JUNE 5, 2018
IN THE CITY of Baghdad, as Ahmed Saadawi renders it in his novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, military vehicles — US Army Hummers, usually — patrol the city’s neighborhoods and dead bodies “[litter] the street like rubbish.” Car bombs, which are many, leave behind the smell of burning plastic mixed with roasting human flesh. People’s breakfasts are interrupted by “the annoying roar of American apache helicopters flying overhead.” And not only have many of the city’s residents left, but the ones who have remained are isolated. Missiles have destroyed their telephone exchanges and sporadically cut off communication with the outside world. The justice the American occupation claimed to deliver looks more like a dystopian wasteland.
Living amid Baghdad’s desolation is Hadi al-Attag, who, readers quickly learn, is Saadawi’s analogue of Mary Shelley’s Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Hadi is no doctor, but a gossipy antiques dealer “with bulging eyes, who reeked of alcohol and whose tattered clothes were dotted with cigarette burns.” When Hadi is not embellishing his stories at the neighborhood coffee shop, he is drinking ouzo, sleeping with prostitutes, or roaming the city searching for tchotchkes and trinkets to sell out of his crumbling ruin of a home.
How does Hadi become Dr. Frankenstein? He rescues fragments of blown-off bodies abandoned on the street; he begins collecting the fragments, left over from car bombings and other incidents of violence, like they are precious antiques, hoping to return some semblance of dignity to the deceased. In what at first looks like nothing more than a half-baked art project, he sews them together to form a full human body, which, as you may have guessed, comes to life.
Once born, this creature pursues its goal of bringing forth justice that has long been absent in Baghdad. His method: vigilante killing. The creature kills a universally despised, old Ba’athist general responsible for sending many young soldiers to die in the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, a member of al-Qaeda, as well as a security contractor, and, in the process, quickly becomes the subject of nationwide rumors and speculation. A magazine features him in a story entitled “Urban Legends from the Streets of Iraq,” complete with a cover of Robert De Niro as Frankenstein’s monster.
“In Sadr City they spoke of him as a Wahhabi, in Adamiya 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,” Saadawi writes comically. He becomes the blank slate onto which people can project their fears and prejudices.
Throughout the book, Hadi’s creation is referred to as the “Criminal X,” “The One Who Has No Name,” and most often as the “Whatsitsname.” (“الشِسْمه” or ashismi in Saadawi’s original text.) Its mishmash biological properties become the source of recurring snags: if he doesn’t avenge the deaths of his body parts’ former owners, they rot and fall off, often in comical circumstances. The challenges presented are compounded because he only wants to attach parts from innocent people to preserve the purity and clarity of his mission to bring forth justice, in which he takes great pride.
After explaining his body’s rapid deterioration, he laments to Hadi,
What’s worse is that people have been giving me a bad reputation. They’re accusing me of committing crimes, but what they don’t understand is that I’m the only justice in this country […] 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. I’m the first true Iraqi citizen.
He finds himself consequently confronting questions of responsibility specific to individual deaths, and, through them, broader political questions about blame, sectarianism, and salvation in modern-day Baghdad, where “the criminals and the victims are entangled in a way that is more complicated than ever before.” If there’s any parable embedded in the Whatsitsname’s uncertainty toward his mission, it’s that anyone who unilaterally attempts to impose justice, whether it be a man, monster, or North American superpower, will ultimately fail.
As this emotionally sensitive corpse monster — the first authentic Iraqi, by way of amateur suturing, we’re told — roams a city where reality has become stranger than fiction, his vigilante trials offer readers a glimpse of Iraq that can’t be gleaned from traditional war reporting or policy memos. The dark stitching of real and pressing political quandaries into Saadawi’s comedic and irreverent writing mirrors what we consider quality dystopian fiction; it offers both an escape from the reality of present-day Iraq as well as a new way of reflecting on it.
Jonathan Wright’s English-language translation of Frankenstein in Baghdad arrives at a moment in which “dystopia” — as a concept, fear, and topic of conversation — has invaded American consciousness. “If the election of Donald Trump were fiction,” Margaret Atwood told The New Yorker last year, “it would be too implausible to satisfy readers.” The success of Frankenstein in Baghdad is that, amid its unbelievable landscape — contemporary Baghdad — the presence of a sewn-together zombie seems hardly implausible.
