At War with Monsters in Postwar Iraqi Literature

February 24, 2018   •   By Mark Firmani

Frankenstein in Baghdad

Ahmed Saadawi

TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO, the novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published anonymously in London. Since then, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s iconic story has become a fixture of global literary history, spawning numerous homages, adaptations, and rewritings. Ahmed Saadawi’s prize-winning 2013 novel Frankenstein in Baghdad belongs to this group of Shelley-influenced texts. Jonathan Wright’s English translation of Saadawi’s novel — published this year on the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s own — for the first time brings his narrative to an English-language audience, where it joins a nascent canon of work by Iraqi writers who depict life after the 2003 US invasion.

In contrast to most American cultural representations of the war — which, as War Porn author Roy Scranton argues, predominately feature the “myth of the trauma hero” — the fiction of Iraqi writers tends to have a darker cast. From Hassan Blasim’s 2014 collection of short stories The Corpse Exhibition (also translated into English by Wright) to Sinan Antoon’s 2013 novel The Corpse Washer (originally published in 2010 as Wahdaha Shajarat al-Rumman, or The Pomegranate Alone), post-occupation Iraqi literature foregrounds death, via both its content and its generic embrace of Gothic, surrealist, and absurdist elements.

Literary scholar Ikram Masmoudi’s recent survey War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction (Edinburgh University Press, 2015) uses Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s concepts of homo sacer (sacred man) and “bare life” to posit that “the Iraqi novel has become a representation of the manifestation of sovereign power, examining how the individual Iraqi has coped with and withstood the subjugation of life to the power of death and killing” over the past three decades. Focusing on four figures — the soldier, the war deserter, the suicide bomber, and the camp detainee — Masmoudi argues that these character types are “united by the fact that they all are doomed to a living death in the context of the lawlessness of war and the state of emergency and exception that it creates.” As Agamben theorized, such deaths do not count as murders, even if noncombatants are killed. Masmoudi’s emphasis on the “lawlessness” of the conflict helps explain why Saadawi embraces Gothicized elements — most notably the fundamental ambiguities of meaning, truth, and understanding that haunts the genre — in his homage to Shelley’s novel.

The correspondences with the original Frankenstein are immediately apparent, as the reader encounters a narrative framed by a report written by the provisional Iraqi government’s mysterious “Tracking and Pursuit Department” that evokes Shelley’s conceit of her novel being a collection of found documents. As Saadawi’s novel continues, the statuses of the narrator, the character of “the writer,” and Saadawi himself become ambiguous, formally mirroring the impossibility of objective truth that the characters face.

Midway through the novel, one of its central characters, the journalist Mahmoud, turns in a story about the strange individual responsible for a string of mysterious killings. Enter the novel’s driving force: the Whatsitsname, a collection of stitched-together body parts scavenged from the scenes of suicide bombings and animated by the roving spirit of a recently deceased hotel guard. Titling his article “Urban Legends from the Streets of Iraq,” Mahmoud is dismayed to find that his editor, the compellingly complex Saidi, has changed it to “Frankenstein in Baghdad.” “Mahmoud had been trying to be truthful and objective,” the narrator notes, “but Saidi was all about the hype.” In content and form, the novel insists that the 2003 Iraq War and its (ongoing) aftermath rejects any stable understanding of truth. And without any recognizable truth, the platitudes doled out by the United States are not merely unbelievable, they’re fantastical.

The fantastical nature of reality in occupied Iraq renders the seemingly outlandish plot developments in Saadawi’s tale horrifyingly mundane. Another central character, Elishva, is an elderly Assyrian Christian woman who steadfastly remains in Baghdad rather than emigrate to Australia with her daughters because she believes her son Daniel, who disappeared in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, will return. Toward the end of the novel, her grandson, also named Daniel, comes from Australia to trick her into believing he is her son risen from the dead. Instead of portraying Elishva as senile for embracing this young man as her son, the narrator makes clear that Iraq’s history and present are no less absurd: “Over the last three years the local people had heard many stories that were no more believable,” from “[d]ead people […] emerg[ing] from the dungeons of the security services” to “people who had survived many deaths in the time of the dictatorship only to find themselves face-to-face with a pointless death in the age of ‘democracy.’”

Through such references the novel reminds us that the history of Iraq as a state is inseparable from empire and colonialism. As Blasim remarks in his introduction to Iraq + 100: Stories From a Century After the Invasion, a collection of Iraqi speculative fiction, “Iraq has not tasted peace, freedom or stability since the first British invasion of the country in 1914.” When this longer history is taken into account in conjunction with contemporary Iraqi fiction such as Saadawi’s, it becomes clear that Western conceptions of justice, democracy, and even narrative realism are no less absurd.

The absurdity of justice, rife throughout the novel, is one of Saadawi’s most powerful critiques. When a junk dealer named Hadi builds the Whatsitsname from the body parts of those killed in suicide bombings, the creature exists, the reader is told, to avenge the innocent victims by killing those responsible in “the service of truth and justice.” As an amalgamation of different Iraqi bodies, the Whatsitsname “wasn’t really a corpse, because ‘corpse’ suggested a particular person or creature.” Instead, he is described as “the first true Iraqi citizen” because his body consists of parts from different social groups in a society notoriously fragmented and sectarian. Thus, the Whatsitsname literally embodies the experiences of diverse Iraqi citizens united in their only common denominator: violent death.

