Ahmed Saadawai’s 2014 novel, winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Translated by Jonathan Wright and published in English in 2018. I read a Penguin Books paperback from the library.
3 out of 5 stars.
Times Read: 1
Junk dealer and tall-tale-teller Hadi stitches a man out of bombing victims’ body parts. Infused with life from a murdered security guard, the Whatsitsname sets out on a never-ending quest for justice.
Frankenstein in Baghdad is a perfect example of a three-star book; could have been better, could have been worse.
The most interesting idea of the novel, the Whatsitsname, isn’t given much screen time. Chapter 10, which the Whatsitsname narrates, is a five-star knockout, almost a perfect short story in itself. The second half of the book suffered after the excitement of that chapter, wrapping up without much of a farewell to the characters I really liked (Elishva and Hadi) and too much time with the least interesting (newspaper man Mahmoud). The odd meta-inclusion and first-person chapter of “the writer” in Chapter 18 is jarring and doesn’t pay out.
The story moves along with touches of black humor and sharp allegory. Don’t be intimidated by the page-long cast list at the beginning: the narrative reiterates people’s relationships to one another and their roles enough to follow along without checking the list (several of the characters are only in a single scene, as well).
Saadawi has a stylistic tic which might throw some readers – he likes to start a scene with a character, then go back over the past 1-3 days of their life to catch up to where the scene started. As we jump between characters, I was unsure of how much time was passing or if events were happening concurrently. Some reader feedback and a final solid edit could have lifted Frankenstein in Baghdad to a 4-star book, but it’s pretty good as it is.
 The book opens with a “Final Report” which says the following novel is evidence found on a “writer.” The Final Report lists the book as being about 250 pages and 17 chapters long. Frankenstein in Baghdad is ultimately 19 chapters and 280 pages long, but Chapter 17 ends on page 258. Chapter 18 is titled “The Writer” and is from the point of view of the person who had the manuscript taken away. This wrap-around/meta explanation may be a tip of the hat to the original Frankenstein, which is technically told from the point of view of a man on a ship who picks up Victor Frankenstein, who then tells his story (and, nested in that, is a first-person section from the monster’s point of view), but ultimately Frankenstein in Baghdad would have worked better without the “Final Report” and real-world “writer.”
They spoke on a Thuraya satellite phone.
Thuraya (from the Arabic name for the constellation of the Pleiades, Thurayya) is a United Arab Emirates-based regional Mobile Satellite Service (MSS) provider. The company operates 2 geostationary satellites and provides telecommunications coverage in more than 161 countries.
The smoke she blew from her shisha pipe.
Shisha or sheesha, from the Persian word shishe, meaning glass, is the common term for the hookah in Egypt, Sudan and countries of the Arab Peninsula.
Standing bewildered on the sidewalk, in his dishdasha.
A thawb or thobe is an ankle-length Arab garment, usually with long sleeves, similar to a robe, kaftan, or tunic. It is commonly worn in the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq, among many other places. In the Levant, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, and Iran dishdasha is the most common word for the garment.
A large framed copy of the Throne verse of the Quran.
The Throne Verse is the 255th verse of the 2nd surah of the Qur’an, Al-Baqara. The verse speaks about how nothing and nobody is regarded to be comparable to God. It is one of the most well-known verses of the Quran and is widely memorized and displayed in the Islamic world.
[He] always had quarters of arak or whisky in his pocket.
Arak or araq is a West Asian distilled spirit in the anise drinks family. It is a translucent white unsweetened anise-flavored drink, which is traditionally made of only two ingredients, grapes and aniseed. Arak is the traditional alcoholic beverage in Western Asia, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean. The word arak comes from Arabic ‘araq, meaning ‘perspiration’.
“It’s a human being, guys, a person,” he told them.
“But it wasn’t a complete corpse. You made it complete,” someone objected.
“I made it complete so it wouldn’t be treated as trash, so it would be respected like other dead people and given a proper burial,” Hadi explained.
