Frankenstein in Baghdad begins with an explosion in Baghdad’s Tayaran Square, the full significance of which doesn’t become clear until later, when the junk dealer Hadi tells his story to a group of journalists at a coffee shop. One, a German documentary-maker, leaves halfway through, laughing off Hadi’s tale as a fable stolen from a Robert De Niro movie. But Mahmoud al-Sawadi, an Iraqi magazine journalist, stays and listens closely, because what Hadi’s telling him is genuinely weird, even for Baghdad: how after the explosion he’d picked up someone’s nose off the street and sewed it onto the face of a corpse he’d been building in his shed. Then how, while he was sleeping, the corpse apparently got up and walked away.
Hadi’s a well-known liar, and a drunk to boot, but as Mahmoud discovers, this time the junk man was telling the truth. His story sparks the plot of Ahmed Saadawi’s brilliant, rueful novel, which won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and has recently appeared in a crisp, moving, and mordantly humorous English translation from Jonathan Wright and Penguin Books. Hadi, it turns out, created a monster.
He hadn’t meant to. After his best friend Nahem was killed by a car bomb, Hadi had gone to the mortuary to collect his friend’s body. There, he “was shocked to see that the bodies of explosion victims were all mixed up together.” The mortuary worker told him to “put a body together and carry it off,” and Hadi did what he was told, but burying a random collection of parts seemed wrong, so he started sewing them together, picking up what he was missing off the street. In Baghdad in 2005, when the novel is set, there were plenty of body parts to go around. Hadi’s hope, as he explains to Mahmoud, was to hand the body “over to the forensics department, because it was a complete corpse.... so it wouldn’t be treated as trash, so it would be respected like other dead people and given a proper burial.” But Hadi never has the chance, because the very night he sews the nose on, the wandering soul of another bomb victim descends into the patchwork corpse, hoping he’ll now be buried. Instead, the composite body comes to life.
Antics ensue. An elderly Christian woman named Elshiva mistakes the reanimated corpse for her long-lost son Daniel, who was dragged off 20 years ago to fight Iran and never came home. Then, moved by Elshiva’s love and grief, the bomb-victim-become-monster-named-Daniel decides that Baghdad needs justice, so he starts killing the people who killed the people his body parts came from. The monster’s campaign quickly spirals out of control, and soon he’s leading a personal militia, butchering innocents to harvest more parts to replace the ones that keep falling off his rotting body, and recording an interview with himself for Mahmoud’s magazine to help manage his public image.
Most of Saadawi’s novel isn’t really about the monster, but about Baghdadis circa 2005, specifically the inhabitants of the run-down, somewhat seedy neighborhood of Bataween, in the first months of what would become a brutal sectarian civil war. Saadawi’s characters’ lives are marked by losses going back decades, well before the 2003 invasion, to the crippling sanctions imposed by the U.S. in the 1990s, the Persian Gulf War, and the war between Iraq and Iran, which the U.S. also had its hand in. Elshiva, particularly, is isolated in her sorrow: Not only are her son and husband dead, but her daughters have fled the country, and she only gets to talk to them a few minutes every week. One of the most affecting passages in the book describes Elshiva’s efforts to keep in touch with them:
Death stalked the city like a plague, and Elshiva’s daughters felt the need to check every week that the old woman was okay. At first, after a few difficult months, they spoke on the Thuraya satellite phone that a Japanese charity had given to the young Assyrian priest at the church. When the wireless networks were introduced, Father Josiah bought a cell phone, and Elshiva spoke to her daughters on that. Members of the congregation would stand in line after mass to hear the voices of their sons and daughters dispersed around the world.
In between phone calls, Elshiva feeds her cat, dusts her tchotchkes, and talks with a painting of St. George, waiting for her son Daniel to come back. When he does reappear—even if it’s in the form of a putrefying bricolaged corpse—Elshiva can’t help but cling to the hope he offers.
