A Portal in Space by Mahmoud Saeed was published in Arabic in 2012 and in English in 2015. The novel is mainly set in Basra, a port city in southern Iraq and in Baghdad, the country’s capital, while the events develop during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988).
Basra is being bombed by Iran and Anwar wants a portal in space, so that he can escape to a world where he feels safe. He’s graduating as an architect in a few months, but he looks so childish while he’s resting on the sofa with his head on his mother’s lap.
Anwar and his family live in a military base. He’s twenty-two. Anwar’s father is a judge. He arrived in Basra as an attorney almost a quarter of a century before.
After his degree in architecture, Anwar falls in love with Abir. Anwar’s mother is a friend of Abir’s mother, so he hopes to marry her, but after three months of training, Anwar is ready to be sent to the front.
His sister Nur, who is two years younger than him, is still attending university. Anwar’s mother works instead in a school.
Anwar is missing. He has disappeared at the front after having been conscripted, like many other recent graduates.
Mundhir and his wife travel to Baghdad to inquire about their son. There they meet a woman in her forties and Mundhir is immediately attracted by her beauty.
The bare-headed woman comes from Amara. She wears a long black dress and high heels. Her fair skin is as white as milk and her hair is as black as coal. Moreover she has a thin body. Her nose is straight while her lips are naturally rose-red.
After Anwar’s disappearance, his mother is always in a bad mood and Mundhir is annoyed by her reaction. He starts to travel to Baghdad alone. His wife is weak, has lost a lot of weight and doesn’t want to go with him. After six months of weekly trips nothing has changed. Anwar isn’t in any list, but Mundhir meets the beautiful lady again. Her husband was a high-ranking official and died during the war against Iran, but she wants to know what happened to her husband’s brother who is still missing.
Mundhir complains about her wife. Before losing Anwar she was obedient and responsive, but now she keeps screaming and weeping. The beautiful lady suggests to leave her, but Mundhir doesn’t want to ruin his twenty-year-old daughter’s life, even if she’s already living like in hell with her mother who forbids her to laugh, watch TV or listen to music.
The beautiful lady’s husband worked for a bank, but during the last ten years he devoted himself to Saddam’s party. He was blond and blue-eyed. She was madly in love with him, but that feeling died in less than a year and after that she just shared his ambitions.
The woman tells that she is trying to write a novel and Mundhir admits that he’s also writing a book, even if about his most important cases. Zahra teaches Arabic, but she doesn’t know how to begin her novel.
Mundhir and Zahra spend the day eating in a restaurant and visiting a fortuneteller who immediately understands their mutual feelings. On their way back home, Zahra openly declares her love and they kiss each other.
Zahra tells Mundhir that she saw him for the first time three years before. Even if she was with her husband, she immediately fell in love with the judge Mundhir.
When they arrive in Amara, Zahra asks Mundhir to leave her near the post office and to meet her there the following week.
My opinion? A woman who tries to seduce a married man is a whore and an unfaithful husband is a fucking bastard.
Anwar’s mother is suffering for her missing son, but her husband is annoyed by her reaction and instead of helping her in such a difficult moment, he relieves his pain with another woman!
Zahra already sees herself as Mundhir’s new wife. She wants to marry him.
During their second meeting, Mundhir and Zahra share a hotel room, but she tells the man she’ll have sex with him only after their marriage. She says she’s a pious woman and when he comes out from the bathroom, he finds her praying with her head covered. Hmm, a pious woman shouldn’t be having a relationship with a married man at all; just avoiding sexual intercourse isn’t enough. The truth is that she wants to arouse him to dominate his will.
Zahra kisses and touches Mundhir, but she allows neither nudity nor sex. She has two children: Lubna who is fourteen and Mahdi who is six years old.
One more year and also Nur will graduate. After that, she’ll move to Baghdad to work for a newspaper. Her mother is so embittered that she told her she would have preferred losing her than her brother, her favorite and spoiled child. My thinking? People shouldn’t have more than one child if they can’t share their love fairly among them.
Six months after his retirement, Mundhir is asked to go back to work because many judges don’t want to work in Basra anymore because of the daily bombings.
Zahra is suddenly obliged to stop her travels to Baghdad, since a party official told her mother-in-law that she hadn’t traveled in a taxi.
The months go by and the two lovers can just speak on the phone. In the meanwhile Nur finishes her studies and the following day she leaves for Baghdad. Adil, one of her brother’s friends, asked to marry her and she loves him. He will be a resident physician in al-Falluja.
Mundhir continues to travel to Baghdad once a week to read the new lists of prisoners and to visit his daughter.
Two years and a half after their last meeting, Zahra pays a visit to Mundhir while he’s still in his office. Their lengthy telephone conversations had become suspicious; this is why she stopped calling him. Her missing late husband’s brother has come back home and wants her to give him all her money, but Zahra doesn’t agree, so both him and his mother are trying to convince her to marry him. This is why Zahra hopes Mundhir will marry her instead, even though his wife has just recovered from an attempted suicide. Mundhir’s wife has finally stopped smoking and now lets her husband watch TV again. He’s also free to listen to music, drink and laugh as he did before Anwar’s disappearance.
Mundhir and Zahra still love each other, but Mundhir knows that his wife would kill herself or go insane again, if he marries a second wife. His daughter and her husband would also be furious.
Zahra is disappointed and goes back to the city where she lives, but she doesn’t give up because she never accepts defeat.
No! This means that the evil temptress will attack again and the sinner Mundhir will succumb! I’m so sad for his poor wife! She didn’t deserve an unfaithful husband.
Mundhir should avoid meeting Zahra again, especially if alone with her, otherwise he’ll surely succumb to the temptation of her flesh.
Zahra is a really dangerous creature. She would do anything to fulfill her immoral desires. I believe she could even tell Mundhir’s wife about her relationship with her husband. Mundhir’s wife was jealous of Zahra from the beginning and she was right. If Mundhir’s wife commits suicide or she’s otherwise killed, the vulnerable judge will marry Zahra to quench his lustful thirst.
But maybe Zahra’s greedy brother-in-law could send someone to kill her first and Mundhir and his wife could finally be a happy couple again. Wait, even better: Mundhir’s wife, after discovering her husband’s unfaithfulness, should leave him alone crying over Zahra’s tomb and find a more deserving man for herself.
Date palms plantations, swamps and the banks of the Tigris. I really enjoyed the descriptions of several varieties of Iraqi landscapes, really different from the sad monotony of brown desert dust and grey ruins of bombed cement buildings we’re used to see on TV.
It was also interesting to read the depictions of the different physical features of the Iraqi population with white, fair-skinned and brown people, as well as their different attires in the 1980s ranging from a bare-headed woman wearing jeans to older ladies whose black abayas hid everything except their faces.
This time the English translation is excellent. It flows so naturally that it doesn’t even look like a translated text. I advise the author to always choose a high-quality translator like the one of this novel. I highly recommend this book!
P.S. I have received a paperback copy from the author.