Anne Frank's literary executors can rest easy: Those seeking an insider's view on despotic regimes will be unmoved by Nuha al-Radi's Baghdad Diaries, which chronicle the travails of an Oxford-educated, upper-class artist living under Saddam Hussein. This is not to say the book does not have its moments. Taking us from the eve of the Gulf War to the beginning of our current conflict, al-Radi's portrayal of the war, embargo, and her subsequent exile in Beirut is by turns lyric and heavy-handed, hackneyed and enlightening.
Al-Radi's work--portions of which have already been published by Saqi Books in London--begins with a demurral: "I am to write, and as usual I say, I am not a writer." Whether falsely modest or not, the warning is in order. Though accompanied by glowing blurbs from Edward Said and the Times Literary Supplement, al-Radi's strength is in the quotidian--not the bombings but the bucket of water she receives on her birthday. As she details the hardships of the Gulf War period--"There is no petrol, no electricity, no running water, and no telephone"--her crabby asides give a portrait of the artist, if not the nation. Her dog is "beset by female suitors, but his sexual attentions are centered on his favorite cushion." After a birthday party, she sees that "someone peed on the bathroom floor--I'm sure it was horrid Mazin who came uninvited." She can even be elegantly imagistic: "I just typed my coffee cup off the stool with the typewriter carriage--a slapstick image from a silent movie."
Less arresting are al-Radi's political insights, which gravitate between resentment and pique. "How many people have to die, and for what?" she rails. "Bush says he has nothing against the Iraqi people. Does he not know or realize that it is only the Iraqi people who have suffered? It's us, and only us, who've been without electricity and water--a life of hardship." Like many artists, her writing can be more passionate than sophisticated: "I can understand the Kuwaitis hating us but what did we do to you, George Bush, that you should hate us with such venom? One can hear it in your voice. Is it because we stood up to the U.S.A. and said no?" These self-aggrandizing rants occasionally border on the comic: "This new loo has been fixed at least five times and the handle has been changed twice, and yet it still leaks. Life is very hard."
During one night of bombing, al-Radi gives her home the ironic nickname "Hotel Paradiso." Considering what fellow Iraqis elsewhere suffered under Saddam, the name may not be ironic enough. The diaries cannot recover from the fact that al-Radi, ensconced with friends and relatives in "my Baghdad orchard with 66 palms and 161 orange trees," remains relatively untouched by the sufferings of the region. She relates the privation of war and the embargo--well-dressed men begging in the streets, women darning their nylon stockings, students writing on receipts for lack of paper--but her greatest trouble is finding a good dentist before she jets off to London or Mexico to exhibit her art. And while she discusses the talk of robberies, kidnappings, and rapes, her news is as secondhand as anything on the BBC. (In fact, al-Radi is interviewed by reporters from both the BBC and The Washington Post, granted introductions by powerful friends.)
But al-Radi's work is one of the first such books to emerge from the region. In our era of embedded journalists and the Web, it will soon be joined by more. Together, these works will make up the complex portrait of life under Saddam that al-Radi is unable to draw alone.