Category Archives: Iraqi

Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Yellow BirdsPerhaps I just need to stay away from award-winning bestsellers. But sometimes, my curiosity over all those stickers, prizes, and multiplying sales just can’t be contained … and then I get trapped in a vacuum of disappointment and tedium from which I’m stubbornly unable to extract myself. A problem of my own making, I realize, and still I haven’t learned my lesson, egads!

For those of you aren’t yet convinced about picking up this massively-hailed debut novel, allow me to suggest these recent war narratives as preferable choices: Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil or The Blind Man’s Garden, Stephen Dau’s The Book of Jonas, or even Harry Mazer and Peter Lerangis’ Somebody, Please Tell Me Who I Am for young adult readers. In comparison, Yellow Birds is a testosterone-fueled rant lacking the elegance, nuance, and subtlety that define other, exceptional titles. [For those who choose the audible route, narrator Holter Graham fuels the 'angry young man'-role with convincing relish.] That said, Birds is surely the latest necessary testimony to the hopeless waste of war; perhaps that reason alone is spiking its sales.

Two soldiers are headed to Iraq, having enlisted in a faraway crusade they don’t fully understand. In a moment buzzing with high emotion just before deployment, the narrator, John Bartle, makes an impossible promise to the mother of a younger soldier, Daniel Murphy, that he would take care of her son. At 21 and 18, respectively, Bartle and Murph, are as yet barely grown men – their struggle to survive the brutal warzone will prove to be an even greater battle to hold on to their humanity.

The opening epigraph – and titular inspiration – perfectly encapsulates the unrelenting contents that follow: “A yellow bird / With a yellow bill / Was perched upon / My windowsill // I lured him in / With a piece of bread / And then I smashed / His f**king head … / — Traditional U.S. Army Marching Cadence.” For the wary, that might have been enough warning to choose an alternative read. Clearly, I wasn’t paying enough attention from the very beginning … I mindlessly marched on toward grave consequences.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Iraqi, Nonethnic-specific

Somebody, Please Tell Me Who I Am by Harry Mazer and Peter Lerangis

Somebody, Please Tell Me Who I AmBen Bright – popular senior, lead in the school musical opposite both his girlfriend Ariela and best friend Niko, the older son in a warmly bonded family of four – has a secret. Without telling his family and friends, he’s bypassed college and chosen the U.S. Army. “‘Ninety-nine percent of our friends are going off to college, and then what?’” he tries to make Ariela understand. “‘Finance? Law? Banking? That’s not a waste? People like us should volunteer – kids with privilege and skills and talent. So-called. I want to reach the end of my life and say, ‘I did something important. I saved lives.’”

Having initially volunteered for the Army reserve – “I’m not going to war,” he had insisted – shock turns to worry when Ben is deployed to Iraq. Less than three months after he leaves home, Ben is caught in an explosion: “Brains fold inward on themselves and then billow outward, soft as jellyfish. The precise electrochemical connections short-circuit – connections that control thought, smell, taste, touch, sight, sound, movement, memory. Connections that define what it means to be human. In a millisecond, that definition changes.” Ben Bright’s body survives, but his brain is forever changed; his journey back from TBI (traumatic brain injury) will be the most formidable fight of his life.

Winner in the teen category of the American Library Association‘s 2013 Schneider Family Book Awards which “honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences,” Somebody is a shattering, devastating read. In spite of its slim page count, the narrative is emotionally dense, weighted with impossible questions of patriotism, duty, hope, promise, and love; the consequences of Ben’s solo decision for his parents, brother, girlfriend, best friend, and even his fellow soldiers will reverberate forever.

