The Woman of the Flask

By Selim Matar

Trans. Peter Clark

The American University in Cairo Press, 2005


In “The Woman of the Flask,” Adam attempts to escape the horrors of his enforced inscription six times before successfully immigrating to Switzerland with his friend and a flask, a memento from his father. In Switzerland, the forgotten flask catches his attention, and releases a voluptuous genie, Hajir, his paternal legacy of pleasure. Having been passed down from one forefather to the next, she leads him on a pilgrimage of stories from the Arab world and North Africa, offering him in his exile a connection to his Iraqi heritage. The descriptions of her traditional Arab beauty provide a sharp contrast to his graphic accounts of soldiering and her list of lovers who, like Adam, procreate with their wives but find solace and inspiration in her arms. As she weaves her stories of ancient wars and interbreeding, she dismantles the notion of ethnic purity and the East/West divide. Simultaneously, Adam introduces her to European modernity, causing Hajir to dream of shedding her own immortality.

Hajir’s ephemeral presence inspires metaphysical dreams in both Adam and the friend who had accompanied him from Iraq. In one dream, the friend wonders, “Was Man, with all the confidence in his own intelligence, maturity, and superiority over the rest of creation, nothing more than a cell of imagination in my own brain?” Hajir brings to her lovers history, physical pleasure and unanswered philosophical questions. Predictably, as she regains her own mortality, her generous spirit diminishes. While the blatant and shameless male chauvinism might annoy some readers, the poetic attempt to wrestle with issues larger than the personal pain of exile ought to be appreciated. As a literary experiment, the fluid narrative reflects the novel’s synthesis of chronology and geography.

Unlike Adam and his friend, the hero of Mahmoud Saeed’s novel never finds the luxury of metaphysical musings. The title of Saeed’s gripping and relentless novel, “Saddam City,” refers to the over-crowded Iraqi prisons. Imprisoned himself six times, Saeed’s narrative follows the incarceration of Mustafa Ali Noman, an aging professor and non-practicing Muslim who suffers from chronic dysentery and who has recently arranged to purchase a house for his family. As his car stalls on his way to work on an otherwise ordinary day, security officials arrive, escorting this benign hero to an interrogation, thus setting off an odyssey of hunger, beatings, dislocation, blindfolds, handcuffs, hoods and various other forms of torture.


The Woman of the Flask by Selim Matar

Peter Clark (Translator)

Author: Selim Matar, Peter Clark (Translator)
ISBN: 9774248988
Publisher: The American University in Cairo Press
Year Published: 2005
Extent: 172pp
Casing: Hardback
Status: Available
Our Price: £14.50

Two Iraqi exiles escape to Switzerland during the the reign of Saddam Hussein. From an old flask found in his late father's belongings appears a beautiful young woman whom he discovers has been the lover of his ancestors for nearly five thousand years. The two men are face both the European bureacracy of their new home, and an alternative world of magic and fantasy. In this novel we come face to face with the complexities of the world of today's Iraqis — an unprecedented history, a grimmer recent past, but with prospects that challenge imagination.

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A prize-winning Iraqi novel of the real and the surreal

The Woman of the Flask

Selim Matar

Translated byPeter Clark

Mar 2005 

180pp.    Hardbound 

12.50 x 20.00 cm 


LE 80.00 

ISBN 978 977 424 898 6 

For sale worldwide

The Woman of the Flask is a most original novel—a blend of grim realism and fantasy. Two Iraqi exiles reach Switzerland, having escaped from Saddam’s Iraq. One of them, Adam, has brought with him an old flask found among the possessions of his late father who came from the Marshlands of southern Iraq. He polishes it and opens it: a fabulously beautiful nubile young woman appears. She has, it emerges, been the lover of his ancestors going back five thousand years. The novel weaves together the threads of her memories of Adam’s ancestors, his day-to-day life and his work as a computer programmer, his fellow-exile, his Swiss wife, and his coping with the woman of the flask. She is not happy with immortality, and Adam and his friend confront both a European bureaucracy and an alternative world of magic and fantasy. The reader is swept along by a dizzyingly compelling narrative, unsure where the story is going but fascinated by the journey. The novel reflects the complexities of the world of today’s Iraqis—an unprecedented history, a grimmer recent past, but with prospects that challenge imagination.

Selim Matar was born in Iraq and has lived in Geneva for over twenty years. He has been a computer specialist, a journalist, and a novelist. The Woman of the Flask won the al-Naqid Award in 1990. Peter Clark is a writer based in England. He worked for thirty years with the British Council, mostly in the Arab world. This is the eighth book he has translated from Arabic.