Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Dr Munjed Al Muderis, Iraq, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘Walking Free’ by Dr Munjed Al Muderis (with Patrick Weaver)

Walking Free by Dr Munjed Al Muderis

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Allen & Unwin; 320 pages; 2014.

You may have heard of Dr Munjed Al Muderis — he’s an orthopaedic surgeon who has pioneered techniques for treating soldiers who have lost limbs. But he wasn’t always so well-known or successful. He was once a refugee.

Walking Free is the book he penned a couple of years ago with the help of journalist Patrick Weaver. It’s the kind of book I’d love to shove into the hands of every politician, policymaker and racist in the West. Not only does it tell the extraordinary tale of one man’s bid for freedom, it’s an illuminating, often anger-inducing, look at the way we treat refugees. And, if nothing else, it highlights that refugees are human beings — with life experiences, knowledge and skills to benefit us all.

Life under Saddam

Muderis was born into a rather privileged family in Iraq — he is descended from the Prophet Mohammed and one of the nine families that originally ruled Baghdad — in 1972. When he was a school boy, Saddam Hussein came to power. There were wars with Iran and Kuwait, the latter interrupting his plan to study medicine in New York. Instead he applied, and was accepted, to study medicine in Basra. Marriage and a child followed shortly after.

Then I was accepted into the surgical training program. It was a dream come true. I’d wanted to be a surgeon—especially an orthopaedic surgeon—since I was twelve or thirteen and saw the first Terminator movie. The idea of half man, half machine really captured my imagination and made me think that in future surgeons would be able to replace damaged or amputated limbs with mechanical devices. My enthusiasm to become a surgeon was boundless, but resources were hard to come by. For urgent use, we were reduced to keeping drip lines, saline solution and such things in our lockers in the on-call room, because the supplies just weren’t available.

Things took a turn for the worse when Muderis, now 27, was working as a junior surgeon in the Saddam Hussein Medical Centre in Baghdad. It was 1999. A busload of army deserters were hauled into the hospital and Muderis and his surgical colleagues were ordered to cut off the tops of their ears. The order came direct from Saddam Hussein. When one surgeon objected on the grounds of the Hippocratic oath of “do no harm” he was taken outside and summarily executed by gunfire. Muderis, aware that the same would happen to him, did the only thing he could think of: he hid in the women’s toilet for five hours and then fled when the coast was clear.

He knew he was now a marked man, and for the next few weeks lived a life on the run, eventually getting across the border to the relative safety of Jordan with the help of family and friends. He then flew to Malaysia, the only place in the world where Iraqi citizens did not need a visa, and unwittingly fell in with a pair of refugees who were aiming to get to Australia with the help of some human traffickers.

Holed up in Indonesia, he expected to wait months to get himself on an illegal boat to Christmas Island, an Australian territory south of Indonesia, but he was able to jump the people smuggling queue because a doctor was needed on board the next “ferry” out. What ensued was a frightening drama at sea — more than 160 people crammed on a boat designed for 50, with basic food, scarce medical supplies and scarce water.

I knew we were all in for a horror of a journey. You didn’t need to be a medical expert to figure out this was a recipe for disaster. […] We had heard on the news when we were in Jakarta about a refugee boat that had left a few days before ours and had sunk. No survivors. So our tenuous grip on life was extremely high in our consciousness.

Arrival in Australia

When the boat eventually arrived at Christmas Island after a hideous and perilous journey (the captain abandoned ship long before it landed), Muderis found a warm welcome, but it was not to last long. He, along with all the other refugees, were shipped to the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in the remote Kimberly region of Western Australia — about as far from civilisation as you can get and described by the Refugee Action Council of Victoria as “the worst of Australia’s hellholes”. It was here that Muderis says he was treated like a criminal, verbally abused and “constantly told I should return as soon as possible to my homeland”:

Climbing from the bus was like walking into an oven. The heat hit us immediately and, to make matters worse, seemed to be reflected from the desert earth. Straightaway, a guard was there with a permanent marker pen, writing a number on our wrists and shoulders. It wouldn’t wash off. And that was our new identity. From then until the day I left Curtin, I was known by the authorities only as 982. Never by my name. Just my number. […]

Later, we were given photo identity badges with our allocated number. It was, as many things were in Curtin, completely dehumanising. And, I feel certain, it was purposely so. Our initial contact with the Curtin officers was equally as confronting and depressing. ‘Go home,’ they were telling us. ‘If you think Australia’s a land of milk and honey, think again.’ And: ‘Be careful, there are deadly spiders and snakes all over the camp and if they bite you, they can kill you in a few minutes. There’s nothing you’ll be able to do.’ Welcome to Australia.

