Samir Naqqash's Tenants & Cobwebs spins its claustrophobic, multivocal narrative around the lives of Jewish and Muslim characters who live cheek-to-jowl in mid-20th century Baghdad.
The novel’s action unfolds in the shadow of the June 1941 “Farhud,” a pogrom carried out against Baghdad’s Jewish citizenry. Throughout the 1940s, the book’s many Jews are squeezed tighter and tighter until they press up against the choice, in 1950, of whether to stay in an increasingly intolerant Baghdad or tear apart families and communities as they give up their citizenship and move to Israel.
This novel – Naqqash’s first – was published in Arabic in 1986, and draws on the author’s own life experiences. His family fled Iraq in 1951 when he was just 13. Unlike most other writers who left Baghdad’s once-thriving Jewish community for Israel, Naqqash continued to write in Arabic until his death in 2004.
The book’s titular “tenants” live in a handful of buildings in the working-class district of Bani S’id. Its “cobwebs” might be the sticky traps that bind them ever-tighter in the years following the Farhud. Or they might be the cobwebs left behind in 1951, when the buildings are emptied of their long-time Jewish residents.
The book’s translator, Sadok Masliyah, has a “Short History of Iraqi Jewry” at the end of the book, which emphasises the deep roots of the country’s Jews.
Ya’qub, a character who begins the novel as a respectable shoemaker and loses everything to gambling, reflects on this history while losing at Dominoes. “This land is made of us … We lived in it before you were born. When you were sperm, we had already completed compiling our Talmud, before you. Before the beginning of history, my first patriarch was born here, the second married a native, and the third lived in it.”
The novel portrays a diverse, struggling Baghdad besieged by the imperialism and Nazism of the 1940s.
“Incitement was as sharp as the teeth of a saw, and the minds of Baghdad’s residents were tender. Baghdad had an army of starving mobs. Starve your dogs and they will follow you. The British starved the Iraqis, so did the allies of the Nazis who shouted, ‘Attack the Jews!’”
Naqqash’s experimental narrative slips from one character to another, moving between thought and speech, reality and nightmare. The effect is overcrowded and overheated, much like the densely packed buildings where the characters reside.
The largest single attack on Baghdad’s Jews was the June 1941 Farhud, when an estimated 179 people were murdered, with hundreds more robbed or injured.
There was no second mass attack. Yet the characters in Tenants & Cobwebs are in constant fear of one, asking themselves and each other, what will we do if Farhud happens again?
When the book opens, many of the characters are already stuck. Aziz Ghawi is in his 20s and still a senior in high school. Sabriyah, the building’s beauty, is married to a train conductor who visits home once a week. Others are stuck inside their nightmare-memories of the Farhud.
Naturally, some Baghdadi Muslims protected their neighbours during the attack. Masliyah writes in his afterword, “Many Jews were saved by Muslim neighbours who risked their own lives to protect them, some of whom were also killed.”
In Tenants & Cobwebs, a character named Selman remembers his rescue by an acquaintance who says, "don't be afraid! I'll escort you step-by-step and not leave you until I bring you home, even if it costs me my head."
Yet while Selman makes it home, he never discovers how his parents died during the days of looting and killing.
Selman (a reluctant Zionist) shares a room with Jamil (a sceptical Jewish Communist). At the start Selman is fixated on his unrequited love for the building’s lonely beauty, Sabriyah. Bit by bit, Selman is drawn into the Zionist resistance. Yet his resistance is hapless: the first time he fires a gun, he accidentally hits a child and is smuggled out of the country, away from his love.
As the book progresses, love crumbles everywhere: romantic, familial, and neighbourly. Romantic love is exchanged for prostitution; families break apart; and love of one’s neighbour is replaced by suspicion.
When Ya’qub reflects on the religious commandment to love one’s neighbour, he wonders: “Has man really declared the bankruptcy of a love so deeply rooted?”
One of the most heartbreaking scenes comes in 1950, when tenants Farhah and Abdallah Ghawi decide to flee the country with their children. One daughter, Sai’dah, has married a Muslim. When Farhah comes to beg Sai’dah to travel with them, the young woman is pregnant, a “baby sleeping inside her tingling belly.”
When Farhah says, “If you truly loved us, you would give him his son and leave with us,” her daughter declines, tearfully, in the Baghdadi Muslim dialect.
It is difficult to sense, in the English, the traces of Baghdadi Muslim and Jewish dialects. The novel would have needed a virtuoso translator to find a way to echo the shifting registers compellingly in English.
Yet while this aspect is flattened, other choices unnecessarily complicate the text, as when a Bar Mitzvah is written as Bar Miswah.
In her foreword, Nancy Berg writes that Tenants & Cobwebs "is not an easy read" and, indeed, the translation can sometimes be a slog. But Berg is also right that Naqqash's singular novel rewards attention.