Ahmed Saadawi Wants to Tell a New Story About the War in Iraq
"The Job of the Writer is to Give a Voice to Unknown People"
The “flash” came to Ahmed Saadawi at a morgue in Baghdad. It was 2006, and he was working as a reporter for the BBC’s Arabic service, covering a war that was tearing apart his homeland and killing his people. “I saw many dead bodies,” Saadawi says matter-of-factly in a thick Iraqi dialect. “Not just dead bodies—body parts. Many body parts.”
A young man walked into the morgue, Saadawi recounts, demanding to see the corpse of his brother, who’d just been killed by a bomb. The man in charge at the morgue led the grieving brother to a room filled with assorted limbs, casually pointing to one body part in the corner. The man wailed, asking where the rest of his sibling’s mutilated body was, to which the desensitized morgue manager said while waving his hand around the rest of the room, “take what you want, and make yourself a body.”
And so, in that horrific setting, Frankenstein was born again—two centuries after Mary Shelley’s—this time, in Baghdad.
Frankenstein in Baghdad, Saadawi’s part-fantasy, part-sci-fi war novel, is something of an exorcism of the evil spirits of an era not quite past. Saadawi’s goal isn’t to resolve the horror of war, but rather to thrust the reader into its midst so that they may question its senselessness. The Iraqi author, 45, offers readers a scathing critique of the U.S. invasion by way of front-row seats to its disastrous, lingering consequences.
First published in Arabic in 2013, the visceral novel has since been translated into several languages including French, Mandarin, Turkish, and English. It won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014 and elevated Saadawi’s popularity in his home country to celebrity status (a fact the novelist says he struggles with). This year, he was shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize, though ultimately lost out to Olga Tokarczuk and her translator Jennifer Croft.
Saadawi’s monster is named shesmeh in Iraqi dialect—a combination of the words shinu and ismu, or “what’s” and “his name”—hence the English translation, Whatsitsname. We’re introduced to Whatsitsname by Hadi, a drunken junk dealer who, disturbed by the lack of respect afforded to the war’s dead, collects body parts in the aftermath of bombings. He carries those body parts back home to his workspace, a cluttered shed filled with broken furniture and antiques. There, the scavenger decides to stitch the smorgasbord of limbs together to create a single body, hoping to give it a proper burial.“People tend to view themselves as saints seeking justice, and others as terrorists . . . In truth, no one’s innocent.”
The newly created figure subsumes the soul of a man freshly killed in sectarian violence, and then disappears into the Iraqi night, setting out to avenge the murders of the very corpses of which he is comprised. The vigilante glides across rooftops and along Baghdad’s narrow streets in pursuit of his prey—starting with criminals, but soon moving on to innocent civilians and spreading terror throughout the city.
Saadawi’s not so subtle intention here is to emphasize what he refers to as the “complicity” of all those involved in the conflict. In his mind, everybody has blood on their hands: American soldiers; foreign mercenaries; Al-Qaeda fighters; warlords; journalists; and corrupt Iraqi officers. “People tend to view themselves as saints seeking justice, and others as terrorists,” he says. “In truth, no one’s innocent.”
“The book is a manifesto against war,” Saadawi adds. “It’s critical of the American occupation, the former regime and the current regime.” (Interestingly, that didn’t stop Iraq’s current Prime Minister, Haider Al-Abadi, from congratulating Saadawi on his nomination for the Man Booker International Prize on Twitter).
Saadawi is preoccupied not only with war as it plays out on the streets but also with what he calls an “Iraqi identity crisis.” “I wanted to shed light on several issues with this book,” he says. “One was the paradox of identity diversity in Iraq, and how people understand themselves. All my characters are from different backgrounds.”
While “Hadi creates a new type of humanity, a truly Iraqi figure who is made up of all of these different identities,” Saadawi says, ultimately, he is chastised by society and chased by the state.
