Ahmed Saadawi arrives for our interview at Quhwa Wakitaab (Coffee & Books Café), apologising for being late, explaining that everyone wants a piece of him before he flies to London. Saadawi’s Frankenstein In Baghdad is shortlisted for the International Man Booker, and the prize giving ceremony is just five days away. Since winning the 2014 International prize for Arabic fiction for this, his third novel, he has found himself in demand.
The book’s characters orbit a monster, Whatsitsname. Its creator, Hadi, is a weaver of interminable tales to his friends, and on the side weaving together a body of parts retrieved from bomb attacks in 2006 Baghdad. He believes a whole body will somehow garner the respect for a proper funeral. Hasib, the murdered security guard whose soul inhabits the cobbled cadaver, which then seeks revenge; Elishva, unable to move on with life, waiting for her grandson to return from the Iran Iraq war; Mahmoud, a journalist following Whatsitsname’s trail of destruction; Brigadier Sorour Majid, an ex-Baathist intelligence officer, corrupt and desperate to stop the wave of sectarian killings across the city, now shouldered with the monster’s crimes.
Saadawi pulls friend and fellow Baghdad author Naseer Hassan onto our table to translate. We pass a convivial hour drinking tea and comparing the Baghdad in which the novel is set – at the height of the sectarian violence that ripped through Iraq after the US invasion more than a decade ago – to the Baghdad of today, and the question of a unified national identity in a diverse country.
Quhwa Wakitaab is in the downtown Karrada district of the capital, most recently infamous as the site of one of ISIL’s worst atrocities. Almost two years ago a massive suicide car bomb was detonated outside a mall here, killing almost 400 people during Ramadan late night shopping. It’s a measure of how the city is healing that a very obviously English man can travel alone and unremarked, hailing cabs on the local ride sharing app, nothing more than a mild curiosity.
Frankenstein In Baghdad is set in a different world. To make a journey in this Baghdad, the city’s people had to weigh the constant threat of sectarian violence. When 16 bomb attacks take place in a single day, the response of the government’s Tracking and Pursuit Department is to praise their network of informants, who claimed that over 200 were planned. This secretive department, headed by Brigadier Majid, is both overburdened and anachronistic, its network consisting of “analysts in parapsychology, people who specialise in communication with spirits and with the djinn, and soothsayers.” Saadawi uses the department to shine a light not just on the desperation, but also corruption and superstition. “Iraqi politicians from Saddam until now use fortune tellers,” he says.
In his previous novel Saadawi tells the true story of a body returned from the frontlines of the Iran Iraq war, “smashed, shattered, in pieces”, which the family identified by a tattoo on its detached arm. The limb was buried, the family grieved. After the collapse of the Saddam regime, the soldier returned alive, missing that arm. Saadawi’s novels, he says, have windows opening onto each other.
The monster comes to ‘life’ when the wandering soul of the fallen security guard is warned by the spirit of a teenage boy to find a body as a matter of urgency. When the guard inhabits Hadi’s corporeal collage, it embarks on a mission to avenge the parts’ murderers, before circumstances wobble and break its moral compass. Saadawi doesn’t put a foot wrong, the reader immersed in this fantasy without question.
Mahmoud, the journalist following Whatsitsname and the killings for which it is responsible, has a side project outside of his magazine writings, documenting the one hundred strangest stories of Iraq. Saadawi mirrors this, saying that in a world of such violence it is his job to collect these tales. He relates the case of an Iraqi turning up at the gates of the Chinese embassy in 2006, demanding to be recognised as one of their citizens in a desperate attempt to flee the country. He claimed to be able to trace his roots back to the thirteenth century Mongol horde.
The question of ancestry and identity are crucial to Saadawi. While he identifies first and foremost as Baghdadi, his father and grandfather hail from the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, and the family is Shia. Two centuries ago, however, the family was Sunni. This mottled heritage is the norm, he says: Sabaean-Mandeans married to Muslims, Muslims married to Christians – there is no pure identity, and sectarian violence is in that sense ironic. As he lights another cigarette, the ever-present smile drops momentarily. “Everyone is a sort of Whatsitsname,” Hassan translates. “There is a stream in Iraqi history, of ‘What makes an Iraqi citizen?’ Sure, he is an Arab. Even Christians started to give their children Arabic names, to be included in this stream. It includes Kurds & Turkmen.” Saadawi’s journalist Mahmoud speaks of his heritage during a confessional dialogue with Hadi in Frankenstein in Baghdad.
“I’ll tell you something. I don’t think my family were originally Arabs. We weren’t Arabs or Muslims,” he said.
“Then what were you?”
“I think my great-grandfather or my great-great-grandfather was a Sabean who converted to Islam for the woman he loved. My father wrote all this down in his diaries, but my brothers and my mother burned them after he died.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“It’s a big problem. We’re not real Arabs.”
Sectarianism, Saadawi insists, is new. It wasn’t always like 2006, or the subsequent conflicts. What troubles him is the prospect of future wars, given oxygen to ignite because the deepest causes have neither been investigated nor solved. “Peace is not achieved through merely putting problems to one side. There is a requirement for judgment for the crimes committed by all sides: the groups must confess, and justice must be served.”
In this case, the author is referring to legal justice. In Frankenstein he writes of three branches of justice: legal, street and divine. Which of these does Saadawi fear the most? “The combination of divine and street justice is the scariest. Because people who act in the street think of themselves as representatives of God.”
Saadawi is keen to get on, he has people to see and things to do before his trip to London, and I’ve had my piece of him. One last question? I ask about the conflict of recognition the book has presented him with – gaining the ear of “a certain segment of people”, but also a loss on anonymity.
Saadawi and Hassan manage to tell me of the trauma of fame in a digital age. “Of course, when I won the prize, a new period began. More popular, conferences, travelling, signings, festivals and so on. But on the other hand, I lost a lot of privacy. During the last book fair in Baghdad, most of my days were spent signing books, because I had so many social media messages saying that they were coming to the fair specially to see me. It’s an expensive loss and a matter of balance.
“At one of these events in Dubai, a dinner, the DJ was playing a wide variety of Arabic music. Then he put on a chobi [traditional Iraqi dance music]. Another Iraqi was there, and he asked me to dance with him. I was shy, I didn’t know how to dance this way, but he insisted. The next day I was all over Facebook and social media, there were videos of me trying to dance this chobi.” Both Saadawi and Hassan are in tears of laughter by the end of the anecdote.
The author insists he needs to be very lucky to win on Tuesday evening. And if he does, he won’t dance.