A couple weeks ago, Zein El-Amine invited me over to talk about translation and writing from and about the Arab world on his show, Shay-wa-na'naa' (Tea with Mint), on WPFW (89.3 in the District). This lovely, rambling conversation is what happened next.
Henry Peck of Guernica: Your novel has many elements of noir fiction—we follow a melancholy sleuth of sorts who comes up against the law, doesn’t always remember how he got home, and may be seduced by a beguiling woman. This plays out against the backdrop of the first months of US occupation in Iraq, in the second half of 2003. Why did you choose this genre of storytelling to depict this moment in Iraq?
Elliott Colla: The novel is really interested in a moment of ambiguity. Setting it in the fall of 2003 is not an accident; this is a moment that is important for us to return to, and this is what the book is asking us to do. To go back to the moment where the clarity of war, and the sharp divisions between us and them, good and evil, lovers of freedom and Baath Party, break down. And they break down precisely because the US has gotten itself into a situation of military occupation where in order to rule and to occupy it has to deal with the people it has just spent all this effort to demonize.
This is why it’s so suitable for the book to be in the noir genre—it has to do with the actual murkiness of a situation. Noir is where the clarity of moral divisions break down, the black and whites turn into grays. So as I was thinking about this particular moment of compromise on the part of the US, where it was learning how to make alliances with all sorts of Shiite groups in order to occupy, and creating all sorts of new divisions that didn’t exist before. Just as certain Cold War binaries were collapsing, new binaries of Sunni versus Shia or Arab versus Kurd were being created by the new occupation force. It’s the corruption of that moment that I am really interested in. (read on here)