Saadawi was born into what he describes as a “simple, poor” family in Sadr City, a densely populated district of Baghdad. The author’s now-retired father was a driving instructor, and his mother, a housewife. As a child, Saadawi was close with two uncles: an illustrator from his father’s side and a poet from his mother’s.
Noticing their nephew had a flair for storytelling and drawing, they’d buy him art supplies and take him to bookshops, cultivating his interest in the arts. Before 10, Saadawi was writing poetry; as a teen, he took on a part-time job as an illustrator at a state-owned publishing house focused on children’s educational materials.
“I’ve had a personal relationship with storytelling ever since I was a kid,” Saadawi, now a father of four, explains. “Writing has been the pulse of my life.” The budding author took a particular interest in fantasy novels as he came of age, and was a massive fan of the 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, starring Robert De Niro, which he watched a bootlegged copy of.
Saadawi says he was drawn to literature as a teenager partly because many books were inaccessible in Baghdad due to state-imposed censorship as well as a 13-year trade embargo that lasted from 1990 through 2003. “If my friends and I could get our hands on a book, we’d go to shops to photocopy it and distribute it among ourselves,” he says. “Sometimes, we’d photocopy a photocopy.”
At this time, Saadawi also delved into critical theory, mysticism, and philosophy, particularly the works of Michel Foucault. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, Saadawi’s literary heroes are Arab. As a teenager he read Men in the Sun, a collection of essays by the late Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, twice in one day, enamored by the style of his prose. He cites Mehdi Issa Saqr, a prolific Iraqi novelist, as another inspiration — relatively unknown to the West but beloved in Iraq.“If my friends and I could get our hands on a book, we’d go to shops to photocopy it and distribute it among ourselves.”
While Saadawi earned a teaching diploma in the early 90s, he never actually taught; instead, he joined the army after graduation. Nevertheless, he penned three collections of poetry that decade and started on three book manuscripts which he couldn’t quite complete. He’d later take an interest in journalism, and has held a number of posts at various media organizations, some of which involved traveling to remote corners of Iraq (Saadawi says he has a problem with 9-to-5 desk jobs).
In 2005, he joined the BBC. “What I witnessed on the streets would form the first phase of my work on the book,” particularly as sectarian violence intensified from 2006 to 2008, he says. “I saw unimaginable things.”
While journalism satisfied Saadawi’s immediate need to bear witness, he felt that it couldn’t quite capture the depth of these experiences, and so he found himself turning to fiction. “In journalism, a headline might say ‘13 people dead and 20 wounded’, but that’s that. Journalism can be forgotten,” he reflects. “But in literature, I will find one of the deceased, go to his family home, meet his wife and his children, see into his dreams, and learn about what he was thinking and feeling—even what he felt the moment he died.”
After giving up a cushy job at a broadcaster to turn his full attention to literary writing, Saadawi spent a year and a half in the sprawling Bataween neighborhood of Baghdad researching his book. He frequented cafes and interviewed families, observing their homes and taking pictures. “I felt the best place for Whatsitsname to emerge would be in Bataween, because of the multiplicity of communities that have lived there,” Saadawi says.
At various points in the working-class neighborhood’s history, Christians, Jews, and Muslims coexisted in Bataween. The community is also ethnically diverse—it’s home to immigrants from the Arab world, including Sudan and Egypt. That diversity is reflected in the book, as is Bataween’s underworld, which features drug dealing and prostitution.
At a reading on the eve of the Man Booker Prize ceremony in London, Saadawi is dressed in a crisp white t-shirt, beige linen blazer, and matching trousers. It’s his first ever trip to the UK, but not the first time he’s tried to visit: a previous visa application had been rejected. Reading a particularly gruesome passage from his novel in Arabic before a crowd of roughly 100 Londoners, he seems cool and collected. So cool, in fact, that after the reading, instead of taking a designated seat to sign copies of his book for a long line adoring fans, he steps outside for a quick smoke as the sun sets on London. I follow him, quipping that I, too, am a fan. “This makes me very happy,” he says, beaming.
