The Body Under Siege: Corruption and the Female Body in Betool Khedairi’s Ghayeb

By Kimberly Canuette Grimaldi
Submitted to Session P4904 (From the Bedroom to the Street: Projecting Gender and Sexuality in Public Places, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
The threat of sexual violence or public revelation of sexual transgression is often used to coerce and control populations. In times of war, especially with a powerful aggressor, the state maintains its power over its own population through constant surveillance and immediate show of force. Betool Khedairi’s 2003 novel, Ghayeb or Absent depicts a young woman living, working, and surviving in Baghdad during “Operation Desert Fox” in 1998. At its most apparent, this is a novel about the atrocities of foreign bombardments of Iraq but it also explores state corruption within Iraq and the violation of the female body. This paper analyzes the interactions between the state and three of the many female characters in the novel. These interactions are insidious, cancerous even, and violate the sanctity of the home and body. The consequences of these violations are writ large on bodies of the women in the novel, leaving them sick, deformed, and traumatized.
This paper argues that the systematic disabling and poisoning of the women’s bodies in the novel mirrors the destruction and poisoning of both private and public spaces in Baghdad. The apartment building that these women inhabit becomes a metaphor for the violated woman. Missiles penetrate its shell and spies infiltrate and uncover its residents’ secrets. The main character, Dalal suffers from a facial deformity as a result of a stroke. Though she believes she has found a relationship built on desire and affirmation in spite of her disfigurement, she soon learns that her partner is a spy. Ilham, a nurse, contracts cancer from her exposure to depleted uranium shells and turns to corruption and the black market selling of human organs to finance her care. She too is arrested after her business partner and lover betrays her. Umm Mazin, unable to leave her home due to the trauma of shelling, is arrested for selling spells and charms and forced into the street. She too is separated from her assistant and caretaker, also a woman, who has been the one permanent fixture in her life. The lives of the three women in the novel act as case studies in violation and corruption of romantic love and sexuality. The state, seeking to control its population, inserts itself into the private relationships of its people, placing spies in their beds and demanding that lovers betray each other.