Alia Mamdouh’s Naphtalene

Alia Mamdouh’s novel Naphtalene is a coming-of-age story set in 1950s Iraq. Huda is a nine-year-old girl who runs through the streets with boys, jumping “over the gutters and the children.” She is “anarchy, insolence, and violence.” Her actions disrupt order on many levels, including those involving language and narrative structure. Sometimes Huda’s perspective comes to us in the first person – “My rage mounted and fell on me, making my head hurt, so I pinched my aunt’s hand” – and sometimes it comes to us in the more immediate second person: “When you saw yourself in the street, your fire was stoked….You greeted the cheese seller, Abu Mahmoud: ‘Hello, dear Abu Mahmoud,’ and stole a fresh cucumber and a date whose sweetness burned your mouth. You did not look up.” Through these second-person descriptions, Mamdouh allows us to experience Huda’s detailed perception of the Baghdad streets: “The alleys of your neighborhood were filthy, littered with onion and aubergine peels, okra tops and fragments of rotten bread, remnants of black tea.”

Huda is honest, and her integrity permeates this novel like the chemical in its title, naphthalene, which is used in both mothballs and explosives. Only a girl as fierce as Huda could form and preserve for her future such vivid, uncompromised memories. The facts of her life as she enters adolescence are hard; the women in her family face extreme difficulty every day. The opening chapters show Huda’s mother Iqbal suffering with tuberculosis but receiving no mercy from her husband, a prison officer. He berates her in his home. “The air in the room boiled with his shouts.” He is angry about Huda, “that daughter of yours,” and about how illness prevents Iqbal from bearing more children. “I want a real woman,” he shouts. “I’ve given you my best years and my heart’s blood, but all in vain. Go back to your own family. Go back to where you came from.”

Nowhere in the novel does the narration refer to Huda’s adult self; the “I’s” and “you’s” (and on rare occasions, the “she’s”) are thoroughly immersed in the world of Iraq in the 1950s, but the naphthalene in the title does lead the reader to speculate about Huda’s life in the present, about the adult she has become and is becoming as she unpacks these memories – but “unpacking” is too mild a word. When, in 1996, an English translation of the novel appeared in the UK, the book was entitled Mothballs; now, for its first publication in the U.S., it bears the title Naphtalene. I think the change, which connects Huda’s intense memories not only to mothballs but explosives, is appropriate. This book destroys the patronizing concepts of Iraqi women that widely circulate in this country.

It is the first novel by an Iraqi woman to be published in the U.S.

Originally posted on 8.18.2005