Betool Khedairi, born in 1965 to an Iraqi father and a Scottish mother, is the author of Absent: A Novel. She received her B.A. In French literature from the University of Mustansiriya and traveled to different countries in the world. She wrote her very first novel, A Sky So Close, in Arabic language in the '90s which was later translated into other languages like English, Italian, French and Dutch. The novel, Absent, is about a young Iraqi girl named Dalal, who lived with her childless uncle and aunt, during the very difficult times when U.S. attacked Baghdad.
The young girl, Dalal coped with the tragedies of her life in her own way. It is a very beautiful story full of wit and black humor. The novel was written from the point-of-view of Dalal, who represents the title of the book "Absent." The title represents the loss of Dalal's parents and that of her aunt and uncle's unborn child, her childhood and innocence, and her trust in people who betrayed her.
The novel is termed as coming-of-age story in the Literature Science. This novel has been set in a very complicated era of United Nations Sanctions against Iraq after Gulf War, when there were high number of suicide bombings, when people in authority who were no longer in command, and also in that era millions of refugees were marching in the city and millions of people were being killed, including both Iraqi and American soldiers. This story shows Dalal's struggle to find her self-image, at a very young age. Dalal was living with her aunt and uncle, who were not on good terms and did not jam well together.
Even with the imposition of sanctions and various bombings, Dalal showed a very loving, ironic and intriguingly comical language throughout the novel. Her childless aunt and uncle raised her in a place where fortune teller Mazin, gay male hairdresser Saad and a postcolonial nurse with vague half western roots, by the name of Ilham lived. The diversity of people was reflected in the novel by threads of gossip and chitchat and their attitude towards war. This novel portrays the struggle and pain of people around Dalal who were trying to make sense of the chaos in their country, and also to live a normal life.
The novel moved at a pace that did not fail to acknowledge the true spirit of it. In order to earn money by selling honey, Dalal's uncle became a beekeeper, and also took Dalal's assistance in the care of those highly strung and temperamental creatures. Meanwhile, Dalal has fallen heads over heels in love for the first time in her life. Series of treachery, surprises and shattering social links followed which turned people against each other.
In the starting chapters, the narrator's relationship with her uncle and aunt and with the other residents of the building has been explained. She gave reasons for her uncle and aunt's predicament: one reason was their inability to understand each other and secondly her aunt constantly complained about the current low status as compared to their "days of plenty." Dalal had a hard time accepting her handicap, throughout the novel, and also struggled with the fact that she wasn't able to have a surgery that could cure her paralysis, because they were living hand-to-mouth. The novel presented and revealed her feelings of anger towards the circumstances, at her uncle and aunt, and her sense of loss because her mother left her alone to face the hardships of the world.
Even after learning that she won't be able to have a surgery, Dalal focused on moving forward and showed her courage and positivity but of course she could not forget her facial palsy. When the story moved forward, the Iraqi community, according to the narrator, had not changed much and the turmoil was still there but people around the community became independent.
Dalal got admission in the University. She also helped her Uncle and Saad, the hairdresser, in addition to her studies. Throughout the novel, Dalal has been shown as a person who accepts different situations. This is also reflected by the event where she came to know that Ilham and her boyfriend sold human organs, it was just another can't-be-helped events for her. Her relationship with Saad was like that of a friend, whom she could confide in. Later, she also started showing romantic interest in Adel, Saad's friend and also had a romantic liaison with him on the night when the three of them got intoxicated. This reflected her romantic nature.
In the later chapters, Dalal revealed that relationship between her aunt and uncle disturbed her alot. She understood her uncle's predicament but was irritated with her aunt's everyday reminder of good old days gone and her resentment over her uncle's business relationship with Miss Randa. Dalal confided in Saad about her observations and her relationship with her relatives.
In this novel, Dalal's was shown as a very spirited and a courageous girl. This is reflected in the scenario when she went to the tennis court, at the club, to investigate the matter of her uncle's bees attacking each other and saw the court full of corpses, she was scared and alarmed at first but informed others of what she saw. It was because of her spirit and courage that everyone came to know that bees were feeding on the blood of the corpses. The corpses were people who were attacked by a missile and could not be buried in the morgues so they were dumped in the tennis court.
Dalal's uncle was arrested because the honey he sold to people was no longer fit to sell. He was arrested by Adel, and later on Dalal came to know that Adel was a secret service assistant who was given information by Saad to spy on citizens of Iraq for the police, in exchange for his own protection. Dalal was left to face the fact that she has been betrayed by Adel, who did not even acknowledge her afterwards. Because of this reason and Saad's disloyalty, she accused him of being a coward. Dalal character was also portrayed as an innocent girl who along with his uncle, did not do anything bad but her uncle was accused of treachery nonetheless, and their reasoning were not heard either. A very humanistic side of Dalal came forward, when she felt betrayed by two persons she trusted a lot. After her uncle was taken by the police, she blamed Saad and he gave her excuses for his behavior and asked for her forgiveness but she could not trust him. After that, she was not in a position to believe anyone as she had lost the trust.
Dalal did not continue her education and left it before her graduation was completed. She started working at a recycling plant because her aunt was unable to support both of them. She became the single bread earner of the family and her aunt also started depending on her. This part of the novel reflected that Dalal had a sense of responsibility as she did not leave her aunt alone.
The end of the novel showed a beginning of Dalal's another phase of life as an adult. Her belief in the wrong people and some non-manageable circumstances brought her at this stage.
The last scene of the novel depicts the murder of Dalal's innocence and naivete. She was smoking a cigarette for the first time. She was observing the 'Lab for Analysis of Viral Specimens' which was being visited by the UN Team in search of Weapons for Mass Destruction. When she saw a young boy delivering newspapers who should have been in school, she asked the boy why he was not in school. When the boy answered her…