To cut a long story short, Muderis was eventually given refugee status and allowed to stay in Australia — but it was a long 10 months to get there, having been punished with solitary confinement on several occasions and being sent to an actual prison (where the conditions were so much better than the camp) for a short stint. And despite this inhumane treatment — Muderis calls his experience at Curtin as “the ultimate dehumanisation” — he decided to adopt Australia as his homeland and get on with the business of leading a full and productive life.

He is now one of the world’s leading specialists in osseointegration in which prosthetic limbs are implanted and fused into bone Terminator style. Ironically, much of his work helps soldiers who lost limbs in the Iraqi war.

A compelling true story

There’s no doubt Walking Free is a compelling and powerful true story. Indeed, it is almost too outrageous to be true — to go from refugee to world-leading orthopaedic surgeon seems like something only a Hollywood scriptwriter could come up with. And yet the tale that is told here, linear fashion and occasionally clunky (it takes a while to get going), is entirely factual.

I went through a whole gamut of emotions reading it — from shame to anger and everything in between — but came away feeling buoyed up by hope. Yet I can’t help thinking that Muderis survived because he was resilient, strong and resourceful — what of those other refugees less able to cope?

Recently a video of Dr Al Muderis featured on the home page of the Guardian website. You can also view a YouTube video of him doing a TED talk about his journey from refugee to surgeon in Sydney last year:


For another take on Walking Free, please see Lisa from ANZ LitLovers review.

This is my 35th book for #ReadingAustralia2016

Author, Book review, Fiction, Iraq, Kevin Powers, literary fiction, Publisher, Sceptre, Setting, USA, war

‘The Yellow Birds’ by Kevin Powers


Fiction – hardcover; Sceptre; 240 pages; 2012.

You’ve probably heard a lot about this book already. It’s been reviewed here, there and everywhere. And just a couple of weeks ago it won the Guardian First Book Award. It is, quite frankly, an astonishingly good first novel. It is not only a devastating account of the Iraq war, it is a compelling exploration of the aftermath on those who return home shell-shocked and psychologically damaged.

A promise that can’t be kept

The author, Kevin Power, served in the US Army in 2004 and 2005, where he was deployed as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar in Iraq. The Yellow Birds might be fiction, but I expect quite a lot of it is rooted in fact.

The first person narrator is  John Bartle, 21, who befriends Daniel Murphy, 18, when the pair of them are in training at Fort Dix.  For no other reason than they are both from Richmond, Virginia, Bartle takes “Murph” under his wing, a bit like an older brother would, and then makes a promise to Murphy’s mother that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

“And you’re going to look out for him, right?” she asked.
“Um, yes, ma’am.”
“And Daniel, he’s doing a good job?”
“Yes, ma’am, very good.” How the hell should I know, lady? I wanted to say. I barely knew the guy. Stop. Stop asking me questions. I don’t want to be accountable. I don’t know anything about this.
“John, promise me that you’ll take care of him.”
“Of course.” Sure, sure, I thought. Now you reassure me and I’ll go back and go to bed.
“Nothing’s gonna happen to him, right? Promise that you’ll bring him home to me.”
“I promise,” I said. “I promise I’ll bring him home to you.”

Of course, it’s glaringly obvious that Murph is not going to return home from war, but the manner in which he dies and the events leading up to his death are far from straightforward.

I could say the same about the structure of this book, which swings backwards and forwards in time between Bartle’s pre-war life, his tour of duty and his repatriation. This fragmented and disorientating format serves to mirror Bartle’s mindset — it is an ingenious way to tell a story that is very much focused on the psychological fallout of war.

This means The Yellow Birds is not an easy read. If you like linear narratives, you may well find this one confusing, although it is broken into clearly signposted sections — “September 2004: Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq” and “November 2005: Richmond, Virginia”, for instance — to help guide your way.

A confronting and often disturbing read

The Yellow Birds is also confronting — as you would expect from a story about war. But even though I’ve read countless books of this nature (and grisly true crime), there were many scenes depicted here that I found particularly gruesome and disturbing (a booby-trapped body on a bridge, for example) and even throwaway lines — “The bodies were hidden in alleys, were found in bloating piles in the troughs of the hills outside the cities, the faces puffed and green, allergic now to life” — possessed the devastating power to shock.

But it was the detached, numb-with-grief voice of Bartle upon his return to the US that I found most chilling. This glimpse into a returned soldier’s mind, unable to deal with the future based on what had happened in his past, is what I will remember most about this harrowing, heartbreaking tale. His loneliness, his despair, his anger — and his embarrassment — resonates off the page.

