childhood, recalled and evoked throughout with sunshine, charm and all-embracing individuality.
This we are witness to on the opening two picnic pages as a tiny Brigitte gaily bounces a multi-coloured beach ball between the sandy ruins of Nimrud founded 3,300 years ago, which weren't actually ruins. Like the equally majestic, ancient archaeological site of Hatra whose statues she also relished clambering over, Nimrud's antiquities were epic stone monuments of sculptural excellence, proudly preserved throughout the centuries regardless of whoever came later.
Yes, you could clamber (outrageous) and yes you could pick poppies (why not?) but no single stone was allowed to leave. They were sacred, both artistically and historically, as spectacular examples of what humankind could accomplish.
In March 2015, almost overnight, they were both bulldozed and dynamited to death by ISIS.
It's a prime example of the woefully unnecessary destruction of a once beautiful and culturally phenomenal region of the world by so many successive, revolving-door regimes whose only goal has been not the prosperity of their country, but the consolidation of their personal power along with a seemingly insatiable appetite for revenge.
For example, in July 1958 there was a coup during which Generals Arif and Qasim took power. The King was overthrown and executed, along with his family and servants. Soldiers looted homes.
In 1963 there was a new coup during which exiled General Arif and the Baath party took power. This time General Qasim was executed. Then Arif executed the Baathists too, for good measure.
Side-note: since General Qasim was associated with the Soviet Bloc, the colour red was then banned in public: cars, scarves, hats, signs and presumably poppies. Brilliant! That's progress!
There are many more fortune-reversing coups, especially when a multi-party democracy is rashly considered, and all of this, especially the ridiculous revolving-door nature, is eloquently illustrated by Louis Trondheim's cartoon soldiers, coloured by Findakly, trotting first this way, then that, a foot off the ground.
It's just one indication that POPPIES OF IRAQ is no mere stark, geo-specific history. Like Riad Sattouf's ARAB OF THE FUTURE 1978-1984 and 1984-1985, it is an engaging and very personal, family-centric and so more vivid and informative account of daily life during a period much neglected.
Everyone talks about Iraq under the egomaniacal, genocidal Saddam Hussein from 1979 and the post-Hussein chaos tantamount to anarchy - let loose by our illegal invasion with no forethought to its social and physical reconstruction - under various so-called religious warring factions, but few have found time like Findakly to proffer a portrait of life before then.
Her family was in a position to experience the period much more safely and more widely than others, not through privilege, but through connections, from their own acts of kindness and a refusal to exclude or be excluded.
Born of an Iraqi Orthodox Christian father and a French Catholic mother, Findakly was christened twice. At school Christians were excused from Quran lessons, but Brigitte felt left out so her dad persuaded the teachers to include her. Her best friend was Nadwa, the daughter of their next door neighbours, their very gardens connected via a door. Since they were Muslim, Brigitte did her Quran homework there. Didn't make her a believer, nor did her sixth-form school run by nuns. Both made her understanding of others instead.
Quite early on there's a flash-forward to November 13th 2015, which will be reprised at the end, as cousins call her anxiously following the terror attacks in Paris. By this point they have all finally left Iraq, dispersing to different corners of the globe (Brigitte's family emigrated to France in 1972 - you'll understand why), each taking with them the one thing they could, their Christian faith, but also a deep-seated Islamophobia.
"According to an expert here in New Zealand, the Quran says to kill all non-Muslims."
"But that's ridiculous. It's not even about religion. They're barbarians who are just using religion as a pretext to gain power."
It's a rare sense of level-headed perspective that Findakly's retained but, once again, I attribute that to her - and her family's - refusal to exclude or be excluded.
Back to school life, then, and the only school trip she can recall was to line up in public to salute the despot of the day. Uniforms were mandatory to encourage a sense of equality, but the state of those uniforms clearly marked out which kids were poor and they gravitated, untold, towards the back of the classroom. The poor kids were the only kids to volunteer for cleaning duty. Why would they even do that? (Probably because they had to do the same at home, or else their mothers would have to work even harder, while the rich kids had maids to pick up after their shit instead.) Typically Brigitte volunteered once, and was considered insane.
Her father was a dentist with both a private city clinic but also a position with the army. It came in very handy when the various rounds of post-coup looting occurred - that, and quick-thinking, afforded them some degree of protection, but at one point her father did buy her pregnant mother a gun. She buried it in the garden.
Censorship was rife. When in Baghdad his phone conversations with his wife would be interrupted by military eavesdroppers and they'd be chastised for speaking in French. Later that same army asked him to read all incoming and outgoing mail in French. He delegated it to his wife who thereby accidentally discovered that a seemingly cordial French couple whom they called friends disliked them both intensely! Photographs of Jewish pop-star were cut out of imported French magazine by customs officials. Such was the institutionalised hatred of Israel that its entry was torn out of the dictionaries even though Iraq, on the opposite page, went with it!
You see what I mean about Guy Delisle...? And Riad Sattouf, as it happens.
Interspersed amongst these more personal anecdotes are 'In Iraq' interludes: customs you'll find curious like refusing second helpings (her mum's spectacular puddings soon put paid to that), siblings donating a baby to sterile couples (which is a bit weird, but sweet), and highly intimate pre-wedding preparations as dictated by husbands to their prospective wives through intermediaries. That is not sweet.
But they all tend to be funny, drawn by Trondheim as little set pieces or plays. 'The Good Memories' which Findakly's left with towards the end of the book - so far removed from the life she once knew by space, time and the changes regimes have since wrought - are far more poignant full-page cameos.
They got out before Saddam Hussein took full power in 1979, but life in Paris was far from fun. Her father found his foreign degree was worth nothing there and her mother was initially refused an ID card at the police station because the officer was adamant she'd lost her French citizenship (she hadn't) even though she presented him with a French passport. Aged thirteen Brigitte shared a bedroom with her nineteen-year-old brother Dominique; they clashed over politics and pop music. Her brother had a point when it came to Michel Sardou: your eyes will widen when you read those lyrics which I couldn't possibly repeat.
Also, although she spoke it fluently, Brigitte had never learned to read or write in French so school was a nightmare. Private school was worse with teachers who were proudly racist and peers who refused point-blank to believe that anyone could be both an Arab and a Christian: so much for her old life of inclusion.
Not only that, but return visits to her homeland too became increasingly alienating, with Hussein portraits everywhere including each home, women now required to cover knees and shoulders, children being quizzed daily at school on their parents' politics, her cousins' privations following the Iran-Iraq war (plus her cousins' extraordinary experiences during the Iran-Iraq war!) and, because Findakly and Trondheim have a way of making each instance so personal and far from obvious, one is left in no doubt whatsoever of the loss Findakly feels.
But it's her resilience I admire the most: her resilience to hatred and her resilience to anger when there is so much she could be angry about if she gave in.
Do you remember her best friend Nadwa, with whom she studied the Quran? Brigitte hasn't seen her since 1989.
Nadwa had stayed in their beloved hometown of Mosul all those years, and in June 2014 she and husband drove on holiday from Mosul to Iraqi Kurdistan, packing only for a two-week trip.
The next day ISIS invaded Mosul, so they never saw their city again.