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Outcast    by Shimon Ballas order for
by Shimon Ballas
Order:  USA  Can
City Lights Books, 2007 (2007)
* * *   Reviewed by Barbara Lingens

Outcast is the title of a memoir written by Haroun Soussan. This man, a Jew, trained as an engineer in the U.S., a historian and convert to Islam, expects his writings 'will never see the light of day during his lifetime.' The novel's cover explains that his character is based on a historical figure who converted to Islam in the 1930s. The memoir is not just about his life but also about how it was be an Iraqi in the time of its change from a British mandate, and both are interesting. In fact, it is hard to keep in mind that this is a novel because it is so rich in detail about what Iraqis are thinking and feeling, and we in the West know so little about this.

A great deal of religious and political history is woven into reminiscences of Haroun's traumatic personal life, being married to an American non-Jew and ostracized from his family. Now seventy, he tries to rationalize his actions. He especially covers what happened with two very important people, one a lifelong Jewish friend and the other a cherished Muslim. Through his account we are privy to many incidents and ideas that provide an intimate picture of Iraq and the turbulent times that country has had to endure.

Growing up in a village, the youth felt restricted in the terms and customs he was forced to follow. During the time of his studies in Beirut, he was 'drawn to get to know Christianity and deepen my knowledge of the foundations of Islam.' In America he received a tuition scholarship for an essay on Christian influences in Islam. As he recounts his story, there is much room for philosophizing, and so we learn how it is that a Jew could consider Islam to be superior both to his own religion and to Christianity. This, in turn, provides us with good insight into the Islamic view of church and state compared to the others.

Another important issue treated in this work is Zionism and its pros and cons. And it is upon this matter that his Jewish friend finally has to turn against him. It was surprising to me to learn that Jews are the most numerous minority in Iraq. And therein lies a difficulty - which is first, the Jew or the Iraqi? The thoughtful Iraqi worried about what Palestinians were losing. The thoughtful Iraqi Jew was necessarily of two minds, and this made for some painful discussions and decisions.

Through it all we are given a vibrant view of a place and people that are anything but familiar to us. The author himself immigrated to Israel from Baghdad and was prolific in Arabic before switching to Hebrew. He seems uniquely qualified to present the dichotomy that unfolds in these pages. There is much to learn from and ponder in this work.

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