Dystopian fiction combines components of reality specific to the time in which it’s written with science or fantasy elements that depict the nightmarish direction we are bending toward. Frankenstein in Baghdad reverses this typical formula: the dystopian elements of the novel are not rooted in its speculative, supernatural elements but rather in the very real, nightmarish violence of 2005 Baghdad.
In an interview about the novel, Saadawi explained how he intended the book to be an opportunity to “deal with reality in an untraditional way.” “The element of fantasy adds a touch of joy to the work, mitigating its cruelty,” he said. Such is the case even more for English-language audiences; the insertion of Whatsitsname provides them relief from the limited way Iraq is traditionally represented in the United States and Europe.
Frankenstein in Baghdad’s cast of characters is rounded out with parodies of Western journalists and American soldiers as well as the Iraqi government’s Tracking and Pursuit Department, a fictional agency that employs an ensemble of “analysts in parapsychology, astrologers, people who specialize in communication with spirits and with the djinn, and soothsayers.” The department’s aim to preemptively confront crime and its reliance on strange predictive techniques functions as the ultimate condemnation of the United States’s surveillance apparatus. Fearmongering and inflating the stakes of threats are the ways in which the department ensures it remains seen as a necessity.
Saadawi’s most memorable descriptions are not of any character but of the city of Baghdad itself. Before the Iran-Iraq War, the first Gulf War, the second Gulf War, and the resulting calamities, Baghdad was, for centuries, known as a regional cultural epicenter. Al-Mutanabbi Street, named after Iraq’s most famous poet, was synonymous with literary culture. Writers and poets from across Iraq and the greater Middle East flocked to the street’s print shops, libraries, and bookstores.
Saadawi describes the city under occupation in 2005 as a chaotic, multiethnic, religiously diverse descendant of this history that, against the odds, has retained its charm. It’s the kind of place where, while being invasively searched for weapons, people “heard Iraqi pop songs in the distance and smelled a mixture of alcoholic drinks, shisha pipe tobacco, and cigarette smoke.” Devout mothers who pray daily live alongside ouzo-drinking non-believers. Lapsed Ba’athists are the friends of lapsed Islamists.
As they’re dragged back and forth across the crumbling city searching for the Whatsitsname, readers sample everyday life in Baghdad. During one of Hadi’s searches,
The owner of the Akhawain laundry shop told him the police had been raiding houses all morning in search of armed gangs that were trafficking women out of Iraq. A worker at the bakery said there were “terrorists” coming from the provinces to stay at a local hotel and that the police and the Americans were searching the hotels one by one. […] [H]e spent half the day listening, but he didn’t hear anything about the mysterious disappearing corpse.
One of the hardest things to digest about war’s impact on civilians caught in its cross fire is its quality as a day-to-day experience, one in which horrors become mundane. Frankenstein in Baghdad’s insertion of a supernatural being into the landscape simulates this effect, as does its dark humor, an understandable last-ditch coping mechanism. The Baghdad depicted is at once ordinary and extraordinary.
The specter of President Trump currently looms above dystopian fiction — and many other things — and the criticism it has sprouted. Last year, in a blurb about Michael Tolkin’s dystopian NK3, the writer Chris Kraus posited the novel as “the first book of the Trump era,” describing it as “barely speculative.” Buzzfeed’s Jarry Lee recommended Omar El Akkad’s American War for “depicting a world uncomfortably close to the one we live in.” In reviews of the year’s new titles as well as essays on the reemergence of the classics, these mundane “too real”–style touts seem to be the highest of compliments.
Political upheaval has altered what it means to both read and write science fiction. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, the writer John Scalzi explains:
The secret [of science fiction] is to come at it from an angle. There’s a thin line between using contemporary themes to extrapolate from and entertain readers, and stepping up on a soapbox and using a political agenda to cudgel people […] But nothing about our days today is subtle, and the challenge of making science fiction not seem like a bald ripoff of current headlines is much more of a task than it’s been in a while.
