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Two tensions pull at Hala Jaber’s The Flying Carpet of Small Miracles, a riveting story of the attempted adoption of two little girls left orphaned by collateral damage in Baghdad at the start of the Iraq war. First, a three-year-old girl, named Zahra, and her younger sister, Hawra, only a few months old, are the only survivors in their family after an explosion that kills both parents and five older siblings. Zahra is badly burned over most of her body; Hawra escapes the flaming vehicle they were all riding in because her mother throws her out the window. Second, Hala Jaber, a celebrated Lebanese journalist, and her husband, Steve, a British photojournalist, have been trying to have children for years, but nothing has worked. Their hope is to adopt both of the little girls.
After years of unsuccessful attempts to get pregnant, Jaber throws herself back into her journalistic career by seeking increasingly dangerous assignments. Working for The Sunday Times, she and her husband are in Baghdad when the American invasion begins. Most other international journalists have left. As she notes, “I was writing about the human cost of a bombardment that was being executed with a good deal less precision than the spin doctors in London and Washington were leading people to think.” Her reporting centers, primarily, on women and children.
There are details about the beginning of the war, during the “shock and awe” phase, that I have encountered nowhere else. Before the actual bombing, an Iraqi obstetrician informs Jaber that women who are seven and eight months pregnant tell him, “I want my baby now.” These women tell the doctor that they are afraid “in case they cannot make it to the hospital on their own due date, in case they have no fuel in their cars, or bridges are blown up or air raids are going on.” These pregnant women are bitter reminders to Jaber that she has not been able to conceive.
The devastation of Baghdad, the utter chaos, and the extensive collateral damage are depicted horrifically. In one haunting scene, Jaber (who constantly visits hospitals) encounters a ten-year-old boy, lying on a rickety metal bed, whose shoulders are “wrapped in thick bandages.” The boy—in a state of extreme shock—asks Jaber (who is fluent in Arabic), “Have you come to give me my arms back?” This is one of many horrifying incidents, culminating in Jaber’s discovery of Zahra and Hawra.
Jaber’s editor at The Sunday Times asks her to focus on a human-interest story that will pull on readers’ heartstrings. Initially, she resists, thinking that the request is obscene, but when she learns of the two children who have lost seven other members of their family, she gives in, and then, soon, commits herself to saving Zahra, whose wounds from extensive burns necessitate moving her out of Iraq to save her life.
Bureaucratic red tape, acts of God (a sandstorm that grounds helicopters), and the concerns of Zahra’s biological grandmother contribute to the chaos of the medical evacuation—in spite of the assistance of several other dedicated friends who are determined to save as many of the most severely damaged children as possible. There’s a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare unfolding here—as well as the difficulty of moving around Baghdad during the first month after the war.
Then everything falls apart. The child dies and Jaber—who has promised Zahra’s grandmother that she will save her granddaughter—is thrown into a state of remorse and because of her guilt seeks even more dangerous situations as a journalist. She begins working with the insurgents who initially trust her because she is a Muslim woman. The years pass as the war drags on; Jaber and her husband make numerous trips to Iraq from their home base in London, but she is unable to face grandmother, whom she knows from mutual friends has continued to raise Hawra.
The ending of this surprising narrative is as gripping as a thriller as events keep shifting and situations—which had seemed impossible pages earlier—suddenly are reversed. Hala Jaber is one brave woman as well as a strong anti-war voice unafraid to describe things as they are. Her insights about the war in Iraq are revealing though often blunt. By the end of the story it’s clear that Jaber has more than paid her dues. Moreover, she’s helped the rest of understand that in situations as misdirected as the war in Iraq, there are decent people working behind the scenes, trying to alleviate the pain of others.
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.