The Tobacco Keeper

Author: Ali Bader

Publishing House: Bloomsbury USA

Publication Year: 2011

Genre: Novel

Number of Pages: 336

“The Tobacco Keeper” by Ali Bader is a compelling narrative that intertwines a murder mystery with the intricate history of twentieth-century Iraq. The novel draws its title from Fernando Pessoa’s “The Tobacco Shop,” symbolizing the entanglement of a single life with multiple identities. It recounts the life of Iraqi musician Kamal Medhat, who mysteriously disappeared and was murdered in 2006 under enigmatic circumstances. The story unveils his three distinct personas. Initially, he is Youssef Saleh, a Jewish musician who migrated to Israel in the 1950s. But found life there unbearable and fled to Iran. In Iran, he assumed the identity of Haider Salman, living in Baghdad until the late 1970s. Eventually, due to his Iranian nationality, he was forced to migrate again, this time crafting a new identity as Kamal Medhat, under which he re-entered Baghdad and rose to prominence as one of the region’s most significant musicians.

Medhat’s life, much like Pessoa’s poetry, is a complex game of changing masks and assumed names. Reflecting a life entirely built on fabricated identities and shifting facades. The novel begins in Baghdad’s Green Zone, where a journalist is assigned to investigate Medhat’s murder. Through this investigation, the narrative unveils the dark underbelly of political mafias, gangs, and militias. And exposes the secretive worlds of journalists and correspondents, along with their pseudonyms.

Bader’s novel delves into postcolonial literature, challenging narratives of identity and colonial stories. It employs a blend of documentary novel techniques, metafiction. In addition to travelling literature to unravel the complex layers of its central character’s life and the broader socio-political landscape of Iraq. “The Tobacco Keeper” was nominated for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009. Underscoring its significance as a work that tells a gripping story. Also, it provides profound insights into the nature of identity and the tumultuous history of Iraq.

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