erasing clouds

Book Review: Samuel Shimon's An Iraqi in Paris

by anna battista

It’s January 1979 and young Samuel Shimon is leaving Iraq for Hollywood, the place he’s been dreaming of since he was a child. He silently wakes up, says goodbye to his family and leaves. First he goes to Syria, then Lebanon and Jordan. In all these countries he is jailed, tortured and thrown out. His dreams about reaching Hollywood to become a director start fading, but the dream of making a film still haunts his mind. He eventually reaches Paris where he starts a new life, mostly spent on the street as a homeless refugee, a writer and a wanna-be director. This is the plot of Samuel Shimon’s first novel, An Iraqi in Paris. Shimon’s Paris is intoxicating, beautiful, but painful: he meets talented writers and charming women; wanders in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris among the graves of poets, writers and friends; sees Samuel Beckett in a café; talks to Marcello Mastroianni and is mistaken for actor Aldo Maccione; at the same time he is perennially skint and sometimes struggles to survive the French capital. There is only one thing that seems to keep him alive and that’s the project of a film about his father, a deaf-mute baker in love with England and with its Queen. Robert DeNiro would be perfect in such a part, he reckons, but Shimon never manages to write the film, and eventually starts a novel.

An Iraqi in Paris is a bit like a “Left Bank” novel, the Arabic answer to Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, but it’s unique in the way it’s written: Shimon can be funny, comical, tragic and depressed at the same time. His experiences are also told in a cinematographic style while the novel respects the traditional Arab style of storytelling: one adventure follows the other continuously and relentlessly.

The volume also contains a tender novella, “The Street Boy and the Cinema”, an homage to John Ford (the text is interspersed with Ford’s film titles), in which Shimon writes about his obsession for cinema when he was a child living in al-Habbaniyah with his family, an obsession that he transmitted to his father and to many of his childhood friends.

Shimon’s best friend is Kiryakos, who teaches him titles of American films and predicts to the boy, “Sam, you will be a great actor in Hollywood some day." The novella has got comic tones when it describes the relationship between the protagonist’s parents. When a man goes to Shimon’s mother to ask for her young daughter’s hand and reminds her that she had married when she was only thirteen, Shimon writes, “My mother smiled in a way that indicated she was cursing the day she had done so.” There’s an episode of “The Street Boy…” that in a way becomes a prophecy for the author: Shimon and his dad find near the river an old Carpenter typewriter that will turn into the object of desire for the young protagonist, almost symbolising what his final career will be.

Shimon has worked as journalist for various Arab newspapers and magazines and has also edited and written anthologies of poems. He co-founded in 1998 Banipal, a magazine of modern Arab literature in English translation and is its assistant editor. He has also recently launched an Arabic literary site, named after his deaf-dumb father.

“To you, everything is like cinema,” somebody remarks to Shimon in An Iraqi in Paris when he announces he’s going to the north of Lebanon. There have been no movies so far in Shimon’s life: chances are that somebody will turn his books or his life into films one day. {,}

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