Book review: Naïm Kattan’s novel Farida “timely, significant”

Farida by Naïm Kattan, translated by Norman Cornett and Antonio D’Alfonso, Guernica Editions, 252 pp, $20.

The publisher’s blurb to accompany this new English translation of the novel by Iraqi-born Canadian Naïm Kattan says Farida is a classic love story set in World War II Iraq.

Farida, a Jewish cabaret singer, “struggles for survival and her freedom in a world on the edge of upheaval and the dark shadow of war.” She sings in Arabic, and the novel depicts life at the time from a woman’s perspective.

But Prof. Norman Cornett, a religious studies scholar who taught for over a decade at McGill University, says he offered to translate the book into English because of its timeliness and significance in the wake of cataclysmic events in the Middle East.

“Kattan wrote this on the eve of the first Gulf War. He is a Jew, born in Baghdad, who stayed there and only left after the Second World War to study at The Sorbonne in Paris.”

In the novel, readers can see western imperial forces vying for control of Iraq, he notes. “At very key moments, Kattan will refer to Palestine and the dream and hope of establishing the State of Israel. You’re seeing this not from the West, but from the East, and what the hope of Israel means to Jews living ‘East of Eden.’ ”

The book includes reflections of how emerging Arab nationalists at the time viewed Jewish nationalism.

Cornett was drawn to the novel because he believes the prolific Kattan, who writes in French, deserves broader recognition.

“He is one of the foremost writers in the francophone world, with 52 books to his credit, and only four that had been translated in English before Farida.”

Kattan’s output “amounts to one of the most important literary corpora the history of Canadian literature,” yet because of the continuing ‘Two Solitudes’ few English readers are aware of Kattan’s work.

To Cornett, Farida resembles Steinbeck’s East of Eden because it reflects the profound historical, literary and cultural roots of Jewish civilization east of ancient Israel and in today’s Iraq and Iran.

“The Jewish heritage is as much from Israel East as from the area west of the Jordan River. The Book of Daniel was written from the perspective of someone under the Persian Empire.”

At the end of Farida, when the protagonist contemplates leaving Iraq, the choice is East or West, and the decision is to move east to Iran. In fact, when the State of Israel was born most flew to the Promised Land, but a certain number moved their families and established businesses in Teheran, which had a flourishing Jewish community.

“Naïm Kattan in this novel demonstrates that Judaism is a world religion that has as much its place east of Israel as it does west of Israel. The Jews’ home is as much in Iraq as in Iran,” Cornett observes.

“Kattan is the voice of Israel ‘East of Eden’. His mother tongue is Arabic. He is on the inside looking out, the voice of Judaism lost.”

The novel is a reminder of how the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East has shifted radically, with the Jewish presence of several thousand years, all but eliminated in Iraq and in Iran now down to about 10,000 now from 100,000 in 1948.

Cornett will read from the novel on September 24, 7:30 pm, alongside poets Ian Ferrier, Jessica Magonet, Mark Abley, Ilona Martonfi, and Jeffrey Mackie at The Yellow Door, 3625 Aylmer. Info: 514-939-4173.

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