Less and less are readers in search of the subtlety Scalzi articulates. People no longer see themselves as reading dystopian fiction only to understand an indefinite future; still reeling from the rise of Trump, many are turning to dystopias for their abilities to mitigate the unknown of the present day. The future depicted in these works is bleak, but at least it provides answers and doesn’t leave us blind to what’s approaching.
Rather than dystopian fiction, it’s more correct to call Frankenstein in Baghdad fiction of dystopian times. Dystopian fiction rarely answers the question of how we got there; explicit connections between our time frame and that of the book’s “near future” are skipped over to make space for the speculative premise.
But Frankenstein in Baghdad isn’t speculative doomsday porn that offers cathartic release; it’s a confrontation with despair that, in its use of comedy, refuses to be what Jill Lepore called in The New Yorker a “fiction of submission.” Frankenstein in Baghdad recognizes truths about the present day it describes instead of allowing a means for readers to escape and take solace in the comfortable idea that these books are only projections into an unreal future.
A panicky question that often arises in the hot-take universe responding to dystopian fiction is: What happens when reality becomes dystopian? If the criteria for dystopia is to convince readers that the books they hold portend a real future, Saadawi’s Baghdad has all the necessary verisimilitude. Yet unlike his counterparts in American fiction, Saadawi doesn’t describe his version of Baghdad as a speculative future “within reach” (as a recent Jezebel piece described The Handmaid’s Tale). Instead, he uses his Frankenstein to disrupt conventional understandings and reveal all the present-day, real horrors that the United States’s shock-and-awe democracy-building helped bring to Baghdad. He provides less of a balm for our crazy times and more of a cattle prod for action.
2005 Iraq is a byproduct of several utopias gone awry: Saddam Hussein’s anti-imperialism and Arab nationalism provided great inspiration within Iraq and throughout the Middle East before proving to be disastrous, and the United States’s “democracy-building” inflamed existing problems and created entirely new ones in the process. Frankenstein in Baghdad may not be speculative, but its reality portrays the aftermath of these utopic pursuits and, in doing so, offers science fiction a blueprint for how to address less speculative dystopias. And more than a blueprint, widening the zeitgeist to include books like Frankenstein in Baghdad could expand the American-made dystopia genre to its true size and render visible the ideological connections between American domestic and foreign policy that have eluded pundits since the Iraq-War-Hurricane-Katrina era of American moral leadership.
The writer Lidia Yuknavitch told Wired magazine last year that, in her dystopian fiction, she’s less interested in looking toward the future and more interested in “infiltrating the present tense with the imagination in order to shake it loose from the status quo.” If this is the new charge of dystopian fiction, then Frankenstein in Baghdad is exemplary. “What often goes unsaid in conversations about the dawn of dystopia is that, for many, both in the United States and outside of it,” Yuknavitch says, “the dystopia we all seem to be speculating about has already come to fruition.”
The response to the uncertainty of our political climate is often to describe the United States as being almost equivalent to the societies described in 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale. But in all the sober revisits of 1984, few consider the fact that American politicians aren’t only the protagonists in dystopia as it exists within the borders of the United States — they also star in several others as well. Under the Bush and Obama administrations, the United States decimated Iraq, used white phosphorus as a chemical weapon against civilians, and was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 2.4 million Iraqis. But these facts alone fail to illustrate the extent of the devastation and the experience of living somewhere in which walking streets amid blown-off body parts is a quotidian reality. Few discussing American dystopian fiction take it upon themselves to move beyond our borders and think about the devastation the United States has wreaked elsewhere. Often, books like Frankenstein in Baghdad are ghettoized into a Middle East war-and-violence genre and seen in a narrow light.
In an interview with the author China Miéville in Boston Review’s special issue on Global Dystopias, Miéville says: “It’s done. This is a dystopia […] it’s worth fighting even for ashes […] it’s too late to save, but we might repurpose. Suturing, jerry-rigging, cobbling together. Finding unexpected resources in the muck, using them in new ways.” In Frankenstein in Baghdad, tragedy fails to overwrite the vibrant tapestry that is Iraqi history. Saadawi has sutured together a dystopian universe that confronts the horrors of reality, rather than offering an escape from it and, in doing so, has provided American science fiction lovers — readers and writers alike — a new and refreshing template for dystopian fiction fitting to our time.