As a man educated both in Iraq and abroad, a trained doctor, a decorated military veteran, a professor of internal medicine at the School of Medicinal Sciences in Baghdad, and a deeply religous Muslim, Fadhi Janabi hoped to elude scrutiny for his one proclivity: loving a man named Adam Dawisha. But spies of the Hussein regime are everywhere and witch hunts are real. When his standing at the university is all but usurped by a puritanical junior colleague, Fadhi must rely on the kindness of a former military colleague to help him and Adam escape. Adam himself is an architect, but spends his days absorbing soap opera after soap opera and dreaming of a life lived freely in a bourgeois metropolis like France. The stolen moments with Fadhi seemed cautious enough, but when Fadhi is targeted by political enemies, Adam knows he will get ensnared in the same net.
Passage out of Baghdad for the couple is fraught, but simply crossing borders is no guarantee of throwing off the yolk of Iraqi oppression. What’s more, the perilous circumstances under which Adam and Fadhi carved out a relationship have shifted like sands in the desert. No longer tied together by convenience or happenstance, the lustre of their affection soon fades. Before long, the younger Adam is tempted by promises of travel and wealth by another man. Adam and Fadhi seemingly go their separate ways. Yet the road to freedom for refugees escaping Iraq is surprisingly narrow. After weeks of travel, both Adam and Fadhi eventually learn that they are following the same path, albeit on slightly different timelines. Over the intervening time, each man reflects on his choices in life and love. Fadhi and Adam question why they must flee, why they must be persecuted for loving men, why they must suffer for being born (or adopted) by Iraq, and why they loved one another. But the answers to these questions is as changeable as the culture of the myriad cities they follow in a dubious path to liberation.
The Smile of the Dispossessed is a modern historical fiction piece (circa 2001) by author Jeffrey Buchanan. It highlights the life and trials of the main characters, Fadhi and Adam. The book is carved into five “chapters” that are more like a road map, following the journey our characters are taking from Iraq to Indonesia. There is little glamour and even the initial portrayal of Fadhi and Adam’s relationship feels a bit fraught. We do spend quite a bit of time with the couple in Baghdad before they are forced to flee, though the spectre of persecution is present very early in the book and definitely tinges almost every aspect of the story. When the two part ways, I felt the book tended to skew towards Adam’s experiences at the expense of learning how Fadhi was faring. If nothing else, I suppose this helped me appreciate the change Adam undergoes. He’s something of a hopeless dreamer, his head filled with fantasies of living in Paris thanks to his ideologue of a father. Over the course of the book, we see him disabused of the notion that he will somehow fall bassackwards into a monied lifestyle. And yet, he does seem to find many opportunities, at least sometimes in part due to his being Palestinian and finding people sympathetic to his plight.
One thing I think Buchanan does well is reframe how Western mainstream media, as I perceive it at least, portrays refugees. Rather than focusing on the final leg of a refugee’s journey—often ending with a fraught or plain lethal boat trip, as this book sets up for our MCs—we are privy to the whole journey from fleeing their homes to getting to that newsworthy final leg. This is especially well detailed for Adam. He is the vehicle through which the reader travels from Baghdad to Sumatra, with Fadhi cropping up consistently, but far more briefly in the same places (mostly at different times). However, I did think Adam’s thread got a bit monotonous—leveraging his good looks at the right place to secure room and board with new men in each country. I suppose the repetition of how he navigates new places helps focus the attention on his shift from a somewhat vacuous twenty-something to a character able to think critically about his situation, what he’s willing to or been made to sacrifice. His lover Fadhi crops up in his thoughts often, though it seems to be a fairly equal distribution of “glad I dumped that fuddy duddy of a man” and “god I miss that fastidious, but kind-hearted man.” Conversely, what bits we see of Fadhi’s journey seems to largely reinforce his desire to reunite with Adam.
Personally, I found the most interesting part of the story to be after the characters experience (through TV) the events of 9/11. One of the most eye-opening moments for me personally was reading how Buchanan indicates Westerners circa 2000 are almost wholly unsympathetic to Palestinians—something that contrasts sharply with my own views on the subject. The issue of race relations and other types of social unrest also crop up. It was interesting to see Adam and Fadhi employ different Arabic accents to disguise their Iraqi roots and perhaps eschew some scorn from locals in other countries—for actually being Iraqi in Fadhi’s case, to being an Iraqi born Palestinian in Adam’s case. This also means they are privy to locals’ personal opinions regarding Palestinians or Iraqis, being gay (frequently referred to as “homosexual” in the book, along with a lot of “male” and “female” and, while we’re at it, the mental space where a cis gay man who is penetrated is referred to frequently as “a woman”), being unfaithful in religion, etc. As someone who is not an expert in race relations, I cannot definitively label anything as injurious…but there are certainly times where even my milquetoast self can identify racist, sexist, and anti-semitic sentiment from some side characters.
Overall, I think The Smile of the Dispossessed is a good deep-read for people looking to explore sexuality in a time and place where control by a religious, fanatical regime was in it’s height. I like that the story focuses on the “between” times for people fleeing from oppression and physical harm for being gay—that time when they leave their homeland, but before they embark on the final, hopeful leg to “freedom” (and, of course, the harsh reality of how the “civilized West” deals with asylum seekers is also briefly discussed).