He had heard there had been explosions during the day in Kadhimiya, Sadr City, the Mansour district, and Bab al-Sharqi.
Kadhimiya (al-Kazimiyyah or al-Kazimayn) is a northern neighborhood of the city of Baghdad. It is about 3.1 miles from the city’s center, on the west bank of the Tigris.
Sadr City, formerly known as Al-Thawra and Saddam City, is a suburb district of the city of Baghdad. Sadr City – or more accurately Thawra District – is one of the nine administrative districts in Baghdad.
Al Mansour district is one of the nine administrative districts in Baghdad. It is in western Baghdad and is bounded on the east by Karkh district in central Baghdad.
Bab Al-Sharqi is a neighborhood of central Baghdad. The area surrounding Bab Al-Sharqi market is a stronghold of the Mahdi Army, the main Shia militia in central Iraq. On January 22, 2007, two powerful car bombs ripped through the Bab Al-Sharqi market, killing at least 88 people and wounding 160 others. The attack coincided with the arrival of 3,200 additional troops into Baghdad.
The first volume of al-Sayyab’s collected poems.
Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926-1964) was a leading Iraqi poet, well known throughout the Arab world and one of the most influential Arab poets of all time. His works have been translated in more than 10 languages including English, Persian, Somali and Urdu.
“Now, now, not tomorrow as Fairuz sings.”
Nouhad Wadie’ Haddad (b.1934), known as Fairuz, is a Lebanese singer who is one of the most admired and influential singers in the Arab world. She is known as an icon in modern Arabic music and has sold over 150 million records worldwide, making her and Umm Kulthum the two best-selling Middle-Eastern artists of all time.
lyricstranslate.com has the translation for Fairuz’s song “Falasteen” (Palestine):
A sword, let’s pull it, in life, and let the horns declare
Now, now not even tomorrow… let the return bells be struck
I don’t forget you Palestine… distance is so hard cruel for me
“Being oriental can be summed up in a line of poetry by Antara ibn Shaddad: ‘Are you surprised, Alba, that I haven’t washed or anointed myself with oil for two years?’ ”
Antarah ibn Shaddad (AD 525-608), also known as Antar, was a pre-Islamic Arab knight and poet, famous for both his poetry and his adventures in life. His chief poem forms part of the Mu’allaqat, the collection of seven “hanging odes” legendarily said to have been suspended in the Kaaba.
I found a translation of his poem “Alba” on blackcatpoems.com, but no line in it seems to match the one quoted above.
“Be positive. Be a positive force and you’ll survive. Be positive. Be a positive force and you’ll survive.”
He repeated the words several times like someone obsessed, until he noticed that the batteries in the recorder were dead.
She wasn’t bothered that her son, or his ghost, hadn’t eaten a bite. Perhaps he was like Abraham’s ghosts in the Quranic version of their visit.
I read through the Wikipedia article for “Abraham in Islam” but couldn’t find anything about ghosts visiting Abraham. Can anyone help me understand this?
Nothing important happened in the meantime.
Many people had talked about the shock of learning that he had abandoned his original religion and became a Shiite Muslim of the Twelver branch.
Twelver or Imamiyyah is the largest branch of Shia Islam. The term Twelver refers to its adherents’ belief in twelve divinely ordained leaders, known as the Twelve Imams, and their belief that the last Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, lives in occultation and will reappear as the promised Mahdi. According to Shia tradition, the Mahdi’s tenure will coincide with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, who is to assist the Mahdi against the Masih ad-Dajjal (literally, the “false Messiah” or Antichrist). Twelvers believe that the Twelve Imams are the spiritual and political successors to the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
His foot on a ball in the same way as the famous footballer Ali Kadhim.
Ali Kadhim (1949-2018) was an Iraqi football striker who played for Iraq in the 1972 AFC Asian Cup & 1976 AFC Asian Cup. He also played for Al Zawraa. He held Iraq’s goal record with 35 goals in his time, until Hussein Saeed broke it in 1982.
