JUNE 16, 2018
AHMED SAADAWI’S extraordinary novel Frankenstein in Baghdad won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It now appears in an earthy and vibrant English edition translated by the experienced Middle East journalist Jonathan Wright. This translation, conveniently released on the bicentenary year of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Frankenstein in Baghdad, has already garnered praise around the world, been translated into several languages, and reportedly come into the sights of several Hollywood production companies. This interest is deserved: it is one of the best novels to emerge from the catastrophe of the Iraq War.
The premise is brilliantly simple: this time, Frankenstein’s creature is created not from bodies robbed from graves, but from the body parts strewn across Baghdad by the relentless car bombing and improvised explosive devices at the height of the civil war (Saadawi dates the book on the last page as written between 2008 and 2012). The monstrous corpse, stitched together by a cynical and drunken rag-picker, is completed in the opening pages with a severed nose picked up in the street in the wake of yet another street bomb attack. The body is accidentally animated by a lost soul looking for a home when it is blasted out of the physical realm by a gigantic truck bomb.
Saadawi has explained in interviews that the origin of this story came when he was visiting a friend in a Baghdad hospital and witnessed a distraught man told to piece together the body parts of a relative to make up a corpse suitable for a proper burial.
The mission of “Whatitsname,” as the creature comes to be known, will be to avenge the lives of those from which it has been built. This, it turns out, is an unending and fatally complicit task. The bodies pile up, and it becomes impossible to separate the innocent from the guilty, victims from perpetrators. The creature ends up a grotesque mess of moral complicities beyond any possible social realm, an indestructible emblem of unending violence.
Like in Mary Shelley’s novel, the creature is given an agonized selfhood and a chance to confess the origins of its violent impulses to revenge itself on society — this time by recounting its story into a digital dictaphone transcribed by a journalist and then passed on to a shadowy figure called “the writer.” There are striking continuities with the original Shelley novel in this painful moral confession. Shelley’s monster learns to read by perusing, among other things, Count Volney’s The Ruins, or Meditations on the Revolutions of Empire, a book that emerged from the fervor of the French Revolution and emulated (as the monster explains) “the declamatory style” of the Eastern authors. Volney’s book begins, too, with a contemplation of the classical ruins of Palmyra, now in Syria and famously targeted for destruction when the area fell to the Islamic State in the course of the nation’s civil war. Volney, like Gibbon in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, offers a moral lecture over the ruins that line the Mediterranean on the delusions of imperial power. It is ruination that inspires the creature’s rebellion against his master. These little touches bind Frankenstein and Frankenstein in Baghdad together as anti-imperial statements.
As in the original, the novel provides the monster’s voice only once halfway through its narrative, and brackets his voice with a panoply of other characters. Indeed, the novel becomes a portrait of a particular quarter of Baghdad: Bataween. This region bears the historical traces of its long history as a home to Jews and Christians before factional war forced them out, eventually becoming the ramshackle zone of the marginal and the overlooked. Saadawi stayed in Baghdad throughout the period following 2003 and grew up in Sadr City, the location of some of the worst factional violence after the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Here he offers a lament for the lost spirit of the dirty, low-down, hybrid, and cosmopolitan city of Baghdad, carved up by successive waves of dictatorship, occupation, and tribal or religious intolerance.
This is why rag-picker Hadi, who lives in a set of dilapidated old buildings known as the Jewish Ruin, serves as a central figure. He hoards the traces of a bewilderingly diverse city. At one point, he peels off a quote from the Qur’an framed on the wall of his house, below which sits a statue of the Virgin Mary, taken from an abandoned Catholic church. When this statue is declared haram (forbidden) and smashed by Hadi’s Iraqi police interrogators, the ruin of Mary reveals an image of a Jewish menorah and a Hebrew legend hidden behind it. Meanwhile, his neighbor, the Assyrian Christian Elishva, refuses to abandon her collapsing house to live in exile with her daughters in Melbourne because she remains stuck in the melancholic hope that her son may return, even after 20 years, from the frontline of the Iran-Iraq War. Whatitsname becomes fused with this lost son, a further accretion in the generations of horrific losses in Iraq (Saadawi lost six uncles in that disastrous war). In the final chapters, a truck bomb destroys these ancient houses and the crater uncovers a wall from Abbasid, the original name of the eighth-century Islamic city. To avoid hassle, however, the authorities hastily cover up this amazing find.
