Arab Sci-fi Novel 'Frankenstein in Baghdad' Embodies All That's Evil in Modern-day Iraq

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A car bomb explodes, detonated by U.S. troops after it was discovered at the scene of the double car bombing in Baghdad, Iraq Thursday, April 14, 2005. The initial attack killed 18 and wounded three dozen, but no one was injured in this controlled explosion. The sign at left reads "Keep Your City Clean" in Arabic.
A car bomb explodes, detonated by U.S. troops after it was discovered at the scene of the double car bombing in Baghdad, Iraq Thursday, April 14, 2005.Credit: AP Photo/Samir Mizban
Eyal Sagui Bizawe
Eyal Sagui Bizawe
Eyal Sagui Bizawe
Eyal Sagui Bizawe

One of the sessions at the Shubbak festival of contemporary Arab culture in London two years ago,dealt with the science-fiction genre evolving in the Arab world. The various speakers – including Egyptian author Ahmed Khaled Towfik, and Iraqi author and playwright Hassan Abdel-Razek, who have themselves written sci-fi books – kept returning to the novel of Iraqi Ahmed Saadawi's “Frankenstein in Baghdad” (Al-Gamal, 2013).

The book, recently translated in Hebrew and due to be published in English next year, won the 2014 International Prize for Arab Fiction that is awarded in association with the London-based Booker Prize Foundation – and is known as the “Arab Booker.”

As the two speakers said, speculative literature isn’t a new trend in terms of the Arab literary tradition, but the genre of modern sci-fi is still a marginal phenomenon. Both speakers agreed that Saadawi’s book marked an important milestone in the genre’s development and the growing interest in it.

I hurried to buy an Arabic copy of the novel, which was on sale outside the hall, but it kept getting pushed under the heaps of books I piled up on my night table, and I forgot about it. Fortunately for me, its recent translation and publication in Hebrew prompted me to read it, in Arabic and Hebrew at the same time. The pleasure was twofold – both because of the writing in Arabic and the translation by Bruria Horowitz, who miraculously preserves the original’s literary voice as well as giving it new life in Hebrew.

The plot takes place in 2005 and 2006, in the period after the U.S. Army’s invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. In bomb-out Baghdad, where everyone was fighting everyone else, a used-furniture scavenger named Hadi al-Attag collects bombing victims’ body parts – the right hand of an Armenian victim, the left leg of a Shi’ite victim, the nose of a Sunni victim, etc., and assembles them into a super-human creature that he names “Shismo” – actually, “shu ismo” ("what’s his name," in Arabic).

Although Attag had no such intentions, into Shismo's body enters the soul of a young man named Hasib Muhammad Jaafar, who had been killed in a terror attack close to the hotel where he'd worked as a watchman. When his wandering soul couldn’t find the remains of his body, it settled in Shismo’s sewn-up corpse – and brought it to life. Far too much life for a body made up of random remains of dead people.

Ahmed Saadawi in the Bataween district of Baghdad. His decision to set "Frankenstein in Baghdad" in a Jewish neighborhood is of literary interest.Credit: Max Becherer/NYT

Because Shismo not only turns on his maker, but on all of Baghdad. His hands armed with superpowers, convinced he can eventually stop the cycle of blood, he goes on a quest to avenge the killing of each one of the people whose limbs and other bits make up his own body, and he terrorizes the city for months. His limbs melt away every time he avenges a person responsible for the death of his parts, but in his country’s reality he has plenty of spare parts to replace them with.

Burying a 'hypothetical body'

Speaking of reality, even if on the face of it this is sci-fi – Saadawi’s story is painfully planted in reality. His writing is fluent, clever, combined with quite a few compassionate moments of grace and sympathy, and seasoned with macabre humor that adds a cynical view of the goings-on, along with authentic, naturalistic descriptions of a bleeding reality, inundated with death and bereavement.

This is a reality in which the fighting, the bombing attacks and the killing are routine. A reality in which you can find body parts forgotten on some electricity pole, or conversely, one in which the traces of disaster are swiftly removed from the scene, as though nothing has happened: The sidewalks are cleaned, the burned-out cars towed away, the corpses taken to the forensic institute and the wounded to the hospitals. "The place is quiet and calm” just as it was before.

This is a reality in which sometimes it’s impossible to find a remnant of the victim and his relatives are forced to bury the “hypothetical body” of their loved one, whom by right "they should have received, so he could be like all those passing into the afterlife.”

But the writer describes not only the banality of the horrors and the horrors themselves. In fact, he doesn’t focus on them at all: Saadawi depicts a reality that relates to the connections between big money, power and the media, in which the interim American administration is involved. That administration, he writes, aims to create a balance of violence in the Iraqi street between the Sunni and Shi’ite militias, so that in the future there will be a balance among the powers negotiating to change the situation in Iraq.

Author Saadawi at the ceremony for the 2014 International Prize for Arab Fiction, aka the "Arab Booker." Credit: International Prize for Arabic Fiction

Also involved are local interested parties, characterized mainly by the “death of feeling” and a preference for making profits instead of “answering the call of conscience.” After all, Saadawi writes, “he who wears a crown, even if only for the experience, will afterward look for a kingdom to rule.”

In such a reality no one can be trusted and everyone suspects everyone else. People are taken in for interrogation without knowing if they’ll be released, and they tape each other secretly. Corruption permeates every part of society. Even a marginal figure like the real estate agent, Faraj al-Dalal, is described as “ghani harb” (“war rich,” in Arabic) – i.e., someone who makes his wealth by exploiting the war and the distress of people experiencing it.

