Review: Diaa Jubaili’s ‘No Windmills in Basra’ is a rich collection of short stories

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CHICAGO: From Basra, Iraq, a city with a history of war, loss, love, and family, comes a rich collection of short stories in “No Windmills in Basra,” by award-winning novelist Diaa Jubaili. The writer’s tales reflect a region and its people who have withstood the tests of conflict and imperialism, all while attempting to live their daily lives. The collection marries the magic of Arab folklore and the contradictions of modern life. Newly translated by Chip Rossetti, readers will find life between tragedy and fantasy among Jubaili’s pages.

Offering insight into the masterful collection, Rossetti writes that Jubaili’s stories “feel like modern folktales or urban legends,” but the foreground of the work is “war that overshadows Iraqis’ daily lives for the past several decades.” Jubaili writes about the Iran-Iraq war, the second Gulf War, life between wars, and the families affected by them. Along the Shatt Al-Arab River, people turn into animals and inanimate objects with feelings of life and love. He touches on themes of war and love, encompassing mothers and women, and much more.

In the short story “Flying,” Jubaili writes of an ex-soldier whose pension is insufficient and so he must take a second job at a poultry factory to make ends meet. Each story shows how war transforms lives and memory. Like in “The Saltworks,” a boy named Jamal, who brings joy to his family, is suddenly lost during a war and the family is devastated. From the dead who haunt the earth to the orphans who must leave Iraq behind, Jubaili’s characters never forget the past.

The mothers Jubaili writes about are women who carry the past, present and future within them at all times. They adapt to life as things change around them as loved ones die and children grow, or some never return. The mothers pick up the shattered pieces and piece together life. In the story “Jonah,” it is the narrator’s mother who uses her resilience to rebuild Iraq. Between attempts to thwart Virginia Woolf’s drowning, a boy who steals time, and characters who declare an author dead, Jubaili’s tales massages minds and transforms hearts in a collection that is brimming with love, tragedy and the whimsical nature of life.