Authors Harry Mazer and Peter Lerangis speak directly to the generation right now in one of the most contemporary titles I’ve read to date, with nods to Glee and Taylor Swift. While I momentarily wonder if such details might make the book seem outdated sooner than later, as long as war looms somewhere in the world and teenagers for whatever reason decide to make that fight their own, the power of Somebody will not diminish. Graduation is fast approaching for millions of high school seniors … might I insist that Somebody would make an excellent addition to every gift list.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Iraqi, Nonethnic-specific

Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees by Deborah Ellis

Bestselling Canadian anti-war activist Deborah Ellis‘s four nonfiction titles (thus far) for younger readers should be bundled together and sent to every policymaker throughout the world. Two of those four, Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely through a Never-Ending War and Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speakgive voice to children living in active war zones. Off to War: Voices of Soldiers’ Children features the children left behind in the United States and Canada by deployed military. Children of War looks at lives attempting to be reclaimed by surviving families who have fled a war-torn homeland for an often unwelcoming new country.

Hibba, 16: “I have nothing in common with American children. How could I? They are raised up with peace and fun and security. … We are raised with war and fear. It’s a big difference.”

Michael, 12: “I think it would make the world better if people had to fix the things they broke. Like, if someone bombs your house, they couldn’t go away and do things they wanted to do until they built you a new house and fixed what they broke.”

Sara, 15: “We all miss our homeland. We had friends there, and lives that could have been wonderful.”

Eva, 17: “Hating people is not part of our culture, but the war is sending people back to the dark ages It is destroying who we are. Iraqis love sports and literature, and poetry and science, and gardens, all good things. Iraqis don’t like all this killing.”

Iraq is a young country, gaining independence in 1932, although the civilization that originated there is one of the world’s oldest, its ancient glory buried in the hanging gardens of Babylon, its written literary history dating back over 2000 years with the Epic of Gilgamesh. Tragically, Iraq’s recent history is defined by violence and war, from the eight-year Iran-Iraq War that began in 1980, to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 which sparked the First Gulf War, to the post-9/11 U.S. invasion in 2003.

While Ellis provides important political and historical context here, Ellis’ focus is clearly on the  youngest victims: “The children in this book are mostly refugees who fled Iraq because of the war and were living in Jordan in the fall of 2007.” She chose Jordan “simply because the entry process was easier than for Syria.” Five million Iraqis were displaced by war, 3 million were unable to leave Iraq and live in remote tent camps; many of the survivors able to get out went to Jordan and Syria.

Nearly a decade has passed since Saddam Hussein was deposed. And yet the troubled nation remains in the headlines for the seemingly unending sectarian violence. The majority of those surviving children are no more, having grown into troubled adulthood. What now? What now?

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Canadian, Iraqi, Middle Eastern

Saving the Baghdad Zoo: A True Story of Hope and Heroes by Kelly Milner Hall with Major William Sumner

When I hear “collateral damage,” one thing I’ve never thought of before (I know, shame on me!) are the animals! And how much more tragic are the animals trapped in cages … like in zoos?

Here’s a wake-up call disguised as a children’s book … in times of war, what happens to the animals? Amazingly enough, many of the inhabitants of the Baghdad Zoo found an unlikely savior in an American soldier, Captain William Sumner (since promoted to Major), who was originally deployed to Iraq in 2003 as a civil affairs officer.

As a trained archeologist, Sumner arrived expecting to “work with the Iraqis to restore their cultural heritage.” Instead, he inherited the rescue of a “‘small zoo’ [which] turned out to be one of the largest zoos in the Middle East, plus three palace zoos and a number of other animal collections.”

To even softly utter that saving lives in wartime is a challenge is beyond understatement. But when those who need rescuing have four legs and don’t speak any languages you can readily understand, the challenge becomes infinitely more complicated. Veteran children’s author Kelly Milner Halls carefully captures Summer’s story of lions, tigers, and bears – oh my! – who along with a menagerie of other animals managed to survive the death and destruction all around them.

Whatever your stance on this seemingly neverending, incomprehensible “war on terror,” here’s a reminder to celebrate some of war’s most unexpected heroes.

