Elizabeth Loudon’s debut novel, A Stranger in Baghdad, longlisted for the Bridport Novel Award, is published by Hoopoe (May 2023).
“A haunting, beautifully written book about twentieth century Baghdad and the long aftermath of colonialism. Full of subtle, empathetic details that ring like bells, intricately plotted with unforgettable twists, this book will stay with you long after you think you finished it.”—Annia Ciezadlo, author of Day of Honey
“A Stranger in Baghdad is vivid and fascinating. There is an elegance to the writing which makes every page distinctive. I found it completely enthralling.”—Lissa Evans, author of Crooked Heart
“Original, beautifully written and intriguing. Elizabeth Loudon is an exciting new voice.”—Katie Fforde, author of Stately Pursuits
“A page-turner that is also full of marvellous description and atmosphere. It feels beautifully true and of its time but with a contemporary sensibility. The conflict between Britain and Iraq at a political and a family level is brilliantly done, with the cross-cutting allegiances dividing and uniting in a web of love, ambition and lies.”—Sofka Zinovieff, author of Putney
“An intriguing and thoughtfully worked examination of one family’s cross-cultural collisions between Britain and Iraq.”—Justin Marozzi, author of Baghdad and Islamic Empires
“The story of Diane and Ibrahim and their torn loyalties to family and nation, and how their children grow up in post-royalist police-state Iraq, is told with mesmerizing power. Elizabeth Loudon’s mastery of the historical, cultural as well as psychological details of such a narrative is truly moving.”—Rana Haddad, author of The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor
“Intriguing and atmospheric”—Alice Jolly, author of Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile
Hoopoe sat down with Elizabeth Loudon to find out more about why she set the novel in modern-day Iraq, what inspired her characters, and how she built the plot. In beautifully rendered prose, Loudon tells the story of a mother and a daughter who struggle as outsiders in Baghdad and London. This intergenerational drama is set against a background of political tension and intrigue.
Why write a historical novel set in Iraq, in the 1970s—a time when Saddam Hussein was moving up the ranks in the Ba’ath party?
The main reason is simple: I lived in Baghdad from 1975–76. It’s a time I vividly remember. I was only eighteen and I then knew absolutely nothing about the country or the region. A school-friend whose father was with the British Embassy invited me to go with her to Baghdad for what was meant to be a brief holiday.
I was planning on staying six weeks but ended up staying six months, from the autumn of 1975 to the spring of 1976. I made friends with young Iraqis who were really struggling with the rise of the Ba’ath Party and its restrictions. Quite a few, like Mona and Ziad in the novel, had European mothers. One or two were planted spies, keeping an eye on me and the rest of us. We all knew that.
It was a strange in-between time. Iraq was wealthy and young Iraqis had freedoms, but these freedoms were more material than political. My friends went to good universities and were multi-lingual. They enjoyed American music and Hollywood films. At the same time, the political tension was palpable. It was hard for them to speak freely. Their lives were literally at stake. Some of them had parents in prison. I was fascinated by the contradictions between freedom and censorship, and by how we censor ourselves too if we feel threatened.
When I left Iraq, I vowed I’d never forget what it means to live in a totalitarian society. That left a deep impression and shook me out of some of my complacencies. So this book is a way for me to honor that vow, amongst other things.
You say “amongst other things”? What were the other motivating factors for writing this historical novel set in Iraq?
I loved Baghdad’s crowded souks and ancient mosques, the old carved balconies, and the windswept archaeological sites. I wanted to share the immense beauty and culture with western readers who only knew what they saw on the evening news. I also wanted to share the spirit of hospitality and friendship that I felt so strongly amongst my friends.
Actually I might never have written this book if it hadn’t been for the 1990 Gulf War. I was working at a small school in Massachusetts at the time, and my colleagues’ prejudices and ignorance sometimes really shocked me. I wondered how I might tell a story that brought Iraqis and westerners together, a story that presented believable people with whom we could all empathize. After 9/11, I wanted even more to offer a corrective narrative to the reductive, punitive ones that we were asked to accept as justification for war.
Can you describe what it was like living in Iraq in the 1970s?
As young British women, my friend and I were expected to go to Baghdad’s select Alwiyah Club, sunbathe and swim, and hang out with the other young expats. It didn’t quite work out that way though. I travelled around Iraq with friends and went to the marshes in the south of Iraq, which sadly were drained later by Saddam Hussein. None of this traveling was sanctioned by my British embassy hosts, but I was determined to see as much as I could of Iraq. We also ventured into the Kuwaiti desert, spent a little time with some Bedouins, and even went to Samarra, Babylon, and Ctesiphon—the more classic historical tourist sites.
All of these experiences were precious although I was very aware of a constant tension. We kept packed suitcases under our beds and were warned that our bedroom would be bugged, and our phone as well. In the end, this whole experience was exhilarating yet quite strenuous, both for me and my Iraqi friends.
What sort of research did you do for this novel?
I used the terrific library at the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature in London. I looked at every single map of Baghdad in the British Library and at old maps of Baghdad available through the University of Texas. I read privately published accounts by British people who were in Iraq in the 1940s and 1950s, and archived letters from Faisal II, the third and final king of Iraq, that he wrote to his British nanny.
I definitely read a huge amount—I now have a small personal library about Iraq. Photographs and art also helped. I found material online and the great Iraqi architect Rifat Chadirji shared with me his photographs of Baghdad street scenes from the 1970s.
In the novel, you explore many issues that relate specifically to women, such as young marriage, miscarriages, sisterhood, and a daughter’s struggle to please her father. How important was it for you to address these themes in this cross-cultural context?
Very! These are dominant issues in my own life. In attempting to understand them I’m constantly confronting my own point of view as a middle-class British woman. I’m interested in how we all see things differently, and in how our perspectives illuminate each other. Different cultures challenge me to explore or change my own beliefs about my experiences as a woman.
Do you see yourself in any of the characters and how did your own experience in Iraq affect the tone of the book?
I hope above all that the tone is caring and respectful, because I owe that to the Iraqis who shared so much with me. I see bits of myself in all the main characters, but I feel closest to Mona, the narrator, although she’s much better than me at science and math. And she’s quieter.
While writing, did you intentionally try to favor one element of the novel over another—the plot, the style, the characters, the narrative, the messages, the setting…
Everything matters but in reality the goal-posts move with time. I had to create the characters and setting first in order to feel that I’d met those people in that particular context. I wrote many scenes from each character’s point of view to get to know them and discover what’s going on beneath the surface. I also needed to feel that there was an ethical imperative, an underlying message, about how westerners misconstrue so much about the Arab world. Also I want the plot to feel inevitable, given the characters’ desires and flaws. But in the end what means the most to me is style. I love music and poetry and I always read my work out loud to listen for rhythm and tone. I want to create a voice you can hear in your head but I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether I’ve succeeded!
More about the author
Elizabeth Loudon is a former college lecturer and charity development consultant. She has an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an MA in English from Cambridge University, and has taught at Smith, Amherst, and Williams Colleges.
She’s published fiction and memoir in the Denver Quarterly, INTRO, North American Review, and Gettysburg Review, among others, and received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship.
She drew on her experiences traveling in Iraq and Lebanon in the 1970s when writing A Stranger in Baghdad, her first novel. It was longlisted for the Bridport Novel Award and won the Stroud Book Festival Fiction Competition. She lives in London.