"When Apricots Bloom," | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
“When the Apricots Bloom” is a fictional story set in 2002 based on author Gina Wilkinson’s experiences as a reporter in Baghdad before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.
United States sanctions ruined the Iraqi economy, led to joblessness, and empowered Sadaam Hussein in his quest to brutally and ruthlessly control Baghdad’s citizens.
Iraqis developed a deep-seated hate for the U.S. because of President George W. Bush’s description of Iraq as an “axis of evil.” Travel and trade between the U.S. and Iraq ended. A once vibrant and cultural city tumbled into decay. Sadaam Hussein’s barbaric hold on power was threatened by covert opposition.
The mukhabarat, the secret police, are everywhere. They invade people’s homes without warning. Families can be imprisoned or killed if Saddam’s portrait is not displayed in homes.
Saddam’s son Uday takes young women at will from their families and literally throws them to the dogs when he is finished with them. He tortures athletes who don’t win games. Young men and boys risk being taken without provocation to join the fedayeen, soldiers who torture and kill innocent people according to the whims of the Hussein family.
Huda, Ally, and Rainia are women living under this nightmarish regime when the novel opens. Huda, an Iraqi wife and mother, works as a secretary at the Australian embassy. When a new deputy ambassador from Australia begins his new job in Baghdad, Huda is forced to become friends with his wife Ally to act as an informant for the mukhabarat.
Ally, an American and former journalist, carries secrets she must not disclose in her visa. She is grateful for the opportunity to learn about her now-deceased mother who lived briefly in Baghdad before Ally was born. Pictures of places and people left by her mother lead Ally to areas of the city that visitors don’t usually frequent. Huda, Ally’s informant, learns more about Ally and uncovers intelligence that leads to deception, threats and risks for both of them and their families.
Rainia is the adult daughter of a former sheik. Her previous involvement, years ago with the opposition, has ruined her life and that of her family. Her relationship with her former friend Huda also is in tatters because of her actions.
The secret police become suspicious of Ally and Huda when they visit Rainia’s art gallery. The ruthless police believe Rainia is again involved with the opposition through Ally. They target Rainia’s young teen daughter as a gift for Uda Hussein.
This suspenseful narrative reveals a fascinating yet sobering take on a period of time that ushered in decades-long changes in United States foreign policies. The story serves as a reminder that democracy is fragile and that life under a dictatorship is horrifying.