In this evocation of a complex and layered district, Saadawi laments the loss of hybrid, intertwined histories in a city torn apart by factional ideologies of ethnic, religious, or political purification. Instead, he celebrates Bataween’s street traders, drunks, street sellers, journalists, writers, and prostitutes.
No wonder this area becomes the home of the hybrid creature. One of Whatitsname’s followers tells him he is “the model citizen that the Iraqi state has failed to produce […] Because I’m made up of body parts of people from diverse backgrounds — ethnicities, tribes, races, and social classes — I represent the impossible mix that never was achieved in the past.” The narrative frames this assertion as the theory of a complete madman, but it is also Saadawi’s clear rejection of the ethnic cleansing that was allowed to develop in the vacuum of power after the American invasion. In the embrace of the monster as what Stephen Asma calls a “mosaic being” — an impossible composite — Saadawi uses the Frankenstein myth exactly as Shelley Jackson did in her work Patchwork Girl (1995), which evokes Shelley’s original not to promote a holy terror at alterity (as the Universal Frankenstein horror films have tended to do) but to advocate for the impure, the messy, and the compromised.
The slangy and transgressive language of the novel also reveals this attitude. I know (having exchanged emails with the translator) that this has been a very tricky work to translate since it is not composed in formal, literary Arabic but in the local street slang and languages of Baghdad. Even though I have absolutely no ability to read the original, Jonathan Wright manages to impart to the English version a sense of this demotic, cynical, energetic linguistic world that conveys a modern, urban Baghdad. It is no surprise to see this book in translation shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize in 2018.
There are now shelf-loads of American Iraq War vet-fic, which by its nature sees the war in the rear-view mirror, post-occupation, with narratives that are often shattered through the prism of post-traumatic devices. There have been some very good novels, of course, but also a nagging sense that there is something amiss in such established conventions of Iraq War literary prose, fine-tuned in MFA writing programs. Emotional disconnection that fragments narrative concordance, the temporal disordering of story by agitated plot, post-traumatic compulsive behaviors that mask the delayed traumatic revelation — these are familiar, even over-familiar, devices in books by Kevin Powers (The Yellow Birds), Phil Klay (Redeployment), Michael Pitre (Fives and Twenty Fives), and even the poetry of Brian Turner (Here, Bullet). All of these, by the very nature of their composition, focus on aftermaths, the alienated return of military veterans to American society. These narrative devices have been picked up in fictions subsequently inspired by the war, too, from Richard House’s The Kills to Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, to Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life. Not to disrespect these efforts, but there remains, nevertheless, something disquieting about the generic familiarity of this kind of war fiction. Some of these tropes have been roundly criticized by another veteran, writer, and activist, Roy Scranton, whose first novel War Porn appeared in 2016. In film, the conventions have become even more rigid.
Readers with no Arabic have been able to access the other side of this story for many years, in extraordinary fiction focused on the Iraqi experience by Hassan Blasim (also translated by Jonathan Wright) or Sinan Antoon. Iraqi women writers on the war who have been translated include the early blogger “Riverbend” (whose posts were collected in 2005 as Baghdad Burning), and Haifa Zangana in City of Widows. Both Blasim and Antoon have been in long-term exile from Iraq (Blasim in Finland, Antoon in the United States), yet this does not blunt the extraordinary force of their books. Antoon’s The Corpse Washer, translated by the author himself in 2013, is a very good companion piece to Frankenstein in Baghdad, given that it focuses on the ritual role of the mghassilchi, who washes and shrouds the bodies of the dead before burial according to Islamic tradition. Antoon’s unblinking focus on the dead body, the heightened poetic language used to describe the ritual washing, produces a way of restoring respect to the dead, even to those corpses that have been increasingly morcellated by bombs (in one scene, the corpse washer is given only a severed head to prepare). The stylistic contrast of the stately rhythms of Antoon’s prose with the street slang and messy dispersed narrative tactics of Saadawi’s book provides an instructive juxtaposition.
