The Orange Trees of Baghdad, the first book by Leilah Nadir, received the 2008 George Ryga Award for Social Awareness. This family-fueled memoir was written in sympathy with the 1.8 million people who comprise the Iraqi diaspora. It is a moving story about Iraq by someone who has never been there. Nadir lives in Vancouver as the daughter of an English mother and a Christian Iraqi father who left Baghdad in the 1960s. "This is a book about what loss really means," says Naomi Klein in her endorsement, "the theft of history and homeland."

One of the judges for the Ryga Award, Dr. Ivan Townshend, Chair and Associate Professor, Department of Geography, University of Lethbridge, wrote: "The Orange Trees of Baghdad resonated with me. I found it at once moving, disturbing, confusing, and wonderfully hopeful. In this hybrid narrative, Nadir takes the reader on a lengthy journey of family discovery. Although much is a recount of her father's experience, her own descriptions of childhood family meetings are beautiful, such as the embrace of "countless fleshy arms" by aunts she could not communicate with and the later telephone conversation with Lina in which "I suddenly know what she smells like." Countless detailed descriptions of conversations with or about such relatives gradually build a living family tree that connects Nadir limb by limb to the family and the country she is struggling to discover in herself. Nadir succeeds in defining a face of contemporary war that is rarely discussed, though it is the matter of a wealth of historical literature. With incredible intricacy and remarkable sensitivity she presents a portrait of the human struggles of war, whether it be walking for miles to obtain bread, bread made of flour and wood chips, household adjustments to water and electricity cutoffs, encountering car bombs and gunfire, kidnappings, household intrusions, dealing with no telephone access, rations, joblessness, sleeping on the roof through helicopter raids, coping with inadequate prosthetics, coping with injury and torture, or the anguish of trying to bury a loved one when there is neither mortuary space nor appropriate cemetery space. These are lasting images that add a different perspective on the nature of one of our contemporary wars; these images underscore the resilience of the human spirit. The symbolism of the house and orange tree is beautifully weaved throughout this work. The house is symbolic of a kind of Iraqi sense of permanence--residential stability, place, family, rootedness, heritage, intergenerational connectivity. Geography matters: "Your house is your life," regardless of how beaten up it is, how it has changed through war and violence and the displacement and exile or death of extended family. The orange tree in the garden is also a beautiful symbol. During the war the orange trees lost their leaves, eventually producing deformed fruit. The trees are dying. The tree is an integral part of the privacy and enjoyment of the house, a resource and soothing comfort to family, generation after generation. Nadir concludes with the powerful image of the empty house, but nevertheless a house that will not be completely surrendered to another family--the locus of hope for a family's future, the root of her identity."

Leilah Nadir has a Master's degree in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh and a Joint Honours Bachelor's degree in English and History from McGill University. She has worked in London and Vancouver in the publishing industry. Since the invasion of Iraq, she has written and broadcast political commentaries for the CBC, The Globe and Mail and The Georgia Straight, and published a feature article in Brick magazine. Leilah also has written a play, Heavenly Bodies.


The Orange Trees of Baghdad: In Search of My Lost Family (Key Porter $32.95) 978-1-55263-941-2

[Photo by Laura Sawchuk]

[BCBW 2008]