Reviews: the Wolf of Baghdad

The Wolf of Baghdad,
Carol Isaacs (aka The Surreal McCoy),
Myriad Editions

The Wolf of Baghdad opens a world away, with an aerial shot of London, our opening perspective a view over the Thames with many globally famous landmarks visible, from the old like Tower Bridge to the new, like the towering Shard. Over this splash page musical notes float languorously in little bubbles of their own. We follow this warm stream of music floating through the London air, across the cityscape, from the dome of Saint Paul’s to regular, the open space of parkland, then urban residential streets, until we find the source, in a woman’s living room. She is sitting alone, listening to the music coming forth from her stereo, lost in thoughts and reveries, the music sparking images of other times, other places, other people, now long gone, vanished into history.

Or no, not vanished. They live now in her memories, in the stories passed down through her family and their friends, in the music of those days, and in the box of photographs she is reaching for on top of her bookcase. She falls asleep on the sofa, photos strewn over her body. She wakes with a start, there is someone sitting in the armchair next to her. An old lady knitting. Except she’s not really there, she’s a projection, a ghost, summoned from her memories roused by the songs and the family photographs. Isaacs beautifully captures in a couple of small, brief panels, the emotion on her face, from shock at finding someone else in her home to the sheer delight at recognising a beloved family member to the disappointment that no, she isn’t really there, this is a dream, an echo.

I think many of us who have endured loss will feel the emotions of that seemingly simple scene deeply – how many of us have dreamed we’re walking with a long-gone loved one, woken smiling only to remember they’re gone and it was just a dream, that this is the only place they now live for us. Isaacs weaves this irresistible mixture of longing, of the happy warmth of memories, and the disappointment of the reality, the contrasting emotions contrasting and yet also in that peculiar way life manages, complimentary to each other.

Isaacs rises from her chair, leaving her spectral visitor behind, donning her grandmother’s old cape she would always wear outside the home, stepping through her front door, but not into her own apartment block, but the old family home in early 1900s Baghdad. She walks through the kitchen, the heart of any household, and ghostly, translucent images of the people who lived there – her people, her family – move around her, oblivious. It seemed to me that they were not the ghosts, but actually Isaacs herself was now the invisible phantom, a ghost from the future walking unseen through her own family past.

These scenes are lovely, warm, inviting – the family house, like many in the Middle East, built around an open courtyard so the family could sit outdoors in the heat but still be within the home. She passes her Rabbi grandfather’s study – a sudden splash of inviting, warm yellow colour spills out of the mostly blue palette of these pages, the lamp-light he is contentedly reading by, and on to the roof, which like many buildings in the region is flat, so that on hot nights the entire family, from baby in the crib to grandmother could sleep outside, under the starlight. This also affords Isaacs the perfect excuse to delight the reader with the glories of sunrise over the domes and minarets of early 1900s Baghdad, seen from the roof of the family house.

The view of the waking city entices Isaacs to venture outside into the bustling city streets, where Muslims and Jews and Christians all mingle. There are beautiful little details – a street urchin sneaking food from a street stall, a small child tugging on his mother’s hand when he sees a vendor selling sweet treats, the old men playing their games in the cafe, the bustle and life of the soukh,. The many other little details that bring it to life and make it so wonderfully personal and intimate – the children learning to swim in the Tigris (imagine your swimming pool being this great world river that has flowed past thousands of years of human civilisations growing around its banks), or being carried over the regularly overflowing small alleyways to get to school.

Despite Jewish people having lived in Baghdad since they were first captured and taken to ancient Babylon – a history of over two and a half millennia – sadly this will not last, and the latter part of the book sees our spectral narrator walking through the shadows of growing threats, shadows which soon grow into full-formed nightmares of hatred, killing, pogroms, as a rising Arab nationalism is fuelled in the 1930s and 40s by imported anti-Semitic rhetoric from distant Nazi Germany. It’s heartbreaking and sadly a story which has, in one form or another, happened far too often throughout human history.