“Why would you leave me? Whenever anyone goes out that door, they never come back. It’s like a door that opens into a hole.”
“Baathists loved the smell of apples. ‘The chemical weapons they dropped on Halabja smelled of apple,’ he said with a laugh.”
Halabja is a city in Iraqi Kurdistan and the capital of Halabja Governorate, located about 150 miles northeast of Baghdad.
The Halabja chemical attack, also known as the Halabja Massacre or Bloody Friday, was a massacre against the Kurdish people that took place on March 16, 1988, during the closing days of the Iran-Iraq War in the Kurdish city of Halabja in Iraq. It took place 48 hours after the fall of the town to the Iranian Army. A United Nations medical investigation concluded that mustard gas was used in the attack, along with unidentified nerve agents.
The attack killed between 3,200 and 5,000 people and injured 7,000 to 10,000 more, most of them civilians. In 2010, high-ranking Iraqi official Ali Hassan al-Majid was found guilty of ordering the attack and sentenced to death.
Springer Link has an article titled: “The Indelible Smell of Apples: Poison Gas Survivors in Halabja, Kurdistan-Iraq, and Their Struggle for Recognition”, by Karin Mlodoch. From the Introduction:
The smell of apples is deeply imprinted into the memory of the survivors of poison gas attacks in Kurdistan-Iraq. All of them describe the intense smell of apples – or more precisely: the sweet smell of rotten apples that spread all over the place once the lethal poison-gas bombs touched the ground.
A seed of fear had started to grow deep inside him, and he couldn’t get it out of his mind. Because lies can come true.
The bottle of arak, his glass, and the plate of mezes on a high metal table.
Meze or mezze is a selection of small dishes served to accompany alcoholic drinks in the Near East, the Balkans, and parts of Central Asia. Common dishes include hummus, falafel, sausages, cheese, souvlaki, yogurt, olives, etc.
She put a handful of henna paste on the metal knocker of the large wooden door of the Anglican Church of Saint George in Bab al-Sharqi.
Henna is used to decorate skin or dye hair. I’m not sure of the significance of putting henna paste on a church’s knocker. In some cultures, henna is believed to be a magical and protective plant. Maybe it has something to do with that?
The band started up again: a song by Hussein Neama but at a higher tempo.
The only thing I can find about Hussein Neama is a song/album listing on melody4arab.com.
Heading for Kadhimiya for the ceremonies celebrating the anniversary of the death of the imam Musa al-Kadhim.
For Kadhimiya, see note .
Musa al-Kadhim (the one who controls his anger; ~745-799), was the seventh Shiite Imam after his father Ja’far al-Sadiq. He is regarded by Sunnis as a renowned scholar. He was imprisoned several times, finally dying in Baghdad in the Sindi ibn Shahak prison.
The Festival of Imam Musa al Kadhim is a Twelver Shia Muslim festival dedicated to his memory. It occurs on the seventh day of the month of Rajab (the seventh month) in the Islamic calendar.
He had enslaved the djinn and familiar spirits and made use of Babylonian astrological secrets and the sciences of the Sabeans and the Mandaeans to find the aura of the same surrounding the body of the criminal.
The Sabaeans of Sabeans were an ancient people speaking an Old South Arabian language who lived in the southern Arabian Peninsula. The kingdom of Saba has been identified with the biblical land of Sheba. Sabaeans are mentioned several times in the Hebrew Bible.
Mandaeans are an ethnoreligious group indigenous to the alluvial plain of southern Mesopotamia and are followers of Mandaeism, a Gnostic religion. In the aftermath of the Iraq War of 2003, the indigenous Mandaic community collapsed; most of the community relocated to nearby Iran, Syria and Jordon. There is archaeological evidence that attests to the Mandaean presence in pre-Islamic Iraq.