Ilene Prusher's Baghdad novel shows Iraq War from another perspective
In April, it will be 10 years since a United States-led coalition took control of Baghdad, prompting the fall of Saddam Hussein. At the time, the American journalist Ilene Prusher was based in Iraq, in this "intense, dangerous but somehow exciting place", as she calls it now. "I guess I need to clarify that," she smiles. "The Shi'ites and Kurds were more pleased to be getting rid of Saddam Hussein than the Sunnis, obviously, but still. There was a real sense of hope amid the worry and uncertainty about the future."
In those strange days post-Saddam, Prusher talked to mothers scouring mass graves for signs of their sons and families still loyal to the dictator. It would have been impossible without her "fixers", Iraqi nationals who acted as translators, interpreters, personal assistants and cultural bridges. And as Prusher reflected on her time in Iraq, she realised how important they had been - and that such a go-between could be the protagonist in a novel that got to the heart of what it was like to live in Iraq.
The result, nearly 10 years on, is her compelling debut, Baghdad Fixer.
"Fixers are fascinating because they basically make or break the story for a journalist," she says. "So I was really interested in developing the relationship between a fictional fixer, Nabil Al Amari, and an American journalist, Samara Katchens, who is searching for the truth about some faked documents in Iraq. He loves language and wants to try to understand the world though American eyes, but her attitudes sometimes infuriate him."
Naturally, Samara's desire for the truth means she endangers everyone around her. But Baghdad Fixer stands apart from this year's other equally interesting Iraq War novels because Prusher didn't write the book through a western gaze. An American Jewish woman writing in the guise of an Arab man might sound like an accident waiting to happen, but Prusher's experiences in Iraq mean Nabil's narration is wholly convincing.
"There were times where I thought I was insane," she laughs. "But because I was a journalist, I wanted to get into someone else's shoes for the good of the creative process. Nabil is sensitive. He's literary, he's graceful. And I wanted people reading this in the West to meet someone like him because there are so many stereotypes about Iraqis, Muslims, Arabs. People like Nabil do exist - my fixer in Afghanistan, for example, spoke seven different languages and had published two books of poetry."
And if Prusher's drawing of Nabil is pitch perfect, so is her setting. The quote on the front of the book - "a fast-paced, evocative thriller" - suggests a Robert Ludlum-esque tale of action and intrigue. Baghdad Fixer does have some of those elements but, on the whole, Prusher's Iraq is not exaggerated for the sake of easy storytelling.
"A family member read an early draft and told me that my Baghdad should have bodies everywhere," she smiles. "But that wasn't the book I was interested in writing and actually not the experience I had. Maybe I just got lucky but, in reality, people were getting on with their lives. When a bomb hit, the journalists were running towards it and everyone else with half a brain was going in the opposite direction. And Nabil is one of those people."
Given that he's thirsty for peace, however, it seems odd that someone such as Nabil would even entertain being a fixer in the first place. The dangers incumbent with the role, which the book is not shy of detailing, are legion.
"Well, it's true that the money American news organisations would pay them was a lot more than would otherwise be available. But cash wasn't the only motivation, in my experience. It was also about curiosity, wanting to be in the centre of things. Even small things like working with a western journalist really interested them post-Saddam."
Not that western journalists come out of this book particularly well. Prusher hopes that Baghdad Fixer will not only make people look at the motives behind stories in newspapers a little more critically but also understand more clearly the nuances of social, cultural and political life in Iraq and the Middle East.
"When I was in Iraq, I felt as an American citizen it was important to record what my government was doing in my name. Of course, I couldn't hide the desire for personal glory, too. But in the process of writing this novel, it became clear that Iraq is an amazing country with incredible resources - both natural and human. And the message is that it contains peace-loving people like Nabil. I hope that they get the country they deserve in the long run."
Review by Ben East
© The National 2012