Indirect Victims of Savagery

By Chip RossettiNovember 21, 2018

Indirect Victims of Savagery

Baghdad Noir by Samuel Shimon

“ALL IRAQIS WILL READILY agree that their life has always been noir,” says editor Samuel Shimon in his introduction to Baghdad Noir, one of the two latest volumes in Akashic Books’s globe-spanning “Noir” series (the other being Marrakech Noir, edited by Yassin Adnan and released on the same day, although covering cities at the opposite ends of the Arab world). But while the oppression and violence that have marked Iraq’s recent history furnish plenty of grimness for the mood associated with noir fiction and film, the genre is distinctly American in origin, from black-and-white Hollywood movies of sin and betrayal to Philip Marlowe’s jaded outlook on human nature. As Shimon points out in his introduction, the Iraqi authors he approached were less directly familiar with the genre, and Baghdad Noir is the first collection of Iraqi crime fiction that he is aware of. [1] So, tasked with commissioning the 14 stories included in this volume, he arranged to translate into Arabic a story by the late Maggie Estep that was published in Akashic’s early Queens Noir collection, and sent the translation to the writers as a model of noir style to follow.

As a result, the contributors have found ways to make this genre their own. What is surprising here is the breadth of settings and eras for these stories, ranging from 1950, during the relatively stable period of the Hashemite monarchy, through the paranoid years of Ba’athist rule, the sanctions era of the 1990s, and the violent years after 2003, up to the more recent threat of terrorism embodied by Daesh’s (ISIS) draconian rule over Iraq’s north.

Ten of the authors represented here are Iraqi; the other four are American, Iranian, Tunisian, and Lebanese. Shimon has managed to secure stories from some of the most prominent Iraqi authors now writing, such as Ahmed Saadawi, Sinan Antoon, Muhsin al-Ramli, and Ali Bader. Of the four women writers in the book, only two are Iraqi: it would have been interesting to see prominent Iraqi women writers like Inaam Kachachi or Dunya Mikhail try their hand at noir. I was unfamiliar with several of these contributors, and it speaks to their talents that these stories piqued my interest to track down their full-length novels.

Noir is a broad category — it may refer primarily to a story’s general mood, or it can refer to specific plot elements. For this collection, some of the contributors wrote their noir as stories of murder and the search for a killer. Muhsin al-Ramli, perhaps best known for his 2012 novel Hada’iq al-Ra’is (published in English as The President’s Gardens), opens the collection with a whodunit set in an apartment building in Baghdad during the American occupation. It begins with the discovery of a murdered young woman in the courtyard of the building, which has been locked down after the night’s curfew. It’s a classic closed environment as the house’s occupants eye each other warily, knowing that the killer must be among them. Al-Ramli has a flair for evoking urban squalor (the neighborhood carries “smoke from piles of putrid, smoldering garbage mixed with the scent of grilled meat and spices”) and corruption (the police are “good for nothing except taking bribes”), while the story peels back the layers of lust, politics, and mixed motives that lead to murder.

The Iraqi authorities in general, and Baghdad’s police specifically, don’t come off well in this collection, being either ineffectual or actively criminal, as in Mohammed Alwan Jabr’s compelling “Room 22,” a tense account of a man bringing a suitcase full of ransom money to a hotel room in order to pay off his young nephew’s kidnappers, only to discover a greater web of religious and official corruption behind the abduction. One exception to this dim view of law enforcement is Salima Salih’s compact “The Apartment,” in which a dogged police inspector, Naji Nassar, investigates the brutal murder of an old lady at her home. Even here, though, the story closes not on the arrest of the guilty party, but just a world-weary acknowledgment that this is “just another day in Baghdad.”

The identity of the killer is more elusive in the excellent “Empty Bottles” by novelist Hussain al-Mozany, who died shortly after completing this story. Set in the 1950s working-class neighborhood of al-Thawra City (now since renamed Sadr City), it begins with a gruesome “honor killing” committed at dawn, witnessed by the 12-year-old narrator’s mother. The killing becomes an obsession with al-Mozany’s narrator, who comes to a disturbing realization about why honor killings are so prevalent among the poor: “A feeling struck me like a thunderbolt that honor was the only wealth the poor had…” In his morbid imagination, the killer transforms into a monster of folklore, a djinn known as the tantal that kidnaps children in the night. Al-Mozany’s story focuses our attention on the ongoing impact of violence, rippling out from the past in unexpected ways. The narrator didn’t even witness the murder himself, but it becomes a permanent rupture in his later life, making him, as he says, “an indirect victim of its savagery.”

