THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

A tale of two women in Iraq - a civilian and a soldier

By Barbara Fisher
August 29, 2011

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The innocuous title hardly suggests the actual meaning of the phrase nor the brutality of the story that it introduces. This is “The Things They Carried’’ for women in Iraq. Set at Camp Bucca, the largest US prison in Iraq, in 2003, during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the novel makes this war come alive as “Things’’ made Vietnam a grisly reality.

It is told from the points of view of two young women. Kate Brady is a good Catholic girl from upstate New York who enlisted before 9/11, never anticipating the ordeal she signed up for. Naema is an ambitious Iraqi woman, forced to flee her home in Baghdad and suspend her medical school education, never imagining the horrors of war and occupation.

Kate, a clueless baby, tries to act street smart, but is quickly undone by the unrelenting misogyny of the men, which escalates from name-calling to attempted rape. As punishment for resisting and reporting the harassment, she is labeled a “Sand Queen,’’ a name for an unattractive “chick who’s being treated like a queen by the hundreds of horny guys around her because there’s such a shortage of females.’’ She endures more nasty mischief and calculated malevolence, but the greatest harm comes not from the outside but from her own inner transformation. Her innocence is not simply lost, but ripped from her and mangled into a grotesque shape.

She changes from “the Goody Two-shoes who volunteered for bake sales and church bazaars,’’ to the soldier who, after shooting a prisoner in the groin, is “ready to shoot him again, or any other sand jockey who tries anything.’’ She enlisted because she believed it was noble to serve her country, but gives up on valor and honor after her best buddy is killed because the Army is too cheap and disorganized to install a siren system or provide a mortar-proof bunker.

Naema watches helplessly as her home is invaded by US troops, who stamp their boots on her father and 13-year-old brother, bind their hands, pull pointed hoods over their heads , and drive them away in a truck. Naema joins the mob of wailing, beseeching women outside the prison, where her father and brother have been detained. There she meets Kate, who is on guard duty, and, because she can speak English, offers herself as a translator in exchange for information about her family.

The two women speak briefly, but the distance between them is vast. Kate accepts a photo of Naema’s father and brother that is desperately pressed into her hand, but there is little hope that this scrap of information will yield results. Kate makes occasional ineffectual attempts to get information about Naema’s family, but her own situation and state of mind are too dire for her to do much for anyone else.

The connection between the two women, which could have been exploited for sentiment, is not. Author Helen Benedict makes it clear that they come from different worlds and experience utterly different wars. She makes no attempt to draw parallels or create symmetry or sympathy between them. And this feels right and true.

With the same high purpose, Benedict avoids a sentimental ending, leaving both stories hanging without conclusions, certainly without happy endings. And while this feels correct, it also feels unsatisfying. The novel strains toward closure, then denies a reader any sense of ending. The Iraq occupation goes on, mistreatment of women in the military is rampant, the suffering of innocent Iraqis continues. This is where Benedict, author of “The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq,’’ leaves a reader, in the real world of national shame and private pain.

Barbara Fisher, a freelance writer who lives in New York, can be reached at bfishershorttakes@gmail.com.

SAND QUEEN

By Helen Benedict

Soho, 315 pp., $25