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The Ministry of Culture: A Novel

The Ministry of Culture: A Novel

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by James P. Mullaney

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In his debut novel, James P. Mullaney brilliantly portrays the lives of two men, one an American and the other an Iraqi, each caught up in the turmoil of the Iran-Iraq war. Over the course of just a few days, each will seek a way to change the course of a violent conflict that has irrevocably altered their futures.

Journalist Michael Young has come to


In his debut novel, James P. Mullaney brilliantly portrays the lives of two men, one an American and the other an Iraqi, each caught up in the turmoil of the Iran-Iraq war. Over the course of just a few days, each will seek a way to change the course of a violent conflict that has irrevocably altered their futures.

Journalist Michael Young has come to Baghdad to cover the war and the seemingly relentless pattern of violence in Iraq. His return has also given him the chance to reunite with Daniella, a British-Iraqi journalist whose family history has drawn her back to a city that offers her only danger and distrust.

Ibrahim Galeb al-Mansur has devoted his life to the study of art. But the government's repression and paranoia have destroyed his family and silenced his talents. Forced to paint the enormous murals of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that appear throughout the country, he finds refuge each night among insurgents plotting the overthrow of the brutal dictator.

The Ministry of Culture is a compelling, sometimes unsettling look at the history of Iraqi politics, the complicity of Western governments, and the universal question of how much a person can endure -- and what is art's worth -- amidst the violence of war.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Over intervals from five separate months in 1984—the fourth year of the Iran-Iraq war—debut novelist Mullaney tells a harrowing story of life under Saddam. In the hall-of-mirrors atmosphere of Baghdad, one's duties to the state are done and overdone, and Ibrahim Galeb al-Mansur continues to serve the ministry of culture as a muralist (huge Saddams) even after five soldiers of the Republican Guard break into his apartment and gang rape Shalira al-Mahoudi, his fiancée. Meanwhile, Daniella Burkett, of the London Times, braves the nightly bombardments to spend time with her lover, the New York Times's Michael Young. Michael's visit to the hospital where his government minder, Quadro, is recuperating (he stepped on a mine) serves to draw Michael into a web of partisan intrigue—he makes and loses friends virtually simultaneously, and, in time, makes the rare acquaintance of his own better self. Shalira finds herself pregnant with a rapist's child and spares Ibrahim's honor by taking her own life. In response, Ibrahim takes over the leadership of polyglot local dissidents. Mullaney's is that rare war narrative that doesn't depend on carnage for the lasting impression it creates; his culture ministry is ultimately a department of the human interior. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Two widely divergent cultures frame Mullaney's debut novel, set in 1984 during the Iraq-Iran war. Ibrahim, a young muralist for Saddam Hussein, joins a subversive movement aimed at toppling the government after his wife is raped by Iraqi soldiers and subsequently commits suicide. Through an encounter with Ibrahim, American journalist Michael learns of the disintegration of the Iraqi family, strengthening his desire to establish a family with his journalist girlfriend, who also has suffered at the hands of the military. Ibrahim solicits the reporter's help in recording his "glorious history," but the dissident's final act is anything but honorable. Ibrahim's tragedy serves as a footnote to the recently executed Iraqi dictator's horrendous deeds, which ushered his country into chaos and disillusionment. This is a well-written and credible novel, although with its obvious good guy, bad guy theme and only a perfunctory look at thornier political issues such as tribalism, chemical warfare, and the American exploitation of Middle East oil, it reads more like a best seller than a literary work. Recommended for public libraries.
—Victor Or

Kirkus Reviews
While the title echoes The Ministry of Truth from George Orwell's 1984, Mullaney's debut novel is grounded in contemporary Mideast politics-most of the action takes place during 1984, at the midpoint of the Iran-Iraq war. American journalist Michael Young is invited to visit Iraq to report on the war. His perspective is doomed to remain "official"; he is squired around by a government-sponsored "minder" and has no freedom to do the kind of hard-headed independent journalism he would like to do. He reconnects romantically with another reporter, Daniella Burkett, an American conveniently of Iraqi descent. Part of the novel is relayed from Michael's point of view, and part is a third-person account of Ibrahim Galeb Al-Mansur, an artist working for the Iraqi government. While Al-Mansur's artistic talents allow him to paint glorified portraits of Saddam Hussein by day, the novel traces his growing incendiary (literally) radicalism. The alternating "voices" and chronological fragmentation give the novel the illusion of complexity, but the characters are as thin as cardboard and as flat as a sidewalk, and too often we cringe at Young's (Mullaney's?) tin ear: "The opinions and positions he took with such a boisterous condescendence toward anything to the contrary were extremely dangerous"; "there is no time for pensive reflection" (as opposed another kind?). Even Daniella, who wins a Pulitzer for her reporting on a chemical attack of a Kurdish village, speaks woodenly. Young concludes, "Nothing has ever made much sense in this part of the world." Regrettably, his novel doesn't make much sense either.