Another standout in this collection is Ali Bader’s “Baghdad House,” which is set in 1950 and features a middle-class, educated protagonist. The story’s milieu is vastly different from the rest of the book, given the political and social changes Iraq has witnessed since 1950 — the overthrow of the monarchy in the late 1950s, the subsequent political assassinations and coups culminating in the Ba’athist coup in 1968, followed by the ascendancy of Saddam (itself a kind of internal coup), and the years of war, sanctions, and occupation that followed. In Bader’s contribution, an accountant for an automotive company is temporarily transferred from Basra to the company’s Baghdad office to replace two colleagues who have successively gone missing. Both of his vanished predecessors had been residents at the same upscale lodging house, Baghdad House, where he, too, is assigned to stay. On his first day there, one of its longtime residents, a Persian woman, is murdered, and the accountant finds himself becoming a detective, uncovering a sordid demimonde of upper-crust Baghdad. Even more than others in this collection, this narrative — a clear homage to Agatha Christie’s mysteries — seems like a novel in miniature that could easily have been expanded. Bader has already proven himself adept with historical settings, and if he ever chose to write a full-length mystery novel set in 1950s Baghdad, I would jump at the chance to read it.

Noir can also draw on the darker recesses of human psychology, on madness and unreliable narrators that pull the rug out from under the reader. Of the stories that took that route, the foremost is Sinan Antoon’s excellent “Jasim’s File,” which is based on a true incident involving the mass escape of mental patients from Baghdad’s al-Rashad Hospital when the Americans invaded. “The Americans kind of liberated me,” says the protagonist, Jasim, as he flees the mental ward and returns to his family home during the chaos of April 2003. Living in his family’s empty home, Jasim falls into working with a friend who has joined the Badr Brigade, a military faction formed by Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, with the express purpose of encouraging an Iranian-style Islamic revolution in Iraq. The story concludes with an ironic reveal after we have learned that Jasim has graduated to assassinations. Jasim’s story replays in miniature the devastation of the 2003 occupation that gave free rein to social disorder and allowed criminal behavior to drift easily into terrorism.

Dheya al-Khalidi’s “Getting to Abu Nuwas Street” has a great noir opening, one that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Chandler novel (“I come to in the morning, and see that I’m in an abandoned metal shop. Tied up.”). Al-Khalidi’s 2012 novel al-Qutla (The Killers) is set during the violent years after 2003, and this kicker of a story conveys some of the same flavor, but featuring a narrator with fuzzy memories of the events that led to his capture. The American troops may have withdrawn in 2009, but Baghdad’s violence remains: “American soldiers used to command Baghdad’s nights — their Humvees roaring, keeping us awake and afraid. Then the night’s custody switched over to our Iraqi brownness — bullets flying freely — even for a riled cat or a hungry dog.” Here, nighttime Baghdad has a particular menace, a city strangely desolate of humans after curfew and shrouded in blackness. The story is saturated with the narrator’s memories — such as his nostalgia for happier times, which led him to break curfew to try and reach Abu Nuwas park the night before — even though memory itself, like the titular park the narrator can never reach, becomes elusive, slippery, and leading to danger.

“Post-Traumatic Stress Reality in Qadisiya,” by the Lebanese-born author Hadia Said, concerns an increasingly paranoid protagonist, Amin, who is looking to regain the right to his family’s long-abandoned home in the Qadisiya district. He is desperate to find the title deed and key to the house, which his dying grandmother had given to him. The story veers between Amin’s memories of the past and his hallucinatory present reality. The spectral appearance of long-dead family members makes this a ghost story — particularly given the ending, which suggests that Amin himself may be the one who is dead and buried.

Two stories revolve around the noirish trope of characters with a death wish, fueled by regrets about their own past crimes. The first is “A Sense of Remorse” by Ahmed Saadawi — best known to English-language readers for his novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, a finalist for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize — in which a police investigator looks into the mysterious death of his alcoholic older brother. His brother’s suicide leads him to uncover his brother’s Ba’athist past, a charlatan who once made amulets that claimed to help recruits escape military service, and a poison that only kills those who are incapable of feeling remorse. The revelations about the brother offer a disturbing insight into the way power corrupts and gives license to cruelty:

I want to feel remorse […] to cry about the terrible things I did, but it looks like I’m hopeless. I’m a demon, and I’ll admit to you right now that I enjoyed doing what I did. It was fun. It gave me an amazing sense of power and control. Is that what a normal person would say?

Salar Abdoh’s “Baghdad on Borrowed Time” also features a character with a death wish. Of all the stories in the collection, Abdoh’s hews most closely to the tropes of traditional noir and explicitly references American noir fiction. The protagonist is a Tehran-based private investigator whose clients always insist on bringing up Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler with him. This Iranian PI — who was once a POW held by Iraq — is hired by an Iraqi client who wants him to find a killer (“a serial killer with a purpose”) who has murdered a string of middle-aged men in Baghdad. The client, as we learn, is a veteran of the Badr Brigade, who lived for years in exile in Iran and only returned to Iraq after 2003.

Each of the victims is a former Iraqi soldier who had spent time occupying part of Iran. The murderer is somehow tracking down the former soldiers and taking three-decades-old revenge on people who are otherwise strangers to him. The investigator realizes he is being asked to solve murders that no one cares about, in a city already teeming with violence and bloodshed, for a client with no seeming connection to the crime. In a twist, the culprit begs the investigator to catch him and then brings him along to witness his final murder and his suicide, all in time for the investigator to catch his midnight flight back home to Tehran. As with Saadawi’s story, a character’s grief dates back to the Iran-Iraq War, a pointed reminder of the impact that that prolonged conflict had on the people of both countries, long before Operation Iraqi Freedom was a glint in Dick Cheney’s eye.

