Nuha al-Radi's Baghdad Diaries: A Woman's Chronicle of War and Exile and Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, and Marjane Satrapi's illustrated story, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, reveal profound insights about the impact of war. These novels examine how Iraqis and Iranians cope with the profound uncertainty, political repression, deprivation, and war that have impacted their homelands in recent years. Ultimately, al-Radi's novel gives an intimate portrait of the effect of war on the ordinary Iraqi, but fails to provide a larger ideological or political context. In contrast, Satrapi's Persepolis provides a complex understanding of war's effect on personal freedoms and ideology, but is less adapt than al-Radi's work in describing the lives of the average citizen. Taken together, these two works provide a complex portrayal of how war has impacted the lives of the ordinary person, as well as how war has shredded the personal freedom and ideology of many others.
In her novel, Baghdad Diaries: A Woman's Chronicle of War and Exile, Nuha al-Radi reveals ten years of her life that begin with the 1991 Gulf War, continue through the Western embargo, and end with her years of exile in Lebanon and the United States. Essentially, Baghdad Diaries is an intimate portrait of the war's effects on al-Radi and her friends and neighbors.
In Baghdad Diaries, al-Radi writes of the many deprivations that she endures in Baghdad; some of these are shocking to Westerners who would never even consider the possibility of doing without certain basics in life. The list of things that Iraqis must do without that al-Radi recounts is long, and often include necessities like water, telephones, gasoline, and electricity. Writes al-Radi, "On the eve of the war I went to the Rashid Hotel to pick up a letter that Bob Simpson had brought from Charlie in Cyprus. He also sent me some seed packets of Italian vegetables, a tiny leak in the U.S. embargo. They will come in handy when we have water again" (p. 9). References to food rations are constant throughout the book, as al-Radi notes government trucks throwing bread into crowds, and Pakistani matches.
Baghdad Diaries reveals the different ways that different individuals cope with the events of the war. As the book begins, al-Radi notes that she is in profound denial over the war, writing "I couldn't believe that war had started (p. 10). Likely as a result of this denial, she refuses to take precautions against many of the potential dangers of the war. In contrast, many of al-Radi's neighbors are resigned to the inevitability of the war, and take extreme precautions. Writes al-Raid of one of her neighbors, "Shucha, being a fastidious and efficient person, had taped all her windows and doors against nuclear fallout, and organized the windowless room under the stairs as her shelter and stashed it with provisions" (p. 10).
Other individuals behave in seemingly erratic ways, as al-Radi writes of Munher Baid "riding around on his grandson's tricycle, scrunched up with his legs under his chin, pedaling round and round in his driveway. He said he was enjoying himself. He misses his grandchildren and is convinced that he will not see them again" (p. 12). Still others share al-Radi's denial of the events. She describes the two old aunts of Zaid, who "seem oblivious to the enormity of what's happening around them, concentrating only on the immediate things, so old and frail yet so alive and entertaining" (p. 12).
The personal consequences of the war as shown within Baghdad diaries range widely from the relatively innocuous, to the mundane, and finally to the horribly tragic. Within the first few pages of the novel, the reader learns that the narrator's mother and aunt's windows have been smashed by a bomb blast. More disturbingly, she learns that one of the puppies from a new litter has been killed by the flying glass; "our first war casualty," as al-Radi writes. As the book continues, friends and neighbors are displaced from their houses out of fear.
Perhaps the most disturbing and interesting insight into how everyday Iraqis cope with the war is al-Radi's revelations about how mundane and everyday the war soon becomes to the people of Baghdad. She writes, "only four days have passed since the start of the war and already any machinery and mod cons seem to be totally alien" (p. 12). Later, on day 6 of the war, she writes, "Got up for the regular 5 a.m. air raid" (p. 14).
As a London-educated Iraqi, al-Radi has understanding of Western sensibilities that allow her to aim her book at a Western audience. Further, as an Iraqi by birth, she is intimately aware of the Iraqi people and the toll that the 1991 Gulf war took on their lives. This combination allows al-Radi to easily create a work that tugs on the emotions and sensibilities of a Western audience, while apparently remaining true to her vision of how the war impacted Iraq. This is one of the book's greatest strengths: its ability to relate the lives of everyday Iraqis in a way that a Western audience could understand and relate to.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of al-Radi's book is its failure to put the Gulf war and the ensuing events in any larger political context. The author barely mentions the events that led up to the war, including Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and his brutal treatment of his own people.
However, this weakness is balanced by al-Radi's powerful characterization of the effects of war's effect on her Iraqi friends and family. The author's treatment of how the Iraqi's cope with the profound uncertainty, political repression, and deprivation of war is both believable and touching. She brings a human face to the effects of the Gulf War of 1991, and provides a window for the Western world to gain sympathy for the Iraqi people.
Marjane Satrapi's illustrated story, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood describes in intimate detail how ordinary Iranians deal with the uncertainty, political repression, deprivation, and war that have characterized their recent lives. In her book, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Iran from the time of the Islamic revolution of 1979. At the time, Satrapi was a child, and the book tells the story of her life growing up with the after effects of the war both within Iran, and her time spent in Europe after the age of 14.
Satrapi's description of her life in Tehran is rich and vivid. Her recollections largely focus on the ethical struggles faced by her family in the face of the revolution. Satrapi tells of her educated and liberal mother's struggle to teach her daughter equality in the face of a regime that often stifled female education and independence. Her family struggles terribly with the decision of whether to stay in Iran, or whether to try to start a new life in America. Ultimately, the family's love of their country drives them to stay in Iran. Further, they note that in America, they would lose almost everything that they had worked for, including their cultural identity and history.
In her book, Satrapi describes many deprivations that came out of the Islamic revolution. She describes an environment where Western symbols like Nike and Michael Jackson become powerful symbols of freedom. As a result of the Iran-Iraq war, Satrapi and her family endure many hardships, made only the more difficult by the loss of the once luxurious family lifestyle. In its place, the family and Satrapi suffer shortages of basic necessities, as well as the profound losses of life. Satrapi herself bonds with her likable Uncle Anoosh, who is ultimately imprisoned and murdered by the new regime. Growing up, her playmates are killed as a result of the war, and her family is in constant fear.
Perhaps the most revealing part of Satrapi's book is her continuing theme of the struggles of freedom and equality in an oppressive regime. Satrapi's parents raise her to be independent and educated, and yet they are terribly fearful for her safety in a regime that will not tolerate freedom or independence, especially among women. For her safety, her parents send her to Austria.
Throughout Persepolis, the author clearly implies that her family's former prestige and wealth likely shielded them from the worst effects of the war. When their Jewish neighbors are killed by an Iraqi missile, Satrapi's family has the influence and means to leave the country. Others were not so lucky, Satrapi implies.
Ultimately, Satrapi's story is less effective than al-Radi's Baghdad Diaries in telling the story of the ordinary individual who is impacted by war. The reader is constantly aware that Satrapi's story is told through the eyes of one of the few privileged members of Iranian society. While her book clearly depicts many of the struggles of war, it is more a story of the loss of privilege and station, and a struggle for equality than freedom than a narrative…