Iqbal Al-Qazwini, author of Zubaida’s Window, writes a story that reflects a life of her own. She now lives in East Berlin and is an Iraqi Exile herself, which brings a heightened creditability to the first novel that she has written. As an active member of the Iraqi Women’s League, the largest Arabic Women’s Rights Organization, she was sent to East Berlin as a representative and found herself unable to return to her homeland when Saddam Hussein became President in 1979. She is acclaimed on her writing that mostly revolves around women and gender issues, human rights, child labor and intercultural exchanges. In 1993, Al-Qazwini was elected to the International PEN World Association of Writers, followed by the publishing of her first novel, Zubaida’s Window.
Al-Qazwini’s novel is a dramatic account of a young woman, Zubaida, who has fled her country and is currently residing in East Berlin where she finds it nearly impossible to discover anything comparable to her own land. Every smell, every sight, every noise seems to separate German culture from her own. Her decision to flee her country was based not only on the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but on the war that she claims began “tens of years ago”. Zubaida claims that the downfall of Iraq began when King Faisal II was assassinated back in the days of the Monarchy. It was in the year of 1958 that Iraq overthrew the Monarchy and converted to a Republic. Zubaida reflects on “the good old days” and often times, on her feeling of belonging to a united family that she left at home in Al-Adhamiya, the area of Baghdad where she grew up. She now struggles to communicate with her family and has become obsessive over the location of her brother, an Iraqi soldier. Through madness and rage, we see images of the first Ba’thi Coup in 1963, which deposed of Republican President Adbel Qassem, the second Ba’thi Coup, named the “White Revolution,” which started 35 years of oppressive Ba’thi rule, and most central, the war between Iraq and Iran, from 1980-1988. Throughout the novel, Zubaida, the main character, fights her history, physically, mentally and emotionally, to figure out why it has come to what it is; destructed and chaotic.
The imagery found in this novel is quite remarkable. As Zubaida, the main character, is continuously haunted on a daily basis, through daydreams, flashbacks and asides, she always snaps back to reality with the intoxication she receives from the images through the screen of her television set.
The country is burning in front of her now, and she doesn’t know the extent of the invisible flames. The screen exposes a limited blaze, but she knows that the fire outside the frame of the screen is greater. These are flames beyond Baghdad, extending to her room, kitchen, balcony, and moving on to the world.
Along with the intensified, singled out imagery, the explosiveness of the past and present recollections that Zubaida experiences, closely connects to the explosiveness and tragedy of every event that has led Iraq to its current situation. A downfall of this novel is that it is too descriptive with the mellow dramatic accounts of Zubaida’s present conditions. The stereotypical female is one who over dramatizes her feelings and is over emotional, which further limits her strength because reality is too hard for her to handle. Without a doubt, this novel demands expression and feeling, just not so overbearing.
It’s no surprise that Zubaida’s Window is part of the Feminist Press’s prestigious series of “Women Writing in the Middle East.” Joining Al-Qazwini on this list are some heavy hitters, including Assia Djebar, Huda Shaarawi, Alia Mamdouh and Shahrnush Parsipur. Zubaida’s Window is a notable addition to this series, a series that is one of the best sources for information about Middle Eastern women novelists avialable to English readers.