Two other authors, Layla Qasrany and Hayet Raies, mine the climate of paranoia that characterized Ba’athist Iraq for their stories, which are both set in the late 1970s. Hayet Raies was born in Tunisia but did her master’s degree at Baghdad University, an experience that informs the tense setting of “The Fear of Iraqi Intelligence,” as a female university student negotiates the disappearance of her roommate. The palpable presence of the authoritarian state is unmistakable, and Raies effectively conveys the fear it invoked, such as students monitoring their private dorm-room conversations lest their closest friends turn out to be government informers. The atmosphere is stifling even for relatively privileged foreign students, and even if Raies’s story doesn’t exactly seem noir, it makes for a compelling read. Likewise, Layla Qasrany’s “Tuesday of Sorrows” depicts an educated, middle-class family attempting to emigrate from Iraq without arousing the suspicions of the Ba’athist authorities. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, and these characters, too, use private code words to fool eavesdroppers. On the day of their departure to London, a man with an axe bursts into the apartment and kills the mother, a symbol of the state’s unchecked power over people’s lives, and its ability to wreak havoc for reasons of its own.

Two final stories are linked by their focus on protagonists taking revenge. Unlike the other stories, where the protagonists are victims, or at best witnesses to evil, in these two stories, the protagonists commit murder themselves. Roy Scranton’s “Homecoming” is a neatly plotted tale of a son’s vengeance against local thugs in Baghdad. I initially felt that the inclusion of an American author was unnecessary — after all, there are plenty of novels and memoirs written by Americans about Iraq post-2003, and far too few works of fiction by Iraqis made available to English-language readers. However, Scranton, who had previously been a soldier in the US army in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and has since become an essayist and teacher of creative writing, has more than justified his placement in this collection with this lived-in tale, set before Mosul fell to Daesh in 2014. The protagonist, Haider, is on leave from the Iraqi army after he is injured fighting against Daesh. As always, readers may raise questions of representation, as an American author assumes the voice of a young Iraqi man, but Scranton’s story makes for a gripping read, as Haider avenges a brutal punishment meted out to his father by local thugs. It is perhaps unsurprising that there is an American character involved — albeit a distinctly unsympathetic one. As with a few other stories in this collection, “Homecoming” was written originally in English, and as such, there is a tendency for the characters to sound very much like American grunts with their fluent English swearing. The story offers a satisfying closure, but it did prompt me to wonder about the fiction yet to be written by Iraqis who lived through the most recent war against Daesh: there are surely memoirs and novels about those experiences being written now, just as the long Iran-Iraq War spawned a number of works of fiction in both Persian and Arabic.

In Nassif Falak’s “Doomsday Book,” set during the sanctions era, the narrator shadows his brother across Baghdad to discover why he is stealing items from their family home, only to discover that his brother is working for a local al-Qaeda cell. Later, after his brother disappears, the protagonist returns to the home of the cell leader and strangles him with wire. He also gets his hands on the leader’s ledger (“the doomsday book” of the title) that suggests that his brother has traveled to Afghanistan. The protagonist has some political secrets of his own, as a friend of his, just before being arrested, passed off to him a hand grenade for safekeeping, which the protagonist then buried in the yard of his house. The recurring image of the buried hand grenade, with its pin gradually rotting away, is a perfect symbol of the tensions buried within Iraqi society under Saddam, just waiting to explode into the open.

In his introduction, Shimon notes that a prominent theme in Baghdad Noir is family, and particularly the fraying of family bonds as siblings and relatives turn on each other and traditional ties loosen. I would argue, though, that the true common theme in these stories — a theme very much in the spirit of noir — is betrayal. Characters in this collection are frequently on the receiving end of unpleasant epiphanies. And as this engaging group of stories amply demonstrates, betrayal — whether by authorities, religious leaders, neighbors, colleagues, or liberators — is a subject that Iraqis know all too well.


Chip Rossetti is a book editor and a translator of modern Arabic fiction.


[1] Although there are certainly urban noir and noir-adjacent elements in Iraqi fiction and popular culture: I am thinking in particular of Hassan Blasim’s macabre short stories, and, more distantly, Iraqi television shows like Night Wolves (Dhi’ab al-Layl), which aired in the late 1980s, about violent gangsters in Baghdad’s criminal underworld.

LARB Contributor

Chip Rossetti is a book editor and a translator of modern Arabic fiction, including Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Egyptian sci-fi novel Utopia, Magdy El Shafee’s graphic novel Metro, and Sonallah Ibrahim’s Beirut, Beirut. He won a PEN America grant for his translation of Muhammad Makhzangi’s Animals in Our Days. He holds a PhD in Arabic literature from the University of Pennsylvania and is the editorial director of the Library of Arabic Literature series published by NYU Press.


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