It was sheer luck that I was named Shmuel [Samuel]. Someone suggested to my mother (who was illiterate) to choose my name by opening the Bible and picking the first name. It opened at the Second book of Samuel.
Compared with what’s happening today in Iraq, my childhood was like paradise, even though I was born into a very poor family. We were surrounded by love, tolerance and solidarity. I was born in Al-Habbaniyah, where the inhabitants were Assyrians, Arabs, Kurdish, Persian, Turkman, Armenians, Jewish, and some families who had stayed after the British Indian army had left. Each of us spoke at least two languages.
It is more than sad that my beautiful Iraq does not exist anymore. It is divided on Shia, Sunni and Kurdish lines. A man like me, from a Christian Assyrian family, has no place there today. The Baathists came to power in 1968 and started to Arabise Iraq, denuding it of its multicultural essence.
Leaving in 1979 made me a universal human being, but at the same time I am still an Iraqi guy. I still love the food I ate in childhood; I go crazy when I hear a sad Iraqi song.
My parents gave me something precious — the ability to be positive in adversity. They had both been orphaned and were survivors of genocide, my father from 1916 and my mother from the 1933 massacre of Assyrians.
I was homeless on the streets of Paris for a long time. I used to spend the days in the Centre Pompidou, learning English and German, reading literature and listening to music. As I was in France, I also learned all about eating and drinking. I owe Paris a great deal. It is a compassionate city and it was my university.
Paris had these Arab intellectuals in the 1980s who worked for glossy magazines financed by certain Middle Eastern countries. Their job was really to spread propaganda and I didn’t want to work with these people. You could see them in the cafés in their designer clothing. We used to laugh at them because we knew what they were doing.
There were very few translations of modern Arab authors, most of whom were our friends. So I founded Banipal magazine in 1998 with my wife, Margaret Obank, to promote contemporary Arab literature through English translation.
The novel is starting to play a huge role in the Arab World. I am very glad about what they did here with the Arab Booker Prize [The International Prize for Arabic Fiction]. Everybody is buying from the shortlist and waiting to see who the winner is. We have never had this before and do you know why? Because prizes were given by the government. I think literature can play a huge role in changing the Arab World.
I don’t agree with the name, Arab “Spring”. It is a state of chaos that will take the Arab people to the hell. The problem in Arab societies is a lack of education. What is happening now in Tunisia and in Egypt does not make me optimistic for the future. Women I know in Tunisia write to me and tell me it is going bad. They were forbidden from wearing tracksuits to play sport because they were told they looked like whores. And this is a place where they were teaching freedom for women in the Arab World!
The only parties to have money in the Arab world are the Islamic ones, because they have other countries behind them. They will make life miserable for their people because they’ve got no experience, they know nothing. In Egypt they have discussed whether or not to allow foreigners into the country, whether to ban alcohol and whether to take aid from the U.S. If they don’t then they will die. Apart from three or four nice streets in Cairo you will cry if you see the state of the country. It is like Africa.
I like the tolerance of the UAE. I have many friends from that country and they are all very open-minded.
I learnt tolerance and the importance of moral principles from Victor Hugo and Les Misérables. Scott Fitzgerald is another hero from whom I learnt modesty and kindness — and of course drinking. From Henry Miller I was very taken by the daring sexual exploits in his works.
SAMUEL SHIMON IS THE AUTHOR OF IRAQI FI BARIS [AN IRAQI IN PARIS] PUBLISHED IN ENGLISH BY BLOOMSBURY QATAR FOUNDATION 2011