Like Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five, Frankenstein in Baghdad plays the absurd normality of war for dark humor. They may live in an occupied city haunted by a vengeful monster and on the brink of civil war, but Elshiva, Hadi, Mahmoud, and all the other Baghdadis in the novel are busy with their workaday lives. In addition to going to church to make phone calls, Elshiva has to fend off Faraj the real-estate developer, who covets her sprawling house, and deal with her family and neighbors’ confused reactions to the news that Daniel has returned. Hadi’s worried about his wandering monster, but he’s also got to keep up his supply of Heineken, which means hustling, including trying to convince an old man in Karrada to let him sell off his furniture.
The journalist Mahmoud has to hustle too, especially when his editor Saidi decides to promote him, making him responsible for the entire magazine, then starts mysteriously disappearing to Beirut for longer and longer stretches of time. Mahmoud envies Saidi’s cosmopolitan airs, his sense of confidence, and his hot film-maker girlfriend, who’s maybe his lover or maybe an artistic collaborator or maybe blackmailing him. As the novel goes on, Mahmoud finds himself becoming more and more like Saidi, failing up in an increasingly precarious con game of ambition, losing his sense of self and integrity along the way. Mahmoud pursues Hadi’s story about the monster, for example, but ends up sensationalizing it at Saidi’s urging, betraying the shadowy truth to a more colorful lie.
The monster is a powerful metaphor, but the real reason the novel works is because Saadawi writes with a rare combination of generosity, cruelty, and black humor. He has a journalist’s eye for detail and a cartoonist’s sense of satire (he’s been both). What the reader comes away remembering are not the fantastic elements in the story, but the day-to-day struggles of Baghdadis. Indeed, the most surreal thing about the novel is Baghdad itself: a dystopian hellscape that seems more like something from science fiction than a place where people might actually live.
I’ve been waiting to read Frankenstein in Baghdad since 2014, when I first heard Saadawi’s name. I’d gone to Baghdad to write a story for Rolling Stone about the legacy of the American occupation, and I interviewed several writers, all of whom were proud of Saadawi’s success. (Saadawi himself was in Egypt at the time receiving the IPAF award). Yet what struck me most then was how isolated Baghdad’s artists and writers were: Like Saadawi’s Elshiva, they lived cut off from the global connections that would help them flourish, waiting desperately for something long gone to return. Baghdad is a bustling, complicated city, rich in heritage and proud of its literary community, and should be a cosmopolitan cultural hub; instead, it has been exhausted by decades of foreign meddling and wanton murder, most of it the result of American policy.
With the English publication of Frankenstein in Baghdad and other notable books by Iraqis, maybe American readers will start learning from Iraqi writers about the country the United States been entangled with for more than three decades, a country the U.S. has bombed, invaded, occupied, bled for, and died for but has hardly ever paid any attention to. Last year saw the release of The Baghdad Eucharist by Sinan Antoon, The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli, and the landmark science fiction collection Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim. This year will bring more: The Beekeeper by poet Dunya Mikhail, The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al-Rawi, Watermelon Boys, by Ruqaya Izzidien, and the anthology Baghdad Noir, edited by Samuel Shimon.
Sadly, the violence hasn’t stopped. A week before Frankenstein in Baghdad was due to be released in the U.S., two suicide bombers blew themselves up in Baghdad’s Tayaran Square, killing 38 and wounding more than a hundred. Saadawi’s novel is, looking back, an oddly hopeful book: The events it describes, including the horrific Al-Aaimmah bridge stampede in which almost a thousand people were killed, all take place before the al-Askari mosque bombing of February 2006—an event generally seen as the true beginning of the all-out sectarian war which would, over the next two years, ethnically cleanse Baghdad’s mixed neighborhoods and drive millions of refugees, mainly Sunnis, into the desert.
The novel was written in the placid years following the end of the U.S. occupation, and takes place before ISIS, before the Syrian Civil War, before Trump. It tells the story of a monster created from vengeance and grief, but the most fantastic thing about the novel might be that it ends in peace.