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The Ministry of Culture

By James P. Mullaney

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2007 James P. Mullaney
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5713-1


OCTOBER 5, 1984

THE SANDSTORMS COME IN pairs. Not delicately, but to those who have felt the beginnings hitting their faces and hands with small pellets fine enough to break the surface of skin, they are daunting.

At noon the sun rises to its peak high above our camp on the desert plains northwest of the ancient holy city of Najaf, bronzing everything under its steady gold rain. We are set up as close to Damascus as we are to the capital city of Baghdad in the area of the continuing Syrian Desert known as Al-Hamad, careful of the watchful and beckoning eyes from the east and not yet willing to let go of the west. When the heat is strongest, we seek cover in our tents or convene at the makeshift kitchen station drinking green tea or soda. Some members of the party even indulge in small snifters of Scotch to help pass the time when the winds outside begin to pick up and the whirls start to form intimately, like a slow, close dance.

It has been only three nights in the open desert and still it is too many. We are still far away from the southern borders lining the Shatt al Arab, the River of the Arabs, and currently home to some of the bloodiest fighting this world has known. I swelter in this heat, covered from head to toe in a thin cloth to hide myself from the harmful rays of the sun, and I am constantly worrying about the allocation of our diminishing water supply. My tongue sticks like flypaper to the roof of my mouth and I subconsciously take another mental inventory. I promised myself this would be the last assignment I would accept in this region. My profession has afforded me the opportunity to see a lot of this world, but each time I leave these parts it robs a small portion of what little faith I have left.

Mahwi, the encampment cook and mechanic, stirs the beginnings of our lunch over a large spitfire grill protected from the elements by a thin, transparent enclosure of metal netting. He slices chunks of wild boar from off the bone with a quick flick of his wrist, the knife dropping the meat into a sizzling pan, which he then sprinkles with an excess of cumin and other autumnal-colored powders. He is a small, wiry man resembling a marionette at times with his long, dangling limbs and the seemingly deliberate clumsiness of his movements. His pointy elbows move in coordination with his narrow shoulders as though fascinated by their motion. Behind the crackling of an intense orange and blue flame, his face is barely visible. His dark hand cradles a wooden spoon, stirring with a gesture of monotony a watery mixture of vegetables and stock of which I am not entirely sure of the ingredients. Nor do I wish to know.

Mahwi is a quiet man. The others, I am told, used to make fun of his high-pitched voice. The derisions grew so bad that he soon retreated within himself, and now he doesn't generally speak with anyone unless he is confronted by a government official or if he happens to be at ease, which, I am also told, is rare. His silence lends an element of mystery to the detached and distracted man, and over a short span of time those derisions have turned to suspicions. In fact, there is a pervasive suspiciousness of everything and everyone in this country, running through the land like a powerful electric current. Mahwi has worked out here on the perimeter between countries with many outlaw groups as well as several journalistic expeditions, and it can be considered a good thing, I think, that he does not talk. His eyes have witnessed too much during these years, and in his tongue he holds a potential sword.

The ruling Baath regime is permitting Western journalists entrance into certain designated areas of their country with the sole purpose of increasing international support for their cause against the "brutal and incendiary Persians." As a result, this group of foreign journalists — one American, three British, one German, one Soviet, and two French — is being permitted diplomatic entrance into the country with those very intentions implicit. The president will use us to somehow influence the Western powers to send military aid and, more importantly, to send money. The once promising economy is now ravished by war. Before the fighting, Iraq exported close to 3.3 million barrels of oil per day. Currently, the total barely reaches seven hundred thousand barrels. We will see what the president wants us to see. We will witness the lines of battered orange and white taxicabs bouncing over the hills of these ancient dirt highways as they carry home the dead and injured of battle. We will watch as women for the first time in this culture take up a visible and increasing role in public life, their delicate voices growing stronger and more independent with each day spent alone and without their husbands or fathers or sons. The boundaries of this male-dominated culture are beginning to fade as the numbers of war casualties mount. We will see the economic hardships, the steely black flames rising from the destruction of this country's great oil refineries. We will see the results only, not their causes. And we will not see the other side. Our assignments have already been outlined for us, all except this one.

Minders or official government escorts are assigned to accompany all foreigners accessing the country. Mahwi is one of three men in this camp unofficially helping us travel from Amman, Jordan, through these desolate stretches across western Iraq and over the twin rivers into Baghdad. His group has made contact with a rising political figure with whom we hope to conduct a secret interview without any knowledge of or approval from Baghdad. A formal briefing by the Ministry of Information is scheduled together with our arrival for tomorrow evening. We are to make the cannonball run the next morning at the first sign of daylight so as not to be late. The regime does not know we are out here early.

