Books: A World Away

Local writer Basil Balian recalls his Iraqi upbringing in new memoir

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Basil Balian, author of Once Upon a Time in Iraq

The Iraq that lives in Basil Balian's memory is nothing like the one we see on the evening news. It is a place where, within the constrictions of society's rules, a boy growing up is both safe and free and where his Christian family knows first-hand of religious tolerance.

Balian, who now lives in Western Hills and has been in this country for 50 years, a naturalized citizen for 40 years, has written a book about growing up in Iraq in the 1940s and '50s. That period now seems so distant and so lamentably different from today that his title is Once Upon a Time in Iraq.

Because American friends find in his boyhood stories an Iraq they hadn't imagined, Balian feels there's a place for a book that gives "an insight into how Iraqis lived, thought and behaved under normal conditions, before Saddam Hussein."

In a conversational manner, he writes a personal account with overtones that illuminate the society. He doesn't intend, he says, "to preach or immerse the reader into a crash course about Iraqi culture," but in reading about uncles and grandfathers and backgammon and a population that included many foreigners as well as Arabs of all stripes, a sense of the culture does emerge.

This is an anecdotal book by a man who likes history, about a place where history runs about as deep as anywhere on Earth. The occasional flashes of long memory help us to hope that, like so many previous, the current turmoil too will pass.

Balian, erect and sandy-haired, considers himself retired but remains on call for assignments in his field.

He left Iraq just before his 18th birthday to earn a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Toledo, rose to executive positions and later moved into consulting, marketing and sales. The latter work no doubt influenced his decision to self-publish, after finding the traditional system of literary agents and publishing houses cumbersome and unrewarding.

The book, organized somewhat like a conversation, is divided into sections headed "Places," "People," "Family Tales" and "Going West." Among the things he writes about are Kurds as proud and independent people in the small refinery town where his father worked for British Petroleum; his perceptions of Sunnis and Shiites at the time he was growing up; and his surprise at coming here and finding that not every garden has fruit trees.

Balian was not, he says, a typical Iraqi in that he is Christian, was raised in relative affluence and experienced a middle- and upper-middle-class family life. Because he left at such an early age his observations of the position of women, for instance, might be less perceptive than one would wish, but still these experiences give us a valid look at a particular segment of Iraqi life, one it is useful to have and interesting to know.

Balian never thought when he went off to college in Ohio that he'd not return to Iraq. (The story of his obtaining the visa, a bureaucratic cliffhanger he sets up in the prologue but doesn't solve until Chapter Nine, keeps the reader involved.)

He has, in the end, a very American life. He marries, raises a family, eventually divorces, and among new friends finds the significant other to whom the book is dedicated.

Although Balian doesn't return to Iraq, his family gradually comes here — brother, sisters and parents — all of whom become American citizens.

"I think that knowing more than one culture is fortunate," Balian writes.

Once Upon a Time in Iraq helps every reader know another culture, one we are seriously involved with, better than before.

To see a preview of ONCE UPON A TIME IN IRAQ or to order it go to and enter "Balian" in the search window.

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