We see the burnings and the beatings and the disappearances into dark jails. Again Isaacs conjures panels that pull forth the emotion of those moments, such as a scene showing her walking through the ransacked mess of what had been the family home, picking up a shattered photo frame, the people now all just silhouettes, or finding a torn Torah in the Synagogue.

From being almost a third of the population, through the 1940s and 50s and on most Jews were forced to flee forever, that history that had lasted millennia gone – today there are, perhaps, around half a dozen left in that ancient city.

Isaacs includes a lovely Afterword, which originally appeared in the Strumpet (which I am sure some of you will remember fondly), detailing some of her own memories this time, of family life when she was a wee girl, the family now settled in Britain. The regular suburbia is broken each month when visitors come from the old country to visit, bringing gifts and stories, her house-proud mother budding the family silver to a shine and creating a mountain of delicious food, the family friends so well-known they children would always refer to them as aunt or uncle – all small details which most of us probably also share from our childhood. And the hints of the past these visitors brought with them to suburban Britain, of the home now lost to them which they can never return to, but which haunts their dreams.

And the eponymous wolf of the title? An old Jewish tradition in Baghdad was that the wolf would protect the household, watch over the family, that any malicious Djinn would be too scared of the powerful wolf to dare to enter the house or harm those within. A wolf’s tooth would often be set in a small jewel to hang over the baby’s crib as a protection. Sadly, as Bardach observed many years ago, “man is wolf to man”, and despite appearances the man-wolf has a far more terrible bite than any canis lupus, even a mythical one unable to protect the family from the storm that befell the Jews of Baghdad. (or, perhaps the wolf did watch over them, seeing them to their new home, perhaps his glowing eyes still look after them as best he can in a strange land).

This is a remarkable book and, despite the horrors of the later section, ultimately it is a beautifully-crafted, warmly emotional work. While it sheds light on a period and events most of us, even those of us who read a lot of history, will not be familiar with (always good to learn), mostly, I felt, this was ultimately a very personal, very intimate story, and the warmth of memories, of family, of love and hearth and home outweigh even the darker moments, with Isaacs’s artwork deftly expressing and conveying much emotional richness.

Reviews: Medusa

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:

Medusa
Chris Kent
Graphite Fiction

medusa cover chris kent

I wondered, what if a modern day soldier saw a face so horrific, it could turn him to stone?” Chris Kent in his Director’s Commentary.

I’ve been anticipating reading Chris Kent’s fascinating-looking Medusa since it first was listed for pre-orders in Previews a few months ago, and his recent guest Director’s Commentary here on the blog increased my desire to read this unusual work, so I was delighted when Chris dropped by to say hi when he was in town and also drop off a copy of the book. Ostensibly it is the story of a British soldier, Corporal Elliot Ford, fighting in Iraq when he gets news from home that his daughter has gone missing, and he is sent home on compassionate grounds. But home and the battleground may be separate geographically, but such distancing between the two is not so simple in the scarred mind of the veteran soldier…

This is not just a tale of the mental wounds so many of our armed forces personnel carry home with them, important though that issue is (especially given a recent news report just the other week about how veterans are more likely to find themselves doing something violent because of their experiences and training, without meaning to, yet another festering wound for too many), as Chris takes elements of Elliot’s combat experiences and his family life back home, then mixes them with his deepest fears and mythology. Who is the young woman he saw in Iraq watching his squad just before an explosion? Was she a suicide bomber? An innocent bystander caught up in an eruption of violence in what had once been her own neighbourhood? Why does her face haunt him? Why does he keep thinking of her, seeing her face? And when he gets the news of his daughter’s disappearance back home why is it he feels some subconscious link between both women? Is there a link? How could there be?

medusa 01 chris kent

Medusa is suffused with this dark, confused, tormented view of events and Chris wisely opts not to give the reader the ‘god’ position, where we can look upon the narrative and know more than the characters, instead we see this mixed up world through the filter of Elliot’s increasingly frantic, desperate attempts to make sense of things, struggling to comprehend what he is experiencing, to understand what is real and what must only – surely? – be in his mind, constantly driven to find his girl, to make sure she is safe.