The Yellow Birds has been compared to Erich Maria Remarque’s classic Great War tale All Quiet on the Western Front — and with good reason. This is not a book that glorifies war or makes heroes out of those who take part; instead it illuminates the futility (and predictability), and leaves you with the burning question, what is the point of so much loss of life?

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Iraq, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel, Wendell Steavenson

‘The Weight of a Mustard Seed’ by Wendell Steavenson


Non-fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 320 pages; 2010.

When it comes to non-fiction I seem to have made a career out of reading books that explore moral culpability*, and this book, which explores the life and times of one of Saddam Hussein’s generals, is no exception.

The author, an American born British journalist, never met the subject of her book, Kamel Sachet, but she brings him to life by interviewing an extensive cast of colleagues, family and associates. What emerges is a man conflicted by loyalty to his country and loyalty to his own individual faith, and, in turn, his conscience.

Using the techniques of literary fiction, Steavenson weaves a narrative that jumps backwards and forwards in time as she traces Sachet’s rise to power — and his later fall from grace. But, of course, she cannot tell Sachet’s story without also telling the story of Iraq, and, in particular, its recent bloody history, from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Often in this telling there are so many different battles and violent incidents recounted that it’s hard to keep track of exactly which war Steavenson is making reference to, until it becomes clear that it doesn’t really matter: this is a country with a bloody history and never more so under Saddam Hussein’s rule. (In fact, Saddam’s soldiers were in a lose-lose situation: they could be killed in battle, but if they lost a battle they could be executed under military order. It was up to them to decide which was the easier way to die.)

The book also explores what it is like to live under tyrannical rule, albeit from the point of view of Saddam’s inner circle, and how the all-pervasive fear turns good upstanding citizens into quivering wrecks who make poor moral judgements.

I’d like to argue that The Weight of a Mustard Seed is a sympathetic portrait of a man who chose to carry out Saddam’s orders instead of quietly resisting them, but I’m not so sure that is the case. While Steavenson develops a close friendship with Sachet’s wife and children, she refrains from making any overt judgement about the man. Ultimately it is up to you, the reader, to determine exactly how you feel about him. All I know is that I came to the end of this book feeling such a deeply profound wave of sadness, even writing this tears me up.

This is a powerful, well-written and moving account of the legacy left by Saddam Hussein and the American invasion of Iraq. Anyone interested in the so-called War on Terror will find plenty here to intrigue, outrage and shame you.

* Some of my favourite non-fiction books include Gitta Sereny’s incredibly powerful biography of Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth, and Sereny’s equally compelling book on Treblinka commandant Franz Stangl, Into That Darkness. I can also recommend Sereny’s The Case of Mary Bell: A Portrait of a Child Who Murdered (can you tell I love Gitta Sereny?), Blake Morrison’s As If (about the Bulger murder trial) and Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song (about murderer Gary Gilmore’s wish to be executed for his crimes). And that’s just for starters…

Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, Iraq, literary fiction, Michel Faber, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Fire Gospel’ by Michel Faber


Fiction – hardcover; Canongate; 213 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The Fire Gospel, due to be published on November 6, is the long-awaited novel from Michel Faber, the author of the oh-so delicious (and my favourite book of the year so far) The Crimson Petal and The White.

This new book is part of Canongate’s The Myths series, launched in 2005, in which “some of the world’s most respected authors re-tell myths in a manner of their own choosing”. The Fire Gospel is therefore a reworking of the myth of Prometheus, who supposedly brought the gift of fire to humanity against the wishes of Zeus, who said fire belonged to the gods alone. As punishment Prometheus was chained to a rock and had his liver eaten by an eagle. Charming.

In Faber’s hands, the myth takes on a much more modern, and occasionally hilarious, focus. While on a trip to war-torn Iraq, Theo Griepenkerl, an academic from Canada, accidentally discovers nine papyrus scrolls that have lain hidden for two thousand years. He smuggles them back to Toronto and begins to translate them from Aramaic. They turn out to be a secret, never-before-published fifth gospel that has the power to turn Christianity on its head.

Eager for publicity — and untold riches — Theo seeks out a publisher willing to take a risk on publishing his sensational discovery. But when every mainstream press turns him down he has to resort to convincing the relatively obscure text-book publisher Elysium that it’s worth printing. This is despite the fact that the firm’s biggest bestseller so far has been Sing Times Seven, a book written by a Norwegian school teacher about games parents should play with their children to teach them arithmetic.