This is the extent to which Saadawi’s science fiction is rooted in reality. If it’s sci-fi, then it’s dystopia. And if it’s dystopia, it’s already here, in the reality of our days – not in the distant future.

Apart from the victims’ lost souls, also hovering over the novel are ghosts from the city’s past, especially those of members of the Jewish community who lived there. Most of the story takes place in the neighborhood of Bataween, which was predominantly Jewish until the early 1950s.

The house in which Attag lives had been the home of a Jewish family; it's located in a compound called “the Jewish ruin.” When he removes a verse of the Koran hanging in a niche in the wall there, he finds an idol of the Virgin. When he removes the idol, he finds a sacred Jewish artifact.

Arabic copies of Saadawi's book, at an Abu Dhabi book fair. His writing is fluent, clever, combined with quite a few compassionate moments, and seasoned with macabre humor.Credit: KARIM SAHIB / AFP PHOTO

Handfuls of henna

Elishewa, Oum Daniel, an Assyrian woman, also lives in this compound. Dallal, like the members of the “nonprofit group for the conservation of historical buildings,” pressures her to sell her house. They offer her a lot of money and a chance to move to a better place, along with other enticements, but she is adamant and continues to reject their offers.

Oum Daniel waits for more than 20 years for her son to return from war, the Iran-Iraq war, and totally denies news that he was killed. She hopes he will return and find her at home, which is why she won't leave. In the absurd reality of incessant war, it is Oum Daniel who is perceived by her surroundings as the “crazy” one who refuses to accept her son’s death.

Her anticipation of her son’s return is so desperate that when she sees Shismo lying down, she decides or convinces herself that this is her son Daniel. She wakes him from a deep sleep, feeds and clothes him, and embarks on a series of rituals that seem to have no relation to religion or ethnic group, but which, even if not conforming to anything that was customary in the past, are nevertheless ancient.

Oum Daniel decides to go to Mar Qradagh, an Assyrian church in Sheikh Omar, in order to fulfill some of her belated “Islamic” vows. Saadawi writes that she puts a handful of henna paste on the iron knocker of the huge wooden door at the Anglican church of Saint George in Bab al-Sharqi; she waters the flower garden at the Syriac Orthodox church; and smears a handful of dark henna on the wall of an abandoned synagogue and on the door of the Al-Urfali mosque that overlooks the entrance to Saadoun Street – the only mosque in the Bataween neighborhood.

It’s no coincidence, of course, that throughout the book, Saadawi repeats in different ways references to the multi-religious, multi-communal and multicultural past of Baghdad. The establishment of Iraq by the British after World War 1 was an attempt to unite disparate populations, the most prominent of which were the Shi’ites in the south, the Sunnis in the center and the Kurds in the north. To these one should add the Assyrians, the Jews and others, as well as a whole tribal establishment, with which a significant portion of the population was affiliated.

The complex web of contradictions that evolved within this state found violent expression already in the early 1930s with the massacre of Assyrians living in Iraq, as well as in the Farhud, the violent attacks against Baghdadi Jews in 1941.

To this day sectorial divisions are probably the most serious problem facing Iraq, and no end is in sight to the cycle of blood and destruction they are wreaking (as these words are being written Shi’ite forces that have liberated Mosul in northern Iraq from the murderous ISIS organization are themselves murdering Sunnis suspected of collaboration). Sunnis and Shi’ites are fighting each other, and both those groups kill Assyrians, Armenians, Kurds, Yazidis and people belonging to other ethnic and religious groups in the country.

The forthcoming English version of Saadawi's book. Apart from the victims’ lost souls, also hovering over the novel are ghosts from the city’s past.Credit: Penguin Books

The removal of layers of plaster from the Virgin’s statue or of a Jewish sacred artifact as described in the book reminds readers of the multifaceted past of Baghdad, ostensibly hinting at the fact that even back then, during the first half of the 20th century, it was important to realize that removing one community would upset the country's social fabric and unravel it.

Shismo, a human blend of all the tribes, races, types and social entities populating Iraq, is seen by his followers as the “first Iraqi citizen.” As such he extracts revenge on the Iraqi National Guard and the U.S. Army, as well as on Sunni and Shi’ite militias. His lust for revenge makes him lose his way, as often happens to people seeking retribution.

For a moment Shismo seems, as a non-human character, to uphold humane values more than other characters in the novel, but he too becomes a murderer of innocent people. In his obstinate quest to take revenge on anyone who has wronged him, he becomes one of those wrongdoers. At least until he discovers that the criminals and their victims have somehow blended together, and that it’s harder now than before to tell who is who. In his reality there are no completely innocent people and no absolute criminals.

In an interview Saadawi gave to France 24 a year ago, after the French translation of his novel was published, he said that everyone had participated in killing and in the tragedies that have transpired in Iraq, and that no one had taken responsibility for them yet. Saadawi chose to call his book "Frankenstein in Baghdad," quoting in its first pages the words of Mary Shelly, the author of the original book about Frankenstein. His decision to set the story in a Jewish neighborhood is of literary interest, since Jewish mysticism features stories of the Golem, written during some of the most difficult times in Jewish history.

On one hand, the main character has no name. On the other hand, it has numerous ones. Hadi al-Attag calls him Shismo, security forces chasing him call him "X," others call him the "first citizen," and so on. Perhaps the multiple names are meant to show that the perpetrators of the killings can also assume many names, depending on the view of those observing the events. A terrorist to one person can be a freedom fighter to another. In any event, the Assyrian woman continues to call her son by the name she chose for him, Daniel.

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