There’s a real feel of drowning slowly in dark, cold waters here – Chris mixes his own art with an almost collage-like collection of images from newspapers, reworked to fit the tale; rather than the traditional sequence of panels and speech bubbles of most comics this is a series of overlapping images, some dark splashes through which figures or scenes can be barely glimpsed, others like snapshots from a soldier’s diary of life at the front, some flow, others suddenly break up violently into jagged, fractured scenes, emulating both the sudden eruption of adrenalin and violence and danger that comes with a routine patrol suddenly flaring into instant combat action and also the stressed and strained mind of the combat veteran, trying to keep it together for the sake of his unit and his mates relying on each other, then trying to keep it together because he has to be strong, he has to strive for his girl, while all around him he can feel the demons waiting to sink their teeth into him and drag him into dark chaos.

medusa 02 chris kent

The art approach may put some off, but I found it highly appropriate to the story, a mix of the almost documentary then the broken, fractured scenes, the almost photographic collage collapsing into painted darkness; it gives a flavour of the anguished state of Elliot’s mind, not just his frantic search for his missing daughter (handled so well, anyone who’s had a family emergency will empathise with that lurching, dropping feeling, the panic, the attempt to try to make sense of it, to be ‘strong’ for others and deal with it while wanting to collapse within) but also how the constant strain of patrols and combat and seeing comrades injured or killed, civilians harmed, starts to break down the defences of the mind, causing emotional damage as surely as bullets and bombs do physical wounds. The swirling darkness and struggle to comprehend events that refuse to fall into a regular three-act chronological narrative (even his sense of time starts to break down – how long has he searched? A week, a month? Or has he only been home for a couple of days?), and Elliot’s perspective is ours, so we share that disorientation.

medusa 04 chris kent

And the Medusa herself? Is that haunting image of the young woman really just a young woman or is she an aspect of an ancient myth, the achingly beautiful rendered monstrous? It’s hard to tell until very late on just how much is in Elliot’s deeply wounded mind and how much is real, and that is how it should be (and I won’t spoil it by going into more on that intriguing aspect of the tale). This is a journey through the Heart of Darkness, and like the voyage up-river to the lair of Colonel Kurtz there is that deepening fear in the soldier that the darkness is infecting him too, and through him perhaps his own flesh and blood, his family, that his actions will lead to karmic payback for what he has had to do, a spiritual, emotional stain that could go beyond his own self and actions to others he cares for.

Elements of Apocalypse Now are in there, also perhaps a nod to the fascinating Tim Robbins movie Jacob’s Ladder. But where this journey through darkness will take Elliot, that’s the real question? Is this a journey of a wounded soul to redemption or a spiral into chaotic despair? A highly unusual, deeply disturbing, dark tale, the mythological elements are timeless and echo the fact that for all the hi-tech equipment of the modern soldier, warfare itself is also, sadly, timeless, and equipment is but a tool, at the end of the day, regardless of century it is the humble squaddie who is at the heart of it, and what it does to the soldier.

Democracy in action

Hurrah! The people of Iraq are now officially free! No more occupation!!!! Well, except for 160,000 foreign troops and who knows how many foreign fundamentalist fighters. And behold, you who scoffed at Saint Tony and his cowboy pal, Sheriff George – now the cute little people of Iraq have a democratically elected government which truly represents them. Just like in America, where they have a government which was properly elected by the people and fore the people… Oh, hang on a minute… Oh, yes… Er… Hmmmm.

Casting suspicions

So did George Galloway take money from Saddam? Well, I am not Galloway’s principal fan. Much as I applaud his anti-war stance I have always found his highly-publicised (too highly methinks) ‘missions’ to Libya and Iraq somewhat uncomfortable. His televised appearances with Saddam and Gaddafi really make him look far too chummy with them for his own good. And the public toast to Saddam he made on TV was just ridiculous (although my chum Graham suggested it may have been a clever play on the Arab tradition of cheering your host, handled ironically).

