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When the Grey Beetles Took Over Baghdad

by Mona Yahia
Peter Halban Publishers Ltd
£15.99 406pp

Reviewed by Anna Dangoor

Mona Yahia was born in Baghdad in 1954, and escaped with her family to Israel in 1970. She studied Psychology at Tel Aviv University and worked as a trainer in the school for Army Commanders. In 1985 she moved to Germany to study Fine Arts. She has published short stories in London Magazine and The Jewish Quarterly, as well as in German anthologies. This is her first novel.

Mona Yahia’s novel ‘When the Grey Beetles Took Over Baghdad’ is the story of the life of Lina, a young Jewish girl growing up during the 60’s in Baghdad, at a time of great instability for the Jewish community. Lina is the book’s narrator, and Yahia captures the mind of a young teenager perfectly, drawing the reader in, so that Lina’s hopes and fears become one’s own.

Fear is a strong theme throughout the novel, and ultimately the book is a story of Lina’s longing for freedom; freedom from Iraq, but ultimately freedom from fear. Having such a young narrator allows Yahia to write simply, making the book a very easy read. The confusion and complexity of an adolescent mind however, especially one surrounded by such turmoil, are also conveyed with impressive understanding.

Life for Lina is by no means simple, and through her Yahia allows us to feel both the unbearable horror of Jewish persecution, such as the hangings at Tahrir square, and contrastingly, the innocence and frivolity of events such as the Purim casino which Lina attends. That is what is so fantastic about the book. It tells two stories in one.

The first is the story of Baghdadi life for a young girl who is fast becoming a woman. The second, the story of a state fraught with revolution, in which a once numerous community, learn to fear for their lives, as ‘Grey Beetles’, the cars of the secret police trawl the streets, and pounce on innocent Jews. Along the first theme, Yahia describes vividly the sights, sounds and tastes of Baghdad. Traditional dishes such as Sambousak are mentioned, and Yahia includes the occasional Arabic word, which contribute to the vivid sense of place she creates. Yahia also paints a convincing picture of life for a young teenage girl. Lina has to deal with everything that any other girl approaching adolescence experiences: The start of her menstruation, the interest boys around her begin to take in her, and the corresponding and unfamiliar feelings which she develops for her English friend Lawrence.

Along the second theme, the struggles of the Jewish community are depicted strikingly. Yahia creates an intense mood of fear, as one after the other, innocent Jewish men are arrested and accused of false crimes. These arrests culminate in the executions in Tahrir square, mentioned earlier, where thirteen men, nine of them Jews including Lina’s swimming teacher, and a boy of only 17 from her school, are hung for being traitors to Iraq. Yahia’s description of these events, coupled with their reality is sickening, and this part of the book is deeply saddening. The trouble’s also come even closer to home for Lina’s family. Her elder brother Shuli is also arrested when he makes the mistake of responding to a fellow student’s request to be shown a Star of David. The very same student subsequently reports him as a Zionist.

Acts of cruelty such as this appear throughout the novel. However these are tempered by Yahia’s description of the partial normality which the Jewish community cling to. This makes Lina’s life a fine balance between the usual and the unusual, and is fundamentally what makes her such a real character. So real in fact that reading this book is like taking a journey to Baghdad and back.

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