Readers: Children, Middle Grade

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, ..Middle Grade Readers, .Nonfiction, Iraqi, Nonethnic-specific

Out of Iraq: Refugees’ Stories in Words, Paintings and Music by Sybella Wilkes, foreword by Angelina Jolie, in association with UNHCR

Alas, tragic headlines continue to repeat over and over: The front page of today’s New York Times reports, “Iraq’s Ills Lead Former Exiles to Flee Again.” [An online version of the article is available as "Iraq's Troubles Drive Out Many Refugees Who Came Back."]

Through a mosaic of history, politics, statistics, and true stories from Iraqi refugees, author and UNHCR (the office for the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees) Senior Communications Officer Sybella Wilkes provides a window into the everyday lives of the survivors – and thereby some of the worst victims – of the war on Iraq. Story by story, she shows the increasing consequences to the actual people who are desperately trying to rebuild their lives, often without success. The struggles that the children – the youngest, most tragic victims – must face are the most disturbing of all.

While the book’s intended audience is clearly younger readers – especially memorable throughout the book is the art of the Iraqi children – Wilkes does not shy away from the horrors of war, although she is restrained in any overly graphic descriptions of death and destruction. Many of the children here know nothing other than gunfire, bombings, and eternal fear. Chaos and worry have followed most families into exile, where too many have traded danger for poverty. Relative safety in refugee camps in other countries like next-door Syria also means unemployment as the host country does not allow the Iraqis to work legally. As the years pass, the concept of home remains a faraway dream.

In an effort to share the Iraqi refugees’ experiences beyond reading the book, Wilkes provides readers – and their parents and teachers – a page of suggestions on how to learn more and get personally involved. Knowledge is merely a beginning … action is necessary for actual change. From creating empathy by using “art, theatre and music … [to explore] how you and your family would feel about leaving your home and country,” to ways to raise funds for the UN Refugee Agency, to a young man’s testimony on how he is helping in Basra, Iraq, Wilkes gives solid examples of reaching out and doing more.

By teaching children now about empathy and active assistance, maybe those breaking headlines can change sooner than later. Out of Iraq makes for an enlightening start: for every sale of this title, UK publisher Evans Books will make a donation to UNHCR.

Readers: Children, Middle Grade

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, ..Middle Grade Readers, .Nonfiction, British, Iraqi

IraqiGirl: Diary of a Teenage Girl in Iraq by Hadiya, edited by Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, developed by John Ross

IraqiGirl“Hadiya’s name is not really Hadiya,” the editor’s note introduces this harrowing, heartbreaking blog-turned-book. “We have used pseudonyms for every Iraqi in this story because each of their lives could be in danger if they were identified. But Hadiya is a real teenager in Mosul, and this is her story.”

When you go to the actual IraqiGirl blog, Hadiya (who spells her name Hadia) writes, “Because names are and will always be the silliest thing belong to us, and no one can be judged by its name [sic]. We are standing behind our acts and behaviors.”

Living in U.S.-occupied Iraq, Hadiya is a teenager who has witnessed far too much death and destruction in her young life. The youngest of three daughters of a doctor father and an engineer mother, Hadiya lives in Mosul in northern Iraq, growing up in the middle of bombs, shootings, and protests. “Normal” for Hadiya is navigating everyday life without electricity, clean water, nor the freedom to even leave the house. “UNnormal,” as she calls it, are the moments being a happy teenager, trying on new clothes, reading Harry Potter, staying up all night with her sister making sweets in a dark kitchen.

Surrounded by an extended family that continues to shrink throughout the book – whether by death or desperate escape out of the war-torn country – Hadiya tries to figure out how she will someday tell her newborn niece how her paternal grandfather was killed by an American soldier as he was walking home. She learns to sleep through falling bombs, although sleep without nightmares is rare. She cries when Bush is re-elected because that means more U.S. solders in her homeland. She is not above sarcasm: “Thank you, America, for your help. You have made my life more difficult that it was. Worse than it was. We are more scared now.” While she respects and regularly thanks “the American people who love Iraq and want peace,” she cannot have anything but fear and loathing for “the Americans who have come to Iraq now.” She wants to tell Obama, “If you can’t get things back to the way it was, if you can’t compensate for all the damage that has happened in my country, then please at least stop the damaging.”  Her final words resonate: “Be gentle with the Iraqi.”

