Identity and war are themes explored in Inaam Kachaci’s novel, The American Granddaughter (Interlink Books, 2020). The main character is Zeina, an Iraqi-born US citizen, who is thoroughly immersed in US culture while retaining links to her roots. She applies for a position as a translator with the US Army for diverging reasons. It is the aftermath of 9/11 and the US “War on Terror” is underway, with rhetoric about liberating the Middle East and bringing democracy to Arab countries.
Zeina’s subsequent return to Iraq is mostly a result of US patriotism. There is no apologetic reflection as she ponders what she does, a divergence from the choices that her relatives made in their struggle for freedom from within. “The protagonist returns to the country she left fifteen years before, not as a visitor to her birthplace, but as a soldier in the battlefield,” writes Kachachi.
Her strongest memory of Iraq is her grandmother, Rahma, who is staunchly anti-US and its invasion of her country. As Zeina assimilates to the requirements of the US Army in Tikrit, which is where she is deployed, family dynamics briefly come into play as granddaughter and grandmother meet. The friction between them speaks volumes of each character’s construction of their personal identity and how they relate to the US aggression in Iraq. For Rahma, Zeina is a traitor, juxtaposed against her late grandfather’s patriotism.
“But where do you get your salary from, daughter?” Rahma asks Zeina. “Bush or Kofi Anan?” This is perhaps in a bid to introduce some introspection. Zeina, on the other hand, is too much imbued with the US narrative of liberation to consider a possible alternative, or at least to observe and learn from the locals what they feel about the American occupation of their country.
It is later that Zeina realises that the US soldiers are welcomed by Iraqi civilians as much as government rhetoric makes them out to be. Working as a cultural adviser at the Civilian Affairs Division, Zeina witnesses US brutality first hand in terms of the victims of aerial bombing and the violent raids of US soldiers on civilian homes. “I didn’t permit myself sympathy or displays of emotion,” she says about those killed and wounded.
There are times when Zeina utilises her US privilege to pay visits to her grandmother, including agreeing to a raid on neighbouring houses – thus subjecting other civilians to violence – while she spends some time with her relatives.
Scattered throughout the book are occasional appearances of a writer, always at Zeina’s side, whose intentions in terms of narration are different from Zeina’s. However, this interspersed confrontation is not properly developed, possibly to bring out how Zeina’s character is for the most part unyielding and unwilling to consider any other interpretations or experiences of the US involvement in Iraq. Even when Zeina narrates the brutality unleashed by US soldiers in their search for “targets”, there is little compassion and the prevailing narrative is perfunctory.
However, this dissociation is also viewed in her father’s reaction to the news that she is returning to Iraq. There is no concern for his daughter, only a rumination that his name might still turn up on a wanted list, having been tortured and taking the decision to flee from Iraq to the US with his family. Indeed, the only character who exhibits any awareness of contradictions is Rahma, who tries to make sense of her granddaughter’s betrayal of her people and country.
Zeina’s dissociation is brought out further when she meets Muhaymen, with whom she falls in love. A former prisoner of war in Iran, Muhaymen has chosen a different path to hers; he is a revolutionary against the US occupation. There are insurmountable differences between them, never mind the fact that Tawoos, Muhaymen’s mother, had also nursed Zeina when her mother was ill, thus evoking a milk-nurse sibling taboo.
It is years later before Zeina comes to terms with the damage that the US occupation inflicted upon Iraqi civilians. Psychologically, she is now a stranger to both lands, her identity perhaps evolving into an open quest that retains the commodities offered by the US, while also being drawn to Iraq mostly from a US perspective. Her return to the US is an unsettling experience and she finds herself unable to connect as she used to, so she returns to Iraq only to go back once more to the US, where her story is now both a product of the US and Iraq, in terms of her having experienced both countries from her own personal circumstances.
Readers would have benefited from further insight into the characters. The novel is fast paced, yet there are loose ends that do not make us draw any conclusion, as if their inclusion in the novel was only relevant in order to make a statement about the protagonist’s psyche. Calvin, Zeina’s US boyfriend, is one such example, who seems to exist merely to prop up Zeina’s character rather than having his own story.
While not a disappointing read, it is possible that more could have been made of this novel by the author. Zeina’s contradictions are rooted too much in pragmatism, and thus easily brushed aside by the protagonist herself. A desensitised character so early on in the book, it is disconcerting to find an ending that borders on patriotism but with little insight into how Zeina’s change occurred. There is little to bind her to Iraq as the family ties are not properly explored in the novel, and the US still seems to form Zeina’s grounding. The book dispels expectations of identification with the homeland, but the concept of dissociation and its ramifications is much less clear and weighs upon this narrative with its ambiguity.