Al-Mustafa Najjar
Last updated: 2 May, 2014

Reviewing the winning Arab book of 2014: Frankenstein in Baghdad

Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi just won the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for his novel Frankenstein in Baghdad. This review of the book was recently published by our columnist Arablit, on her blog with the same name.

“Have you ever seen a golden piece of shit?” Mahmoud Al-Sawadi, an up-and-coming Iraqi journalist, asks Nawal Al-Wazeer, a filmmaker working on a movie about “evil which we all share yet we claim to fight.” While we do not expect an answer to Mahmoud’s rhetorical question, the concept of ambivalence preoccupies Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad.

Moral relativism is a dominant theme in the IPAF-winning novel, which tells the story of a “booze-smelling,” “dirty-looking,” “unfriendly” rag-and-bone man who embarks on a “noble” crusade: rummaging through the streets of the civil-war-torn Baghdad for fresh human organs.

Disconcerted by the fact that victims of suicide bombings and sectarian violence in Baghdad whose corpses are blown to pieces never have the courtesy of being given a decent burial, Hadi Al-Attag decides to literally stitch together a corpse and, if possible, give it a decent burial “instead of being left in the street and dealt with like garbage.”

“Have you ever seen a golden piece of shit?

Well-intentioned though he may be, Hadi is to be dogged to the very last page of the novel by ambivalent feelings towards the Frankenstein’s-monster situation he put himself in.

Reminiscent of Vaughn, “the nightmare angel of expressways” in J. G. Ballard’s (in)famous Crash (1973), Hadi haunts Baghdad’s bombing scenes “in search of something amidst the festivals of destruction and ruin.” Once he finds that thing (it is a human nose, we are told), Hadi cold-bloodedly “picks it up, wraps it in a sackcloth bag which he folds under his armpit and hurriedly leaves” to his ramshackle house in the populous Al-Bataween district of the Iraqi capital.

Once completed one fine day in spring, a season of budding flowers, the hybrid corpse rises and sets out on a journey of revenge for those whose organs constitute his body. Locked in denial, Hadi convinces himself that the “what’s-its-name” is nothing but a mere figment of his imagination.

Though in denial, Hadi, to the readers’ surprise, develops a habit of telling his story to slouching customers at a Baghdad cafe. And this is how Mahmoud first hears about the incredible story of the what’s-its-name, Frankenstein or Criminal X, who will shortly terrify Baghdad.

Mahmoud writes an article about the living corpse as a series of “strange events” involving “criminals who despite being shot at do not die” ensues in Baghgdad.

ALSO READ Lebanon in frenzy over Clooney-Alamuddin engagement

In a visit to Hadi, the what’s-its-name claims to be on a “grand mission in order to punish, with the help of God and Heaven, all criminals and eventually do justice on Earth.”

The creature soon becomes a cult figure across the country, attracting followers of those “weary of the public situation and looking for some sort of salvation.”

As he continues his revenge, the what’s-its-name realises he needs to be provided with “spare parts,” a task which he allocates to his followers. Although careful to note to his followers that he mustn’t be given body parts taken from criminals, the what’s-its-name soon discovers that “half of his body is made up of criminals’ flesh.” At this point, the living corpse which once claimed to have been the epitome of divine justice undergoes a transformation for the worse.

Having been supplied with “guilty” flesh, the what’s-its-name becomes haunted with one simple question: “How criminal is a criminal?”

Unable to find an answer to the question that torments it and faced with the constant need for human “spare parts,” the what’s-its-name soon feels the urge to justify the killing of innocent people to use their organs to replace his rotten ones.

Once threatened with the prospect of losing his eyesight, the creature “which has no name” kills an innocent old man walking down the street and takes his eye balls.

Though he admits it is not an “ideal option,” the what’s-its-name convinces himself that the best thing to do in order to continue his “grand” mission is to “choose the spare parts he needs from the bodies of those who deserve to be killed.”

The lack of consensus over the character of the what’s-its-name is clear and the living corpse remains open to interpretation. Although he feels close to him, Hadi cannot help question this creature’s real intentions. Unable to get to the bottom of the monster’s actions, Hadi decides to distance himself from him by pretending he does not exist.

Elishua, an old lady occupying the house next to Hadi’s, finds in the what’s-its-name a reflection of her son Daniel who went missing 20 years ago in the Iran-Iraq war. To pass the time, Elishua occupies herself in a silent dialogue with the picture of Saint George whom she entreats to bring back her son.

DON’T MISS Blogger @arablit presents 17 books we should all read 2014

It is significant that Elishua channels her yearnings for her son through the portrait of Saint George and the Dragon, a Christian icon demonstrating in black and white the conflict between good and evil. However, the icon falls short of showing who emerges victorious: the saint, who supposedly represents what is good, or the dragon, usually read as a symbol of the devil.

Clad in his armour and brandishing his spear, the saint fails to win the sympathy of Elishua, a devout Christian old lady. Although she finds comfort in talking to the silent portrait, Elishua does not conceal the fact that she “likes his meek face but hates his military uniform and appearance.” Elishua does not hesitate to cut out her favourite part of the portrait, the meek face of Saint George, when she decides to follow her daughters to Australia.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is a novel that captures that in-between moment of “remaining in the middle” as Elishua describes the portrait. No one is a pure criminal or a pure victim in the time of war: everyone has a bit of both. Even the saint has a conflicted nature.

“One man’s criminal is another man’s freedom fighter”

To push this idea forward, Saadawi uses murder, an act that presumably involves two clear-cut entities, a criminal and a victim. Saadawi seems to oppose this simplistic view and thus decides to toy with it a bit further. Fearful of death, a huddle of innocent Iraqis stampedes each other to death. Fear has turned them into criminals.

“All tragedies we are going through are down to one source: fear,” Mahmoud’s friend says, adding, “We will witness more and more deaths because of fear.”

Despite being driven by the desire for revenge for innocent victims, the what’s-its-name ends up committing crimes. Hence the paradoxical nature of moral absolutism: one man’s criminal is another man’s freedom fighter.

The novel could be read as an attempt to poke fun at the sense of moral absolutism which takes the form of categorising people into black and white, a propensity which often acts as a catalyst for war.

Celebrating the novel’s ability to discourage readers from making value judgments, Jean Baudrillard remarked: “Nowhere does the moral gaze surface” in Ballard’s Crash. By emphasising the relativity of values, Frankenstein in Baghdad is a novel that suspends moral judgement.

Saadawi does not give the creature a name. Rather, every character finds in him a means to an end: to General Surur the what’s-its-name is a chance of promotion, to Mahmoud a material for a scoop, to Elishua the son she lost.

Back to Mahmoud’s riddle: “Would a golden piece of shit be a beautiful piece of gold or just another piece of shit?” As long as Mahmoud expects to find a final answer to this question, it is unlikely that the war in Iraq will ever cease.

Al-Mustafa Najjar is a Syrian journalist/translator at Asharq Al-Awsat. He holds a master’s degree in Post-1900 Literatures, Theories and Cultures from the the University of Manchester. He is based in London.