REVIEW: “Najufa” by Ibrahim al-Marashi

Review of Ibrahim al-Marashi, “Najufa”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 155-173 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The dominant theme of this story is memory — memory and history — making it a fitting capstone for the entire anthology. Muhammad, the narrator, and his grandfather, Isa, have gone on pilgrimage to Najufa, the city that was once the two separate cities of Najaf and Kufa. It is a pilgrimage that Isa has never made before, but it is the last in a long line of pilgrimages that his ancestors have made. We are told the stories of Hassan in the 1920s; of his son, Mortaza, who was Isa’s grandfather; and of Isa’s father, Ibrahim, who accompanied Mortaza on his final pilgrimage to the shrine of Iman Ali in 2010. Now, while Muhammad is on pilgrimage with his grandfather, Isa, Isa recounts the final pilgrimage of his own grandfather, the stories of all of these men twining and intertwining. “That trip was their story, not yours!” Muhammad tells his grandfather at one point, but what is left unspoken is Muhammad’s story himself. There is a point in the story point where suddenly one is hit the with the realisation that of six generations of men, we are missing one — Muhammad’s father is never named, though once they arrive in Najufa, Isa is continually advising his grandson, “Call your father”.

It is a small point, but it is one that becomes very big at the end. For the majority of it, the story wears its SF genre like veneer. There are droids, synthetic foods, Tau beams, but nothing that is integral to the story itself — to the point where in the notes I took while reading, I was all prepared to say in this review that the story was “just speculative/futuristic, no SF”. But then the very last paragraphs come with a twist that could only occur in an SF story, to kick you in the gut and make you cry.

At the very end, “I stepped outside, and tapped my forehead: ‘Call Dad’,” Muhammad tells the reader, and this final act seems to encapsulate the entire anthology. No one knows where we are going, what the future might hold (whether China will be the rulers of the Middle East; whether there will ever be a “CAKA”, the Christian Assembly of Kansas and Arkansas; whether glucose will become a substance as highly regulated as hard drugs are today); but equally so we can never truly know where we have come from. Yet both our history and our future are integral to who we are, and what we can do. We cannot disregard either if we hope to understand the other.