The Girl from Baghdad is the true story of Michelle Nouri, who was born in Prague but grew up in vibrant pre-war Baghdad. Her privileged Iraqi childhood is like a fable; full of sun and games with her sisters and cousins in the crowded house of Bibi, the matriarch of the powerful Nouri family.
As a young girl, Michelle doesn't fully understand the tensions between East and West that exist in her upbringing - Muslim ceremonies, Christian friends, communism, private ballet classes, & overseas trips. Her adolescence complicates things as family tradition dictates she should marry a cousin. She resists and instead finds herself flirting with Uday Hussein, Saddam's eldest son. He invites her into a seductive world of tennis matches and moonlit concerts.
But then, without warning, her privileged world implodes. The idyllic city of her childhood is devastated by war and at the same time her father deserts his family to take a second wife.
Michelle, her mother and sisters are left impoverished and abandoned. In desperation, they flee to Czechoslovakia, and embark on a painful and emotional journey between cultures - Arabic, ex-communist, and Western.
Michelle Nouri was born in Prague and was raised in Baghdad. Her family lived through the Iraq-Iran conflict. In 1988 her mother and sisters fled to Prague after her father abandoned them. In 1991, at age eighteen Michelle moved to Italy seeking a better life. After learning Italian, Michelle built a successful career in the Italian media, working in both television and print, covering the lives and issues of immigrants in Italy. She also interviews politicians, writers, cultural gurus and sports figures. Michelle appeared as a commentator on a number of international television programs during the American conflict with Iraq. La Ragazza di Baghdad is her first book (Rizzoli 2007). Michelle's story has attracted plenty of Italian media coverage (print, TV, radio & online) and the hardcover has sold 20,000 copies. The sequel Il Cammino delle Foglie di Tè (The Journey of the Tea Leaves) was published by Rizzoli in January 2010. The Australian edition sold 6,000 copies after 6 months of publication, largely thanks to word of mouth.
The Girl from Baghdad
Random House Australia
Author: Michelle Nouri
Question: What inspired you to write your memoir, The Girl from Baghdad?
Michelle Nouri: Well, in the beginning i was not sure if I should tell my family story to the world. However my friends and colleagues were insisting saying that my life is unique. I was born in Czechoslovakia and then lived in Iraq till I was fifteen. My mother was Czech and my father Iraqi. I wanted to show people what Iraq was like during the Iran-Iraq war. It started in 1989 and ended in 1988 just before we left the country. Before the wars with America, Iraq was once a beautiful, exotic, international and calm place. I also wanted to show the complexities of being brought up between two cultures as there are now many people around the world who are the product of parents from two places.
Question: Can you provide a short description of your story, that The Girl from Baghdad is based on?
Michelle Nouri: "The Girl From Baghdad" is about my childhood in 1970's and 1980's Baghdad and also about the love story between my parents. My parents were from divergent worlds. My mum was Czech catholic; blond with porcelain skin. My father was a very handsome, olive skinned Muslim Iraqi. When my mother married him at 23 they were deeply in love. At that time they went to Iraq to be a part of my father's Muslim matriarchal family. When my two sisters and I were born in the 1970's my father was very devoted to our happiness. We had a gorgeous childhood of parties, ballet, shopping, overseas holidays and gorgeous Iraqi food. "The Girl From Baghdad" also talks about my teenage flirtation with Uday Hussein. However my mother (and therefore me and my sisters) had trouble being accepted by the Nouri family. The real breakdown happened when I was 13 and my father took another wife. In 1987, while Baghdad was coming under constant fire from Iran, my father abandoned us. To be four females in a house with no man was a very dangerous and horrible situation. We had no food, no money, and no respect from our neighbours and from Iraqi society in general. As my mum could not work, in August 1988, we were forced to leave Baghdad to Czechoslovakia, where the end of communism dawned. In Czech in 1988 the economy was terrible and we were living in my grandmother's house under her strict rules. My grandmother became unbearable to live with so on my 18th birthday, I moved to Italy to start a new life.
Question: Can you talk about the importance of refusing to conform to stereotypes?
Michelle Nouri: When you grow up in an Arabic Muslim environment, you even don't realize that there might be a strict roles for the sexes. As my mum was Czech we also grew up with an understanding of Eastern European culture and sometimes that would create conflict as I grew into an adult. Even though I performed all the correct Muslim duties, like praying to Allah, I would also like talking on the street with boys my age. This was of course strictly forbidden. I was always a bit rebellious, and that made my aunts and female cousins very angry. Sometimes they would say to my mum that I was, "stupid and uneducated" just because I was wearing ballets tights, or talking to my cousin Omar. I think that we should take the best from all the cultures in the world and be free to chose our way of life that suites our temperament. To succumb to stereotypes can be crushing to the soul.
Question: What do you hope readers of The Girl from Baghdad learn?
Michelle Nouri: That big life changes can be dramatic and hurtful but also they can sometimes be for the best. We are resilient creatures. When we left Iraq we lost an extended family but at the same time leaving our family and home, saved out lives. If we were still in Baghdad during Iraq-Kuwait war there was the very high chance of being killed. We have heard since that our family suffered badly during the wars. I would also like people to be reminded that Iraq and Bagdad (especially) were once beautiful peaceful cosmopolitan places.
Question: Why did you chose to participate in the Perth Writers Festival?
Michelle Nouri: I have been lucky to have my book published here in Australia by Random House. The Perth Writers' Festival was a great opportunity to talk to Australian readers face to face about "The Girl from Baghdad". It's also my first time in this magnificent country and I love it! I found people here very interested in reading. It was also great fun meeting writers from around the world.