However, this said I cannot help but find the timing and the manner of this supposed revelation to be highly suspect. Blair’s senior Labour party officials are planning on how to deal with Galloway for not toeing the party line during the war (bad enough not to stick to the party script, but he contradicted Tony of Arabia, the ultimate heresy). And this paper just happened to be found by someone in a bombed out building in Iraq and just happened to end up at the offices of the Daily Telegraph, who just happened to run it as a major story with no verification? An awful lot of coincidences of timing and exposure. Odd, is it not, that more papers from this mysterious bombed out building have not appeared to detail the arms deals Britain and the US (and France and Russia) concluded with the regime? Or perhaps papers detailing where all those weapons of mass destruction went to have not appeared?

Don’t trust everything you read. That includes here as well, obviously, although I try to give you as much as truth as the penguins (the true secret masters of the world) will allow me to share.

The Rockford Files in Iraq

I was somewhat taken aback when I saw Jay Garner arriving to the new dictator – Sorry, new interim leader of Iraq. That is, of course, nothing like being a colonial overlord governor-general (although he is indeed a general), because America does not and never has believed in colonialism (except for the Philippines, Cuba, Hawaii and countless spots of military of commercial significance around the world, many borrowed from the former British Empire). This is certainly a good way for us to show the Iraqi people who we fought a war to liberate them and give them our wonderful gifts of liberal democracy for the people, by the people and of the people. Just not those people.

Up until now, however, I thought this might be okay – that this J. Garner might be good in the short term. Then I realised today I had misheard Jay Garner for J. Garner. I thought we were talking about the esteemed actor James Garner. I thought the man who shone in The Great Escape, the man who was Maverick would be able to sort things out. Jim Rockford would know what to do and would always sort out the bad guys. Then I discovered that it wasn’t James Garner at all and some bloody retired general. That is a particularly sensitive move – pick not a diplomat or a UN representative but a US general.

Great. Couldnt we at least have some advisory council to work with him composed of actual Iraqi people from a cross-section of their society? Then we may at least have a fig-leaf of pretence that we are not imposing rule at the force of a gun on that shattered country. That sort of thing is not only immoral and illegal (much like the war itself) but makes an utter mockery of the supposed (and rather belatedly voiced) reason for the damned war.

With malice toward none, with charity for all

Stuffed up with a cold I’ve been browsing through books most of the day, when I found a quotation that seemed extremely appropriate to the current situation in a devastated Iraq. The eloquent words of one of the great leaders of democracy and equality, speaking in the end days of a dreadful war, he looks beyond the battlefield slaughter to building a lasting peace, rebuilding the land and taking care of the injured, the orphaned and those freed of oppression.

With malice toward none, with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Abraham Lincoln, 2nd presidential speech of inauguration, March 3rd, 1865.

Victory?

So it’s all over – the newspapers and other media are all proclaiming victory in Iraq. A little presumptuous considering that there are still firefights going on and no-one knows where Saddam is. Hopefully the allies won’t end up with another Afghanistan on their hands where they can’t find the top folk of the regime after the dust settles.

And what a stunning victory it is as our brave boys valiantly overthrow the evil regime to ‘liberate’ the poor wee folk in Iraq. That would sit a little more easily with me if it wasn’t for the fact that our leaders kept changing the reasons why they were so bloody determined to have this seedy little war so many times over the last few months. You’ll note that the noble aim of liberating an oppressed people – which they clearly were – was a justification only added in the very last weeks before the bombs started. Nobility may be something the men and women of our armed forces can display but not I fear our political masters. When applying the term to them I advise prefacing the word ‘nobility’ with the letter ‘k’.

Iraq

I made the mistake of reading a discarded Metro on the bus this morning. I’m sure many of you saw it, an image designed to go right pass all our cynical armour and go straight for the jugular of the emotions, the picture of the wee Iraqi lad who lost both arms in a raid. Lost both his arms, his mum, his dad, his sisters and brothers, his home… This is obviously some strange usage of the world ‘liberation’ that I haven’t come across before. Still, he is alive, so I guess that’s what our enlightened leaders would call a surgical strike. Was this a calculated bit of media to get a reaction from us, running this pic and story? Yes. Did it work. Yes. I think I preferred it when they were shooting themselves. Speaking of which, isn’t it against the Geneva Convention to bomb John Simpson? I’m sure there is a special article relating to John Simpson in war zones.