Baghdad today -- the Baghdad his daughter Leilah Nadir does her best to describe in The Orange Trees of Baghdad -- does not evoke this picture. Instead, images of mercenaries shooting up innocent Iraqis come to mind. Nadir's uncle Karim describes his aunt Lina's house soon after her death in 2005 -- a house on a street protected by American troops: "Everything was gone.... It was like a plague of locusts had eaten the house clean. ... the kitchen counter, the kitchen and bathroom sinks had vanished too.... Even the copper wire from the electricity cables had been stolen."
But if Baghdad was ever the Garden of Eden, it's been a while. Ibrahim left in 1960 at age 16 on a scholarship to London and never returned. With good reason; teenagers in Baghdad in the early '60s were already patrolling the streets with guns for the Baath party.
After becoming a petroleum engineer, Ibrahim married a British girl and moved to Calgary. Nadir, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, never knew her father's family. This makes a family memoir extremely challenging, with a far greater sense of urgency than the average genealogical quest. It's now or never for Nadir; there's a good chance her relatives and evidence of their lives will be destroyed at any time.
The picture Nadir provides is of a continuum of suffering in Iraq. The orange trees at her aunt Lina's house had started dying during the Gulf War. Still, the despair her relatives feel at the prospect of leaving Baghdad is palpable.
It's hard to avoid the reality in this poignant memoir -- so far, published only in Canada -- that Nadir's roots are ours, too -- roots that seem to be rotting with every page we turn.
This review originally appeared in the Montreal Mirror.