Soldier echoes Arabian Nights with Iraq novel

Thu Dec 22, 2011 10:21am EST
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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - On Benjamin Buchholz's second day in Iraq as a U.S. army officer, a young Iraqi girl was struck and killed by a military convoy while trying to catch a bottle of water thrown to children by the roadside as a gift.

The tragedy and its aftermath -- wailing women, townspeople up in arms, the girl's body on the road covered with a blanket -- haunted him, eventually becoming the seed of a novel that helped him fulfill an old dream of becoming a writer.

"The image of that girl on the roadway stuck with me for a long time and fused with some other things that happened," Buchholz said in a telephone interview from his home in New Jersey, where he is now studying for a graduate degree.

"This book is definitely not non-fiction, it's a fictionalized processing of this whole town and this whole experience, trying to make sense of it. The same way you wouldn't call 'Catch-22' or 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' non-fiction, or any of these other books about war."

Buchholz's debut novel, "One Hundred and One Nights," is narrated by its central character Abu Saheeh, a native Iraqi who has returned after 13 years in the United States, running a mobile phone shop and trying to rebuild his life.

As he stands watching U.S. military traffic outside his shop one evening, he meets Layla, a 14-year-old girl who loves Britney Spears, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and everything else American. Their friendship grows as Abu Saheeh is drawn deeply into the shifting alliances of his town and reminded of his painful past -- with ultimately cataclysmic results.

The book's echo of the great Middle Eastern epic, "The One Thousand and One Nights," is deliberate, working with traditions of oral storytelling programmed into mankind through generations.

"The idea I set out when I was writing it was that I was going to have this little girl appear every day and tell this man who's psychologically wounded little tales, and keep him going the way that Scheherazade would tell tales to keep herself alive," Buchholz said.   Continued...

<p>The cover of Benjamin Buchholz's debut novel "One Hundred and One Nights". REUTERS/Hachette Book Group</p>