There is an inevitable risk in claiming that Saadawi is somehow more “authentic” — after all, his novel has been composed entirely from within the cauldron of post-invasion Baghdad. As Saadawi declared in a New York Times profile in 2014: “The most important thing that has happened to me is that I am still alive.” He has missed being hit by car bombs by minutes, seconds, by pure luck; but there is also the grim record of the targeting of intellectuals during the civil war. One wonders how the more conservative aspects of religious and civil society in Iraq have received Saadawi’s graphic representations of dissolute drinking and prostitution in the novel.
Yet Saadawi’s use of the conventions of science fiction, the Gothic, and detective fiction in Frankenstein in Baghdad also prevents any simplistic notions of authenticity. By fusing Western genre conventions with the “authentic” evocation of a Baghdad quarter, this narrative constitutes a hybrid fiction. Aside from the framework of Frankenstein, Saadawi’s Baghdad is a place of casual supernaturalism. For example, key character Majid serves as a brigadier in the Iraqi police who runs the Tracking and Pursuit Department: “Its mission was to monitor unusual crimes, urban legends, and superstitious rumors that arose around specific incidents, and then to find out what really happened and, more important, to make predictions about crimes that would take place in the future: car bombings and assassinations.” The team is made up of astrologers who use divination and remote sensing to deliver precise warnings about future attacks — messages that the authorities largely ignore. There is some bitter satire in these passages: a TV shows a government spokesman delighted to announce that only 15 bombs have gone off in a day, because al-Qaeda had planned to detonate over a hundred. They are winning the war!
The subgenre of psychic detective fiction — here refreshed with the lore of Arabic astrology and djinns — is one firmly rooted in urban fantasy, arguably since Poe’s Dupin and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. This subgenre blossoms at moments when the city becomes unreadable, requiring seemingly supernatural apprehension to grasp its mysterious extent or the opaque rhythms of its invisible underworlds. The ability of Whatitsname to navigate the ruined terrain of Baghdad keeps him ahead of the dullards in the police and cuts through murderous territorial divisions: a lethally factionalized city requires a supernatural creature to map it.
Saadawi’s hybrid fusion of genres can be located in an exciting current of writing from the Arab world that uses science fiction and the Gothic in increasingly inventive ways. Hassan Blasim edited the science fiction collection Iraq + 100: Stories from a Century After the Invasion for Comma Press in 2016. There have been English translations of Telepathy by Sudanese author Amir Tag Elsir and the blistering denunciation of the totalitarian Egyptian state in Utopia by Ahmed Khaled Towfik (a physician and prolific author who sadly died in April 2018). A cluster of writers and artists surround Sophia al-Maria, who coined the term “Gulf Futurism” for the weird modernity of the future cities emerging in the Arab world in the last days of the oil economy. Al-Maria’s memoir, The Girl Who Fell to Earth (2012), insistently uses science fiction to link her childhood between the United States and the deserts of Arabia. The International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2018 went to the Jordanian-Palestinian author Ibrahim Nasrallah for his fifth novel set in an unnamed Arabic city in the future, Dog War II.
Meanwhile, in cinema, the short science fiction films of Larissa Sansour imagine weird futures for Palestine and London-born video artist Shezad Dawood has also insistently mined science fictional tropes in his installation works (Towards the Possible Film used a first contact alien narrative on the dramatic coast of Morocco, for instance). There have also been prominent releases for the American-Iranian vampire film directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), and the rather more impressive Under the Shadow (2016), about a malignant djinn unleashed by bombing in Iran in the early 1980s, co-produced between Britain, Qatar, and Jordan by the Iranian-born director Babak Anvari.
The most marked development of genre fiction in the 21st century has been this global extension and rapid hybridization with local traditions — there are fascinating cross-fertilizations going on across the globe in China, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. Saadawi’s monster in Frankenstein in Baghdad is a hybrid creature for our times. It is a desperate marker of the brutal violence that has taken countless lives in the wars unleashed in the region, a horrorism so extreme that it requires the register of the Gothic to address it. But Frankenstein in Baghdad is also a sign that the imagination can still survive in these conditions, literary works flowering in the cracks of the rubble.
To follow developments in Arab writing, I would recommend following the blog Arabic Literature (in English) at https://arablit.org and particularly for science fiction in the region, Sindbad Sci Fi at http://sindbadscifi.com.