While you could read the blog on the Web for a glimpse into the difficult challenges of Hadiya’s young life, the book offers a much deeper overview of her experiences. In addition to an edited version of her blog that covers July 19, 2006 through December 1, 2007, the book includes historical annotation and context, an interview follow-up between Hadiya and the book’s editor, a virtual dialogue in 2006 between Hadiya and students of an American summer academic program, a timeline of the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, and discussion questions for further exploration. Hadiya’s story continues on her blog … but this book is where you need to start.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2009


Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Iraqi

Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories about Teens in the Arab World by Elsa Marston

Santa Claus in BaghdadEight stories about eight teens from eight different countries coming of age during a time of uncertainty and tumult in their native Middle East countries. In the title story, young Amal of Baghdad, Iraq, must find the very best gift for her departing literature teacher even while watching as her family’s already depleted resources continue to dwindle. In “Faces,” Suhayl of Syria comes to terms with his parents’ divorce, desperately hoping to make his mother happy once again.

Aneesi watches in horror when her beloved father is accused of theft in the wealthy Lebanese home in which they both work in “The Hand of Fatima.” When Mujahhid is sent away from Bethlehem and the constant shootings that already claimed his older brother’s life to stay with relatives in a remote village in “The Olive Grove,” he learns new ways of struggling for his people’s rights against the controlling Israelis without having to become yet another martyr.

An Egyptian city girl learns first hand about village life in “In Line,” a young Tunisian boy who sells his mother’s hats befriends a famous artist in “Scenes in a Roman Theater,” two brave girls in Jordan help save another from an honor killing in “Honor,” and a young Palestinian boy living in a refugee camp in Lebanon helps his isolated older brother possibly find real love.

While the circumstances of these young lives might first seem unfamiliar to a western audience, universal truths about what all children want soon emerge. Differences that all too often get magnified by the media fall away as the children in these pages come of age, sharing their lives with friends, dealing with the occasional conflict with parents, and trying to fit into their communities – all the while surviving war, deprivation, political uncertainty, and imminent dangers.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Arab, Iranian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Middle Eastern, Palestinian

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story of Iraq by Jeanette Winter

Librarian of BasraDespite the bombs falling from the sky, a devoted librarian manages to safely rescue thousands of books before the library burns down. An inspiring tale for anyone who loves books … not to mention a testament to the absolute importance of safeguarding all our literary treasures.

Review: “New and Notable Books, AsianWeek, May 5, 2005

Readers: Children

Published: 2005

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Nonfiction, Iraqi

Thura’s Diary: My Life in Wartime Iraq by Thura Al-Windawi, translated by Robin Bray

Thura's DiaryWhile the premise of a young girl’s diary about surviving war in contemporary Iraq is promising – if not necessary in order to put an innocent human face to the so-called ‘war on terrorism’ –  this title proves ultimately disappointing. The writing seems to be overly manufactured, almost hiding behind a false veneer, as if the writer is only too aware of an audience on the other side of the BBC cameras that first presented her story to the media. The final entry is most telling with “I have to go now. It’s time for me to write another diary about different things, not to be published, but for me to leave to my children one day.” Too bad we don’t have access to those pages.

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, April 30, 2004

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2004

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Translation, Iraqi

Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War edited by Anthony Arnove

Iraq Under Siege“When people asked me if I would edit an updated edition of Iraq Under Siege, my answer has always been ‘no’ – that I hoped the book would soon become historically obsolete …,” writes Arnove in his introduction to the 2002 version of his 2000 original. Tragically, “it is more relevant today than when it was first published” – in spite of the fact that no connections between Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks were ever made. Minor detail, I’m sure. If only we could get Dubya and all his cronies to read it!

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, December 20, 2002

Readers: Adult

Published: 2002 (updated edition)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Iraqi