A grotesque, unnamed creature sculpted by human hand escapes onto the streets, bringing mayhem and murder. As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it might sound familiar, but this particular monster roams the dark streets of an Iraqi city at war with itself after the 2003 United States-led invasion. Stitched together from the body parts of people killed through
incessant violence, he’s hell-bent on putting right the wrongs of a corrupt country. He’s savage, but thoughtful. Or as Frankenstein in Baghdad’s author Ahmed Saadawi puts it, “he kills gently and with profound philosophical motives”.
If Frankenstein in Baghdad – published in English this week – sounds timely then this is only slightly deliberate. Saadawi says he started thinking about this ambitious novel 10 years ago, as a way of processing how, during the civil war that raged in the Iraqi capital since 2003, it seemed that “this monster awoke in us all… how we became either active participants in the killing or indifferent towards scenes of death”.
'Iraqi society has created permanent forms of fantasy'
Frankenstein in Baghdad won the International Prize For Arabic Fiction in 2014, and as Malcolm Forbes wrote in The National last week, “Jonathan Wright’s expert translation conveys Saadawi’s sense of drama and stasis, fine-grained brutality and dreamlike absurdity. This isn’t a novel for the faint-hearted, but it is one that tells a vital story in a masterful way.”
Saadawi says: “I do hope English readers will enjoy it as a work of art. But also that it will be a chance for them to find out about Iraq and Baghdad through the eyes of a local writer, beyond what appears in the media or in news coverage.”
Frankenstein in Baghdad is one of those rare novels that manages to juggle literary ambition, political and social metaphor, and pure page-turning readability. It’s an inventive, often comic fantasy with a genuine desire to pick apart a city where “no innocents are completely innocent and no criminals are completely criminal”.
“I find fantasy essential for several reasons,” says Saadawi. “It gives vitality and brings out the overwhelming imaginative powers of writing. But there is a deeper reason for me. Iraqi society itself has created permanent forms of fantasy – and treats them as facts.”
Saadawi tells me of a story that did the rounds during the confrontations between the US Army and Sunni gunmen in Fallujah, where some people claimed that a massive spider had come down from the sky, sent by God, and had started killing the American soldiers. It’s just one of dozens of stories he says which were invented during the Iraq War – maybe for no other reason than that they helped to mask the horrific reality.
“People with logical minds understand the need for imagination in times of crisis and violence,” says Saadawi.
“For example, the belief that I will get home safe and won’t be killed in an explosion is what enables me to leave home in the morning, although there is no logical calculation that supports this belief.
The monster: senseless sectarian violence
“It’s just an imaginary assumption needed for self-preservation.” This is the reality of the situation in Frankenstein in Baghdad – car bombs are constantly going off, and it’s the lost soul of one of the many victims who animates the stitched-together corpse to start his revenge mission. In fact, the monster – which people call Whatsitsname – becomes a representation of this impossible to imagine, senseless sectarian violence in Iraq, specifically because he is made up of the body parts from all the different facets of Iraqi identity.
“He is the mirror image of us as a whole,” says Saadawi. “In Iraq – and many Arab and Islamic countries – there is a violent internal conflict over identity. Are we Arabs or Muslims, Sunnis or Shia? Are we in Mesopotamia or in the Arabian peninsula?
“In the 100 years since the creation of the modern state, we haven’t been able to create a cohesive national identity to which everyone feels they belong. Fed by politicians and men of religion, people cling to pure, micro-identities, but we have to accept the diversity and pluralism in ourselves, and then accept the diversity in society.”
Saadawi thinks that this climate was always likely to lead to the kind of civil war that took place in Baghdad between 2005 and 2007, and which provides the setting for his novel. The problem is, he’s not so sure that the causes have been tackled to this day.
“Influential men in all these sects or ethnicities have not said that some people in their communities are criminals. They all portray themselves as angels, as if the criminals who planted bombs and murdered came from the moon. So as long as we don’t admit guilt and remorse, the Whatsitsname is still alive and can easily come back to life again.”
Hope in Baghdad?
And the interesting idea in Frankenstein in Baghdad is that Whatsitsname is a bogeyman figure, conjured up by everyone’s fears. So, 10 years on, does Saadawi still see those fears?
“Many young people, for example, still feel pessimistic about the situation in Iraq. Corruption is rampant, there are armed groups, many areas of the country remain without development, and there is high unemployment. The education system is very poor. People are exhausted and have a strong desire to see something magical happen that will give them confidence that violence will not return and that the war with Islamic State [ISIL] was Iraq’s last war.”
But, amid Saadawi’s vision for a better Baghdad – from the obvious desire for “complete security stability” to the enthusiastic calls for more tourism and the rather more prosaic hope that the traffic bottlenecks are eased – he does see cause for hope.
“Baghdad is more stable today and you can see foreigners wandering the streets of Karrada in the city centre. This is something that gives a sense of calm and suggests that the city is improving.”
And as for Saadawi himself, the IPAF win and the spotlight that came with it was, for a while, difficult to deal with. “I lost some of my freedom of movement and freedom to write,” he says. But he was also able to influence what he calls “a certain segment of people” on public affairs, which, given his thoughtful and progressive views on Baghdadi life, can only be a good thing.
With the film rights to Frankenstein in Baghdad recently signed off to a British company, he’s unlikely to shrink into the background, in any case. “There are good things and bad things about celebrity, but a writer has to forget it quickly so that he can go back to his desk to write something new,” he says.
Which was The Chalk Door, a bestseller in Arabic last January. Saadawi says it covers different ground to Frankenstein In Baghdad, which is probably for the best given that he still finds discussing the first decades of 21st-century Iraqi life painful.
“During the civil war I was a correspondent for the Arabic service of the BBC and I roamed the streets of Baghdad every day as part of my job,” he says. “And If I could go back in time, I would have fled. The memory of that time weighs heavily and harshly. He who preserves memories of this kind is not a lucky man.”