When the apricots bloom by Gina Wilkinson
In Basra province, Iraq, in 1978, two young girls vow friendship, cutting their thumbs and combining their blood; sisters forever. Huda is the common village girl and Rania is the privileged daughter of the sheik. Then time leaps forward to Baghdad 2002 and we learn that something has come between the two friends, they have become distanced and distrustful. The country is Iraq during the time of Saddam Hussein, a time of oppression and brutality at the hands of the mukhabarat or secret police.
Then a third woman enters their lives, accompanying her husband’s posting as deputy ambassador. Ally is a friendly but naive Australian seeking to unravel the secrets of her American mother’s life in Iraq many years ago. Huda, winning a highly prized position as secretary in the Australian embassy, is coerced into becoming an informant for the mukhabarat, befriending the Australian woman, and reporting on her movements.
At the heart of the novel is the question of friendship. Can there truly be friendship between people of different wealth, different life experiences, different responsibilities and expectations? Huda and Rania are trapped in a world of fear and oppression. The foreigner, Ally, can step out of it at any time. Their lives intersect, there are secrets and betrayals, but can there also be an authentic connection despite their world situations?
In her author’s note, Wilkinson tells us that the novel was inspired by her experience living in Baghdad under Saddam Hussein, with one of her closet Iraqi friends a secret police informant reporting her every move. That puzzle of their relationship, vacillating between warm friendship and doubting distrust underscores the novel, and is a question that many travellers may confront at some time as they navigate worlds with vast discrepancies in wealth and freedoms.
The other question this novel raises is the issue of cultural ownership – who has the right to tell which stories? Having spent many years travelling the world, Wilkinson argues for the commonality at the heart of our lives. However the question arises, would Huda or Rania assert a claim to a more authentic voice, if they were the writers? Can Wilkinson really know what their lives were like, the pull of history and religion, the fear and betrayals? These are all issues worth exploring. Discussion questions at the end of the book could be helpful conversation starters.
When apricots bloom is a powerful story, of brave people forced to make difficult decisions in order to protect their loved ones, forced into deceptions but trying to still maintain core values of friendship, love and loyalty. And the reader will also discover the many beauties of Iraq, the art, legendary cities, sights and smells, and the apricot blossoms.
Themes: Friendship, Trust, Deception, Coercion, Fear, Secret police, Iraq.