Abbas Khider — The Oranges of the President (2010) & Letter to the Aubergine Republic (2013)
Setting: Iraq under Saddam Hussein
What it’s about: Abbas Khider is an Iraqi refugee who writes in German. He writes about the repression of the Baathist state and the pain of exile.
In Letter to the Aubergine Republic, we follow a letter that a refugee working in Libya tries to get smuggled back to his family in Iraq. Every stage of the journey is a chapter introducing new characters on the smuggling route — taxi drivers, truck drivers, cafe owners and policemen — and their lives. In a sinister finale, it is revealed that the secret service actually control the entire route in order to control exiles.
In The President’s Oranges, a young man tries to live an ordinary life under a brutal regime, but is arrested (he doesnt know what for) and tortured, and eventually takes flight into exile. While charming anecdotes show that shoots of daily life can always survive (the hero forms a touching and symbolic friendship with a dove handler — the memory of which is interspersed through the story of imprisonment), Khider reminds us how quickly hope can be crushed under dictatorship.
The title comes from the moment when prisoners desperately hoping for an amnesty on Sadaam Hussein’s birthday get oranges instead.
Why you should read it: For the everyday courage of ordinary people undertaking small but dangerous acts of resistance, much in the spirit of Vaclav Havel’s power of the powerless. At the end of Oranges, two refugees escape from Iraq one says:
Although I am very happy to have brought my family to safety, I just want to spit on everything. On my home. On the Baathists. On America. On the Arabs. On the Allies. On all of humanity. And on God, that layabout who never gets off his ass”
Let’s spit together then.”
We spat on the ground, and went on our way.
It is also a reminder of the pre-Arab Spring world of Qaddafi, Mubarak and Sadaam Hussein.
Also read it for the powerful voice of a political refugee who settled in Germany and made it his home in a way many more have since then. In these deeply autobiographical books he speaks on behalf of all refugees, and all victims of repressive states.