Farewell, Babylon, by Naim Kattan

Raincoast Books, 218 pp, $22.95, softcover.

The distant place names Iraq and Baghdad have, in many western minds, become flattened and narrowed with repetition over the last three years, reduced to tags for TV images of explosions or technical terms for op-ed pieces on foreign policy.

Raincoast Books' new printing of Naim Kattan's superb 1975 memoir Farewell, Babylon could not be more timely, then. Kattan, a Montreal-based writer whose decades of celebrated output in French are too rarely recognized in English Canada, was born in Baghdad in 1928, into what was then a large and vital Jewish community at the heart of the city. In carefully weighted prose (rendered here in Sheila Fischman's 1976 translation, which has been out of print since that decade, even as the French original has remained in circulation), Farewell, Babylon describes Kattan's precocious, fumbling adolescence in Iraq's capital during the crucial years between the start of the Second World War and the birth of Israel.

Like Baghdad itself at the time, whose Muslims, Jews, and Christians worked alongside one another but returned at night to largely segregated neighbourhoods, the young man in Farewell, Babylon is divided. His anticolonial zeal jostles with his deeply romanticized love of European books and "modernity". He strives to rise above ethnic boundaries but remains devoted to the "luminous and fragile difference" of his ancient community, whose presence in Iraq goes back to the Babylonian empire. And his growing indignation at the diminished lot of Iraqi women is regularly bowled over by lusts that draw him into Baghdad's grim brothels.

All of this he tries to reconcile by joining a circle of ambitious young writers-Muslims and Jews alike-committed to building a new Iraq that would "demolish the walls put up by prejudice and misunderstanding". But the pressures that eventually scuttle this idealistic band, as the society around them begins to crumble under mounting anti-Semitism and Arab nationalism, only hint at the morass that now fills news about the Middle East.

Straightforward works of history do much to restore the sense that a faraway place is infinitely more complex than can be shown in a reconnaissance photo or a two-minute news clip. But works like Farewell, Babylon offer something still greater: they reveal history as it was experienced. Kattan's book is one of those precious reminders that cities and nations are living, past-ingrained entities, rooted not in some overarching political or military abstraction but in the teeming thoughts and closely guarded hopes of the individual mind.