Last night Jonathon Feinrich, a German journalist that I have worked with before, and I talked with Mahwi while the rest of our group was asleep. Mahwi brewed each of us a cup of a dark, richly flavored coffee drink sweetened with the juice of dates. After grinding the beans with a ceramic mortar, he packed them into the side metal filter of a large steel pot. Then he alternately heated and cooled the liquid several times before finally serving it.

"To remove all impurities," he whispered when I asked him why he repeated the boiling process.

He politely refused when Feinrich offered him a pull from his flask.

"More for us then," Feinrich said, and split the remaining difference between our two cups.

The night was cool and still, and I drank heartily from my mug. The locals may openly reject the foreign spirits, yet I have seen them drinking their arak in secret, preferring the lesser sentence imposed on the consumption of local beer than on imported Western poison.

After a few moments, when the alcohol began to settle, I let myself relax and the three of us made simple, pleasant conversation. The sky is different in the East, filled with a darkness that almost radiates at night. The stars shine like drops of glimmering ice illuminating the landscape against a backdrop of black velvet. Although the night seems to provide cover from the eyes of the Mukhabarat and from Baghdad, when one sense weakens, another sense compensates and increases in sensitivity. We talked between us in low whispers.

Momentarily removed from his daily concerns, Mahwi suddenly became friendly. He asked us questions about our individual countries and what he had been taught about the West. As he spoke, I was amazed at how good his English was, and when he was done, I asked him where he had learned to speak so fluently.

"We are taught the language at an early age in our schooling. To be able to speak the dialect of the evil empire will help us to destroy it," he recited prophetically.

Now I watch him as he prepares the food and his slender fingers sprinkle a sharp, orange powder over the pot as the stirrings of the second storm begin. Outside, the threatening sound of twin helicopters speeding toward us causes a panic, and for a split second I fear the local rebels will turn on us. I watch Mahwi lower the flame and then immediately shoulder an AK-47. But with the propelling uproar come only the winds and the sand shaking our tents. The canvas walls shudder around us as if we are about to be swept away by a series of high-cresting waves. Around the perimeter, the binocular posts are knocked to the ground and their ocular lenses shatter, and then they are swept by invisible forces out of sight. Mahwi puts down his weapon and maneuvers the donkeys and camels underneath a tarp canopy where he ties them up behind a group of large rocks to provide shelter from the force of the wind and the moving wall of sediment. The rest of us begin the race to secure everything else in the camp. Food and clothing containers are sealed; windows and doors are zippered and then taped shut. Even our eyewear is worn with hoods drawn tight around our tanned and goggled faces. Grains of sand manifest everywhere, and the less of this place you have to take with you the better.

Only Sabawi, our radio dispatcher, remains unmoved and seated under a thick burlap cover in the mess tent. Shots of red lights flip across the box he cradles in his lap, and he persistently ignores our pleas to pack up the communication equipment. Years earlier the president was surrounded in the small village of al-Dujayl by a group of villagers who held him and his party hostage for almost two hours until the Republican Army finally came to his rescue. Such embarrassment does not bode well for anyone, and the natives' fear in our camp is evident in the way they talk and in the way they watch. Not even the sandstorms can be trusted. Sabawi forgoes the safety of the radio equipment for his own safety, and he remains fixated on the flashings.

Al-Hakim is making hard-nosed recorded proclamations over the transmitter calling for historical change and pressing for a united Iraqi Front. He is not as radical or as anti-West as one would expect, and as a result he is a rising political figure in the international presses. These kinds of power plays are an ordinary way of life, and it is that way of life that al-Hakim is mainly disputing. He is a young and intelligent man, schooled in London, and he is seeking the influence of democracy to help unite his country. But he is also considered an infidel, and if the government knew we were camped out here, directed with the help of its own citizens, to interview him, we would surely be captured, and al-Hakim, upon his arrival, would be taken and executed.

But al-Hakim has not yet arrived, expected two days ago with his small contingent of militia supposedly traveling east from Syria. With the coming of the sandstorms our only hope is that he is not even close to our camp or even in the triangle region west of the rivers. Men and their caravans have been known to drown out here in these storms, submerged under the tides as if lost in an hourglass. Our hope is that he has taken the foreign press's request lightly and silently changed his mind.

We are usually unable to listen to our own radios during these storms. Every piece of equipment must be packed, and all we can do is cover up within ourselves and let the fury of the land pass. During these suspended moments we don't know what is going on in the world around us. But this time, the words Sabawi hears from the radio have kept him stoically in his place.