‘My book isn’t about teaching dogs geometry,’ Theo reminded him. ‘For God’s sake, Mr Baum, it’s a new Gospel! It’s a previously unknown account of the life and death of Jesus, written in Aramaic, the language Jesus himself spoke. In fact, it will be the only Gospel written in Aramaic: the others are in Greek. And it’s earlier than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, years earlier. I can’t understand why publishers aren’t falling over themselves to put it out — 99.99 per cent of books aren’t important, not really. This one is.”

When The Fifth Gospel is eventually published, sales go through the roof and Theo becomes a celebrity doing the rounds of talk shows and author signings. Some of the funniest bits occur when Theo checks the reader reviews on Amazon, complete with misspellings and untempered opinions:

Julia Argandona, of Costa Mesa, CA, offered the following appreciation (which ’17 of 59′ customers apparently found ‘helpful’): I haven’t read this book yet but I can’t wait to read it so I am reviewing it early. The other people on Amazon who say don’t read it are brainwashed stooges of the Catholic religion, which has been sexually abusing children for 100’s of years. Who needs it? I already LOVE this book.

But it doesn’t take long before the wrath of Christians and other religious groups puts his life in danger. He might not have to endure the whole eagles-pecking-his-liver torture to which Prometheus was subjected, but it’s not far off…

I laughed a lot while reading this book. It’s wicked and provocative. But in some respects it feels a bit too knowing, a bit too clever (I hesitate to use the term smart alec). I got the sense that Faber wasn’t just poking fun at religion but was also taking a pop at the publishing game, specifically its obsession with sales figures and marketing. Us readers get a bit of a drubbing too.

The Fire Gospel is a fun read, but it is definitely not in the same league as Faber’s previous masterpiece, The Crimson Petal and The White. And if you are religious and easily offended by Jesus spoofs you’d best avoid it altogether.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Iraq, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, Yasmina Khadra

‘The Sirens of Baghdad’ by Yasmina Khadra


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 307 pages; 2008. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

This novel, first published in 2005 under the title Les Sirenes de Baghdad in France, is yet another earnest and thought-provoking story by Yasmina Khadra, the non deplume of the Algerian Army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul. While The Attack was set in war-torn Israel and examined what it is that drives people to become suicide bombers, The Sirens of Baghdad is set in war-torn Iraq and looks at what spurs young men into becoming insurgents.

The story is told through the eyes of an anonymous young man, a Bedouin, who lives in Kafr Karam, a village in the Iraqi desert, a “place so discreet that it often dissolves in mirages, only to emerge at sunset”.

Determined to become more educated than his illiterate well-digger of a father, he attends the university in Baghdad a few months before the American invasion. But when the war begins, the university is vandalised and closed down, and he returns to Kafr Karam, “wild-eyed and distraught”.

Back in his parent’s house, living on the roof in a remodelled laundry, he settles back into village life, feeling far removed from the troubles in the capital. But the war is soon brought home to him in a series of violent incidences involving American soldiers. These despicable acts — an interrogation and shooting at a US army checkpoint, the bombing of a wedding reception and a raid on the family home — turn the young man from a rather shy, sensitive creature into an angry youth desperate for retribution.

Consumed by a desire for revenge, he makes his way on foot to Baghdad, where he falls in with a radical group planning a major terrorist operation to be carried out in London. Groomed as the key terrorist in the mission, he is told that his sacrifice will represent “the end of imperial hegemony, the turning wheel of fortune, the redemption of the just”. He is fully confident and prepared to go “all the way, without flinching”…

Obviously, this is a very contemporary novel, and it felt slightly odd to be reading about real events that most of us are familiar with via television news footage. Here’s a good example:

And I happened to arrive in Baghdad the day a false alert caused an enormous crush on a bridge — you remember — and a thousand demonstrators got killed. When I saw that, cousin, while I saw all those bodies on the ground, when I saw those mountains of shoes at the site where the panic took place, those kids with blue faces and their eyes half closed — when I saw that whole mess, caused to Iraqis by Iraqis, I said to myself, right away, This is not my war.

But what struck me most about this book — which is slightly laboured and over-worked in places, as if Khadra wanted to make sure we really understood certain points — is this: under a series of strict unwritten codes, revenge is vital to the Bedouins and insults can only ever be washed away in blood. I immediately thought of the protests over the Danish cartoons controversy and how violent it all became — and suddenly something “clicked” as if I’d been given a fleeting glimpse of a mindset I’d never quite understood before.

On the whole, though, The Sirens of Baghdad is a tough read, because it’s so damn depressing.The narrator doesn’t help things much because he’s effectively carrying the weight of the Islamic world on his shoulders and he is completely and utterly miserable for the entire story. Coupled with a cold, detached prose style, it doesn’t make for a cheery novel. But it’s a worthy, edifying read that leaves one deeply unsettled.