It’s not that Saadawi doesn’t appreciate the attention, but he feels the popularity can be a distraction from his commitment to the craft of writing. At times the novelist, who has tens of thousands of followers between Facebook and Twitter, disables his social media notifications and switches off his phone. During the final edit of Frankenstein in Baghdad, Saadawi secluded himself at a hotel in Amadiya, a summer resort town in Kurdistan that’s 4,600 feet above sea level—he says he was drawn to its views. His friends made fun of him. “They asked me who I thought I was, [Gabriel García] Márquez?”
At the event, Saadawi is joined by Jonathan Wright, the man behind the book’s outstanding English translation. It’s the first time the two men have met, though they’ve emailed for months—Wright says he sent a total of about 100 somewhat granular queries to Saadawi over a five-month period.
Wright, 64, embodies the stereotype of the quiet, humble translator: he’s reluctant to take any credit for the book’s success and is modest about the strength of his painstaking work. As far as translations from Arabic to English go, it’s difficult to tell that Frankenstein in Baghdad was ever written in another language. The prose is remarkably similar to that of the original, though certainly tighter. Wright credits John Siciliano, a New York-based editor at Penguin Books, for “tightening the text enormously”—roughly 10,000 words were edited out.
“The translator should be as faithful to the text as possible, while at the same time making the English version as accessible to the reader as possible,” Wright says. “There’s always a tension between those two objectives, but if you can meet them both at the same time, then you’ve done a good job.”
It helps, of course, that Wright knows the region about which Saadawi writes well. Before becoming a professional translator, he had an illustrious career as a foreign correspondent that took him to Iraq, Lebanon, Tunis, Sudan, and Cairo. (In 1984, he was kidnapped by unidentified Lebanese gunmen while on a reporting assignment during the country’s civil war. His Arabic skills helped him negotiate with his captors, who responded to his requests for books and a lamp). While translating, Wright also used Google Maps to zone into the streets of Bataween to ensure an accurate portrayal of the neighborhood.
Saadawi says he placed full trust in Wright based in part on his award-winning work with another Iraqi author, Hasan Blasim. “He would ask me about the people and places, and the expressions and terms,” Saadawi says. “That level of commitment showed me how careful he must be.”
In a recent essay for Harper’s Magazine, Lebanese novelist Rabih Alammedine critiqued the celebration of “World Literature” as a genre. His gripe is in part that the novelists who are seen to “represent” their respective cultures of origin in Western literary circles—for example, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with Nigeria and Salman Rushdie with India—are themselves to a degree Westernized, and this is why they have been deemed palatable.
It’s a crucial and oft-ignored point that’s worth noting. Rarely do Arabic novels written by Arab novelists who live in the Arab world break into the Western mainstream the way Saadawi’s has. Though dramatized with fantastic elements, Saadawi’s novel has given global readers insight into the quotidian struggles of Iraqis, as experienced and witnessed by a local.
And unlike most mainstream works of fiction that have explored the aftermath of the Iraq war, both literary and cinematic, Saadawi shifts the focus from the “outsider” (the American) to the “insider” (the Iraqi) . In fact, Americans hardly appear in Frankenstein in Baghdad at all; when they do, they maintain a ghost-like presence in the background. Whatsitsname isn’t only avenging the deaths of the men whose body parts he’s been built from, he’s also disrupting the narrative swirling around the Iraq War.“Rarely do Arabic novels written by Arab novelists who live in the Arab world break into the Western mainstream the way Saadawi’s has.”
“The job of the writer is to give a voice to unknown people,” Saadawi says. “I have a strong sense of belonging to this city, and I will continue writing about humanity through the stories of the individuals I meet in Baghdad.”
A UK-based production company has taken notice of the critically acclaimed book. While Saadawi won’t name the company or elaborate on what’s in the making, he says whatever comes of negotiations, the film will be loyal to the novel.
“There have been numerous films and TV shows on Iraq and the war, but their heroes are American,” Saadawi says. “The Iraqis were in the background. What we’ll do with this film is flip the narrative around. In the book, there’s no American hero. Our heroes are Iraqis.”