"It is not good," Sabawi proclaims, although I can barely hear him and let the comment pass with the winds that have only grown stronger outside. Only when he yells, "Al-Hakim is dead," does the solitude of the desert break and its pieces fall within our mouths as I spit phlegmy grains of sand into a tin cup and wonder who will be next to follow in his footsteps.


OCTOBER 6, 1984

WE TRAVERSE THE AL ANBAR district toward Baghdad in under ten hours, a triumvirate of white Chevrolets bouncing over the long dirt roads that emerge out of the distance like a mirage. It seems like days since I have seen any natural colors. The weathered landscape offers no appeal in its worn-out stretches of parched earth and desolation, and in a way I am looking forward to our arrival in Baghdad. Out here there is a sense of irony to what the desert can do to the beauty of a sunrise. The area known as Mesopotamia is ancient and it looks it.

Mahwi inspected our cars one last time before we left, showing mild concern for our safety. He checked the temperature and water gauges and then he examined underneath the hoods, measuring out the proper oil levels and generously filling our reserves. He even pulled back the rug from inside one of the trunks and inspected the pressure of the spare tires. Once he was satisfied, he distributed a plastic container of food expected to sustain each of us for the half-day journey. Water, as I have noticed, is another story.

"We part ways and must forget our reasons for meeting," Mahwi said to me. "May Allah be with you."

His serious tone reminds me that despite the conversation we had the other night and the adolescent curiosity he exhibited when we talked of music and Western movies, he is still a native. It is our caravan that is leaving this camp behind. Mahwi will silently continue to do what he needs to survive, the end of our engagement another swathe to wipe down the sword. I can only pray for his silence.

We set off at the first sign of light, the sun growing in intolerable increments across the rolling, parched lands receding and rising within itself like smooth, white waves in the distance. As we hit the first minor bend in the road, the remnants of the camp vanish out of sight, and with them all signs of life are gone. We are all aware now that Mahwi, Sabawi, and Anil would turn us in if pressed to do so by the authorities. They would tell the police how we have come into the country illegally from Syria, and they would shake their heads and hands, not wanting to describe the terrible things we had said or planned to do. In minutes we have gone from semi- friendly journalists to enemies or infidels, and our driver presses his foot down on the gas until the needle breaks forty and we coast along like a sole ship on a barren sea.

This cannonball run, as it is called, is to be made only during the day. Cars and pickup trucks sporadically line dust clouds in the distance, blazing their own paths with a sense of lawlessness that hovers above the ground like a vulture circling over the sick. Although we are attempting to keep our tracks quiet and hidden from the border patrols and from the Republican Guard, once the sun drops, the dangers will only increase. With the darkness of night, these frigid hills and roadways quickly fill up with armed bandits: army deserters, vagrants, and outlaws who hide their faces in the hollowed-out spaces of the rocks and off to the sides of the Amman road well out of sight. Others are more brazen, blocking the roadways well in advance with their beaten-down German- and French-made vehicles, their guns already drawn in the distance. If you are unfortunate enough to see a blockage ahead, chances are one is also forming behind you, closing you in. Across these same stretches several weeks ago a Jordanian diplomat sped along in a small caravan of black Mercedes-Benzes, making the mistake of assuming safer travel under the night sky. This story never made it to the press, and the bodies and automobiles of the entourage were never found. And as night begins to fall, so does the temperature. At times in the Syrian Desert, I am unable to sleep due to the cold and shiver within my blankets, trying to recall the cruel heat that was so unbearable only hours earlier.

Our guide points out the few historical remains we pass, careful not to make any markings on our maps for to do so is a crime. Half-collapsed ziggurats rise forth in the distance, their stepped walls at one time rising proudly out of the ground, now shrinking back from the heavens. We pass small mosques and burial grounds, large empty stretches distinguishable only by makeshift headstones and plot markers that have not yet been stolen or destroyed. As we get closer to the city, cement picnic tables covered by fiberglass umbrellas are set up as rest stops. They are all empty. A resurgence of greens finally appears as we approach and then pass through the city of Ramadi on the banks of the Euphrates. Lush fields thick with vegetation and rectangular patches of small trees and produce are being irrigated by the river. There are networks of canals receiving water from the Tigris outlined in perfect squares as we pass a small caviar plant, its large industrial pumps pushing fish eggs out into the cool pools to be fertilized.


Excerpted from The Ministry of Culture by James P. Mullaney. Copyright © 2007 James P. Mullaney. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

JAMES P. MULLANEY lives on Long Island. He is a graduate of Providence College. The Ministry of Culture is his first novel.

JAMES P. MULLANEY lives on Long Island.  He is a graduate of Providence College. The Ministry of Culture is his first novel.

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The Ministry of Culture 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Better than the Kite Runner. Gives tremendous insight into that horrific period.