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East Winds, West Winds

Originally published in Cairo in 1998, this carefully crafted novel represents a welcome addition to a body of literature that has so far received less than the attention it merits by comparison with that of Egypt and the Levant. Set among the oil wells of the Basra region of southern Iraq, where the writer spent much of his working life, the novel draws on the author's own experiences to paint a picture at once subtle and vivid of relations between the British and their local employees in the 1950s. Much of the action is seen through the eyes of the young, bookish narrator, who is clearly modelled on the author himself. It soon becomes clear that a world of difference separates the lives of Abu Jabbar, Hussein, Istifan, and the rest from that of their European bosses with their company dances and other strange social customs. Although the novel has a strongly nationalistic flavour, it is also suffused with a lingering sense of nostalgia for a gentler age, which will inevitably prompt reflections on the more recent British and US involvement in this unhappy country.

Mahdi Issa al-Saqr was born in Basra in 1930. He worked as a translator with the Basra Petroleum Company and later as personnel superintendent of the Marine Transportation Establishment. He resigned in 1980 to devote himself exclusively to writing. He died in Baghdad in 2006.

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