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the Complete Review
the complete review - non/fiction


Mohammed Khudayyir

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To purchase Basrayatha

Title: Basrayatha
Author: Mohammed Khudayyir
Genre: Non/fiction
Written: 1996 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 154 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Basrayatha - US
Basrayatha - UK
Basrayatha - Canada
  • Portrait of a City
  • Translated by William M. Hutchins

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Our Assessment:

B : appealing appreciations of a city

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Basrayatha is an homage to the author's hometown of Basra (Iraq). The cover of the AUC Press edition calls it both a Portrait of a City as well as -- in a bit more of a stretch -- 'A Modern Arabic Novel'. It is a mix of fact and fiction -- though the fiction part of it is less invention than what one might consider flights of the imagination (coupled with, or reinforced by, flights of language).
       "Before Basra there was Basrayatha", Khudayyir writes, the concept of 'Basrayatha' both a foundation and an additional dimension to the physical city. Basrayatha is a personal book, based on the author's experience and including reminiscences from childhood and accounts of later experiences, but he also tries to capture what the city has meant over time to others and in the abstract.
       Some of the book is essayistic, as Khudayyir considers how to approach capturing a city in words, and about what the city-concept -- generally, as well as in this specific case -- can mean. So, also, for example:

     Basrayatha certainly would not have been born had I not generated its plans in this book. The book's essence appeared from nonexistence to grant a name to a newborn fully aware of its own birth, since its birth was repeated over and over again. As rough as a rock, as delicate as a freshly ripe date, as briny as well water, as sweet as spring water, it settled before an author to complete his creation, which the hands of previous creators had repeatedly molded from unnamed, ancient, original elements. The book and the author were not one, two, or ten. They did not cease to exist and thus resembled the unripe date traveling in the womb of Basrayatha -- that sacred, fertile, vaginal opening. So the book gave birth to itself, from itself.
       Elsewhere, there is more straightforward narrative or description, from train-travel to collectors of stories to a 'war-diary'. The use of language ranges from the sweeping-poetic (some of which -- see quote above -- can have an over-the-top feel to it) to the plain and direct. Translation is obviously an issue -- one senses that the more 'poetic' passages likely work better in the original -- but the variety, both in language and the material that is being presented, offer enough to hold the reader's attention (i.e. it doesn't all read like the cited passage).
       Khudayyir presents many Basra-variations, from exploring the city in childhood and youth, to specific locales (the changing Umm al-Brum square, for example, the defining Shatt al-Arab), to mobility -- walking, bicycling, travelling by train -- , and he also occasionally moves beyond it, as in describing his time as a village school teacher. The book is almost collage-like both in its structure and the impression it gives, as Khudayyir brings in all the different pieces.
       Though evocative, Basrayatha is not a guide-book-like look at the city. Indeed, the focus is more on the timeless and ethereal qualities, rather than the physical reality of Basra. One gets a good impression of the feel of the city -- Khudayyir is particularly good at conveying the changing aspects --, but hardly much sense of the sights, for example. There are some (more) specifics -- "Basra is a city of many rivers" begins one riff -- but the pleasure of the book is in the more elusive qualities of ... 'Basrayatha'.
       First published in Arabic in 1996, Basrayatha does deal with some of what Basra has been through, both under the British and then in the long Iraq-Iran conflict (and the final section of the book is an impressionistic war diary of those years), but with the English translation coming only in 2007 one wonders what Khudayyir would add to his idea of 'Basrayatha' after both the release of Iraq from the clutches of Saddam Hussein and then the continuing Anglo-American occupation of the country.

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Basrayatha: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mohammed Khudayyir is a well-known Iraqi author.

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© 2007-2021 the complete review

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