The body under siege : war and the transformation of the body in Betool Khedairi’s Ghayeb

Canuette Grimaldi, Kimberly D.
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Betool Khedairi’s 2003 novel, Ghayeb or Absent captures through the disabilities, deformities, and illnesses of its characters the body politics of the conflicts that occurred in Iraq from 1990-1999. This report considers the way that war transforms and limits bodily interaction and bodily movement in Ghayeb. These politics render the body itself, whether alive or dead, infectious and toxic. Though the American media depicted the first Gulf War (1990-1991) and the allied bombings of Iraq in 1998-1999 as carefully targeted military efforts with few if any casualties, these war efforts transformed the bodily experience of Iraq’s citizens through death, disability, and the restriction of movement. These military campaigns utilized depleted uranium shells and targeted factories producing plastics and chemicals, destroying and contaminating Iraq’s environment. Both the immediate impact of bombings and the lingering results of the release of toxins into the environment caused illness, death, and disability. Khedairi’s work intervenes in conversations concerning the transformations of bodies both internally and externally that occur in the war zone, transformations from a whole body to a partial body, from healthy to ill, from interconnected to isolated, and from wholesome to toxic. These transformations are at the heart of the nature of war as that which renders bodies isolated, static, and toxic. As war alters the ways that bodies feel and move, it damages bodies not only in isolation but also as a community. Connections between and among individuals in the form of communities, families, and even the nation state, disappear or are destroyed because of the war. War drastically restricts community formation and corrupts existing social structures. Ultimately, the poisoned or corrupted body becomes a poison that corrupts and injures all those around it.