“I’m the only justice there is in this country,” the Whatsitsname tells his “father” Hadi, but his mission gradually becomes murky. Over time, he collects three groups of followers that correspond to caricatured political ideals: the theocratic state, the extremist state, and the liberal democratic state. As the conflict continues and the number of innocents dwindles, replacing his body parts (which melt away once their original owners have been avenged) becomes more difficult. The line between crime and justice becomes harder to see, and the Whatsitsname despairs that “every criminal he had killed was also a victim” before the novel comes to an ambiguous close with respect to his ultimate end.

Saadawi masterfully demonstrates that US attempts to establish the rule of law in Iraq did not fall short for any Orientalist “clash of civilizations” reasons. Instead, he portrays US forces as indirectly criminal: they are responsible for establishing and sanctioning an assassination squad — the mysterious “Tracking and Pursuit Department” — meant to enact an “equilibrium of violence” between various sects “so there’ll be a balance later at the negotiating table.” Whether or not this is actually true — the status of truth is difficult to nail down in the novel, replete as it is with myriad collected documents from noted storytellers, liars, and corrupt parties — Saadawi’s depiction mirrors what scholars have concluded about the limitations placed on Iraqi sovereignty by the occupying powers.

In his 2009 study Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty, political theorist and geographer Stuart Elden notes, “Until the Iraqi government is able to back up its demands with its own monopoly of legitimate violence, it ‘exercises sovereignty only in a very limited way.’” Frankenstein in Baghdad portrays this gap in stable sovereignty by having the Whatsitsname move with his followers to “Area Zero,” a liminal space in Baghdad where three groups struggle for control: “the Iraqi National Guard and the American army on one side, and the Sunni militias and the Shiite militias as the second and third sides.” Fitting into this vacuum, the Whatitsname is able to enact “justice” while the distracted factions fight each other.

The corollary to this freedom, however, is the problem of how to categorize the “justice” that the Whatsitsname metes out. He serves as a universal marker for fear, signifying something different to each group:

In Sadr City [a predominately Shia neighborhood] they spoke of him as a Wahhabi [considered an extreme sect of Sunni Islam], in Adamiya [a predominately Sunni neighborhood] as a Shiite extremist. The Iraqi government described him as an agent of foreign powers, while the spokesman for the U.S. State Department said he was an ingenious man whose aim was to undermine the American project in Iraq.

This ontological confusion plagues the Whatsitsname himself at multiple points throughout the novel, as he laments being misunderstood as a terrorist and criminal rather than as the symbol of justice he so ardently believes the Iraqis and Americans have a “moral and humanitarian obligation” to recognize. There is no legitimacy accorded his brand of lex talionis, eye-for-an-eye, justice, however. In a country where the Americans and the government are now on one side and the anti-government militias are on the other, “‘terrorist’ was the term used for everyone who was against the government and the Americans.”

Similarly, the novel wrestles with competing voices, as it becomes clear that different parties are trying to define the story — the narrator, who remains unidentified; the eloquent Whatsitsname, as logged on a digital recorder; the journalist Mahmoud, who writes it in a magazine story; and “the writer,” who is given a comprehensive report and only physically appears in the book’s final chapters. In spite of the ambiguity, the reader can conclude who bears overall responsibility for the violence and terror. As Elden notes,

What is labeled “insurgency” has been made possible through the creation of a “failed” state in place of a “rogue” one, and the United States has therefore created the very thing that it claimed threatened stability in the first place.

Saadawi agrees: “[I]t was the Americans who were behind this monster.”

Ultimately, the Whatsitsname’s mistake is to conflate revenge and justice, a tragic error that Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani argues, in his 2004 book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror, was also made by the Americans, who “dish[ed] out collective punishment, with callous disregard for either ‘collateral damage’ or legitimate grievances.” In stark contrast to US narratives of the Iraq War, which largely focus on the American experience of trauma, Saadawi and his fellow Iraqi writers depict Baghdad as a space where the absurd is not a function of Islam or the “backward” Arab mind but rather the product of the United States’s imperialist encroachment.

This is ultimately what Saadawi’s surrealist, absurdist, Gothic tale leaves us with: an illogical story that may or may not be true, encapsulated as it is within the fragmented parts of a nameless writer’s story. Instead of offering an optimistic portrayal of Iraq’s future, the novel catalogs the broken lives of Iraqis living under occupation and constant violence. There is no solution to the problem of fear, Saadawi seems to be saying, only escape. Fatigued by the corruption, intrigue, terror, and death he experiences in Baghdad, the journalist Mahmoud returns to his provincial hometown, concluding, “It was anarchy out there; there was no logic behind what was happening.”


Mark Firmani is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at the University of Pennsylvania and a JD student at Yale Law School.