The Iraqi novelist, essayist and critic Ali Bader is well-known for his creative fiction and travel literature. His latest book, “The Stranger’s Newspaper: An Appointment in a Café,” takes readers on a wide-ranging tour of the East-West relationship.
Bader is one of Iraq’s 1990s generation. His first novel, “Papa Sartre”, was republished several times after its first edition in Beirut in 2001 and has been translated into several languages. It won the State Prize for Literature in Baghdad in 2002 and Tunisia’s Abu al-Qassim Al-Shabi Prize in 2003.
Bader has published more than a dozen other novels, including “The Family’s Winter” (2002), “The Tobacco Keeper” (2008), “Kings of the Sands” (2009), and “The Infidel Woman” (2015), as well as many essays and plays.
Bader has lived in Damascus, Beirut, Amman, Addis Ababa, New York, Berlin, and Amsterdam. Although he left Iraq more than 20 years ago most of his writing is set in Baghdad. He rejoices in Iraq’s cultural life and rejects totalitarian ideas.
Dialogue Between Cultures
“The Stranger’s Newspaper” («صحيفة الغرباء»), published in Arabic by Alka Publishing and Translation, in Paris, presents a series of diary-like entries on conversations the author has had with strangers in cafes around the world.
The conversations’ subjects are often dialogue between different cultures and reflect the author’s preoccupation with critical theories and those who represent them in the West and East.
The book also highlights Bader’s wide knowledge of the world’s intellectual movements and his participation in international literary conferences and festivals. Through such events Bader got to know other prominent writers like the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, who won the British Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997, and the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006.
“In recent years, the Arab world has witnessed waves of intellectual revisions that have ravaged the conspiracy theories previously espoused by some elites. It also began a wave of criticism that affected much of what was once sacred.”Ali Bader
The conversations in “The Stranger’s Newspaper,” like any cafe conversation, jump from one topic to another. Some readers may feel that because of this, the book lacks structure. The text might seem improvised, as Bader’s writing reflects a “poetic anxiety that reinforces in us the desire to travel, since we are haunted by life transformations and the desire to discover new worlds.”
Culture’s Active Role
The book explores the theories of many thinkers and historians in their quest to explain what is happening in the world, including the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, the German theorist and philosopher Walter Benjamin, the Palestinian thinker Edward Said, and the Indian philosopher Aijaz Ahmad.
What unites all these celebrated thinkers, Bader says, is their “belief in the active role of culture as a tool for dialogue”.
He writes: “Cultures do not live in silos at all, do not live in isolation or alone. They do not only refine people’s feelings and give them hope, they rather introduce cultures to each other, and strengthen the rapprochement among peoples and help establish peace.”
However, the author is not overly optimistic about the ease of cultural exchanges. He points out that the West’s openness to the literatures of other nations “is not easy, because there are those who wish to remain within self-sufficient literature, immune to all knowledge and influence.”
“In recent years, the Arab world has witnessed waves of intellectual revisions that have ravaged the conspiracy theories previously espoused by some elites,” he says. “Similarly, it began a wave of criticism that affected much of what was once sacred: power, religion, and Islamic history.
“No matter how powerful the monsters of Islamophobia are and the spread of racist tendencies in some regions is, the West is capable of destroying them.”Ali Bader
“Consequently, the desire of some to admit that we are not purely innocuous societies, has been reinforced. Therefore, we have to develop this willingness, and build critical thought for the existing intellectual frameworks.”
‘Monsters of Islamophobia’
He also argues that the West “will develop its ideas, and inevitably open up to new intellectual mechanisms, concepts and perspectives of the universe and history”.
“No matter how powerful the monsters of Islamophobia are and the spread of racist ideas in some regions is, the West is capable of destroying them, and constantly reviewing its faults and inventing theories that help understand and tame these monsters. Moreover, the patterns of Western modernity are in constant progress within Islamic societies, yet it is a tongueless modernity so far.”
Bader believes that the chaos Iraq experienced after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 will enable Iraqi fiction to rebuild the nation’s image and present a true picture of “a country mired in mud and smoke.”
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He also thinks his country has moved from a single tyranny, that of Saddam Hussein, to a multiple tyranny practiced by factions and groups. “However, literature will be the most important way to build a national identity to combat sectarian division and the fatal religious universality of national identity.”
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