Ron's Reviews > Outcast

Outcast by Shimon Ballas
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Apr 30, 2012

it was amazing

This fictional memoir by Israeli writer Shimon Ballas interweaves a broad cast of characters with 70 years of Iraqi political history. Meanwhile it's also a very personal story that centers around three boyhood friends from a village near Karbala - two of them Arab Jews and a third Muslim. While their lives diverge over the decades following WWI, they remain bonded by their love of homeland and their deep desire to devote their lives to what each considers to be its brightest hopes for the future and independence from western colonialism - the control of the British in particular.

Advocating a secular government built on the ideals of an inclusive social order that grants advantages to no one, regardless of ethnic identity, the narrator Soussan finds himself at odds with the aims of Zionism and its aggressive separatism. Believing Islam to be more receptive to his political beliefs, he converts to Islam, alienating himself from his family, the Jewish community, and his old friend, the Jewish poet Assad. When anti-semitism grows in Iraq in the 1940s, Assad joins the 100,000s who leave the country for the new state of Israel. Their other friend, Kassem, becomes an ardent communist, whose life is spent in and out of prisons, finally fleeing into exile in Eastern Europe.

Educated in the U.S. and briefly married to an American, the narrator chooses to return to Iraq, leaving behind wife and son. They do not follow him as he hopes, and after years of a solitary life, working as a civil engineer in Baghdad, he marries again and fathers a daughter, while never ceasing to love his ex-wife. The commitment of his life to his homeland, even to the extent of adopting its religion, leaves him something of an exile in his own country, and there is a degree of melancholy as he remembers a life given to his country at the expense of love and lost friends. Yet Ballas leaves him with an assurance of his own integrity, and not a trace of bitterness or regret. Readers, however, may take less solace in the ending, as it closes just short of Saddam Hussein's war with Iran.

There's a lot of history compressed into this short novel, and the telling of it flows freely back and forth over decades of time. The personal and the political are also intimately interwoven, one always having an impact on the other. References to historical events may send readers to the Internet for background, but the occasional difficulties are well worth the effort to unravel. As the story of Arab Jews is not widely known or understood in the West, it's important to hear their voice. Beautifully translated.
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