Are you an Iraqi if you’ve never even been to Iraq? As the daughter of Iraqi expats who grew up attending private Western schools in the Gulf, I, like many other Iraqi expats, struggled with the question of what it means to be an Iraqi. Until I was 23 years old, I never read an Iraqi novel. The Anglo-worlds constructed by Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton, with their Yorkshire puddings, butter beers, and sherbet lemons, were more familiar to me.
A chance encounter with Sinan Antoon’s ‘The Corpse Washer’ allowed me a brief glimpse of that world which I had tried to avoid facing up till then. Shaken by the novel’s brutal realism and depiction of the guttural sorrow of Iraqis in the war’s aftermath, I was set by Antoon on a path of literary self-discovery.
Yet I was still reluctant to read ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ in the original Arabic. That treacherous, thoroughly Westernized part of me felt English was a far superior language for surrealist, fantastical horror fiction. I expected a tired attempt at a horror story riddled with Frankenstein-ian cliches.
How pleased I was to be so wrong.
One lifeless spirit warns another, the latter the displaced soul of a young security guard whose body was obliterated in a suicide bombing. Doomed to dwell in spiritual limbo unless he finds a body to inhabit, the guard’s soul settles into a hybrid corpse sewn from the random body parts of victims of the countless daily explosions that rip through Baghdad in 2005.
Marking Ahmed Saadawi’s third novel and winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the surrealist novel features an unlikely protagonist Hady Al-Atak, a foul, unpleasant antiques peddler who reeks of cigarettes and booze. Proclaiming himself on a noble mission to grace the nameless dead with a dignified burial, Hady prowls the streets of Baghdad collecting fresh human limbs to sew together into a patchwork corpse. To Hady’s dismay, the corpse, labeled as the ‘shisma’ (or ‘what’s-its-name’ in Iraqi dialect), rises from the dead and embarks on a mission to avenge those whose parts constitute his body.
As Hady recounts his tale of finding a dislodged nose at the site of an explosion and casually carrying it home in a cloth sack to put the final touch to the ‘what’s-its-name,’ his listeners strain their ears to catch any slip-up, but fail. Hady’s care to imbue his fantastical stories with realistic details to make them more believable is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Ahmed Saadawi’s own attempt at writing a convincing Iraqi fantasy-horror story, so different from Iraqi mainstream literature. Reading Saadawi’s tale is experiencing Baghdad in all its richness and chaos. We can taste the tea sipped from the istikan at Aziz Al-Masry’s qahwa, and feel the sweaty stickiness of nights without air conditioning. Hady describes with equal chilling precision watching pedestrians’ bodies burning in the explosion, while standing across the street smoking a cigarette. The war officially ended in 2003, but it is still very much present in Baghdad.
Hady’s role as a surrogate author is central to the novel’s theme of moral relativism. Through his eyes, we see the way the war has permeated every aspect of day-to-day existence in Iraq. As he spins his tall tale of the nameless corpse, we start to see that the novel’s fantastical elements help make sense of the war rather than providing escapism from the grim reality of life in a country torn apart by sectarian strife. Like Hady, the reader is a detached spectator of the senseless violence and mass atrocities claiming the lives of innocent Iraqis every day.
Hady is also the naïve parent who acts as an unwitting channel for the ‘what’s-its-name’s reign of terror. His nameless Creature is an ugly amalgamation of limbs from Iraqis of all sects. He cannot rest until he has avenged the death of each of his constituent parts. The parts fight among one another, but are trapped in this body and forced to function together towards their bloody goal, a not-so-subtle metaphor of present-day Iraq. Every time the ‘what’s-its-name’ claims a victim, one of his parts dissolve. He replenishes his lost parts by claiming new victims, likening his body to a machine and limbs as spare parts. Thus the ‘what’s-its-name’ is trapped in a vicious cycle of violence. What began as a noble mission to avenge the wronged souls of innocent victims necessarily disintegrates into a killing spree with no end in sight, for who among us is completely guilty or completely innocent? Saadawi imbues his characters with a sense of moral ambivalence, a running theme throughout the novel. No one is either sinner or saint; every character, to quote Oscar Wilde, has a heaven and a hell within him. In the end, murderer and victim and spectator are indistinguishable.
We are all complicit.