Born in 1973 in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi is a novelist, poet, screenwriter and a documentary filmmaker. He is the author of three books of poetry, including Anniversary of Bad Songs (2000), and four novels to date, The Beautiful Country (2004), Indeed He Dreams or Plays or Dies (2008), Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013), for which he was awarded the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, and The Chalk Door (2017), in addition to a book of short stories, The Bare Face Inside the Dream (2018).
Hailed as “sinister, satirical, ferociously comic” and as “a darkly delightful novel”, Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad is a literary surprise with no parallels. The novel explores the mysterious nature of happiness and the corrupting power of innocence with meticulous observation and the seductive skill of a great storyteller. Saadawi takes the reader into the shadow of perversion that, little by little, darkens the extraordinary contentment and harmony of his characters.
He has won several awards and was selected for 39 Beirut, as one of the 39 best Arabic authors under 40. In this interview conducted in Lahore on the sidelines of Faiz International Festival, he talks about his resolve to not leave Baghdad – the city that feeds his novels, and its multifaceted characters that appear in a fictional guise in his novels. Excerpts follow:
The News Sunday (TNS): Tell us about your humble beginnings?
Ahmed Saadawi (AS): I don’t come from a rich background! As a matter of fact, it was a rather unassuming household where we led an unpretentious life. I was born in Baghdad where I’ve lived practically all my life. I began my career in the mid-1990s, and my first major breakthrough came through journalism, followed by jobs in radio and television. However, journalism is what remained the mainstay throughout. Until ten years ago, I was also making documentaries on topics as varied as socio-political issues as well as the economy. These documentary films were broadcast on Iraqi television channels.
TNS: How did a career in journalism help you produce literature?
AS: I began writing stories and poems as a child. Writing had always been my favourite pastime, and journalese, my favourite pursuit because, as a journalist, you get to meet people from different walks of life, discover new phenomena, and avail varied opportunities. Journalism offered me the break to travel through the entire length and breadth of Iraq, from the North to the South. On my travels, I met many diverse kinds of people and shared some intimate moments with them. That helped broaden the horizon of my imagination.
I started reading the Arabic classics like Alf Laila, followed by Abdul Rahman Munif, Muhammad Qadeer and Naguib Mahfouz among novelists, and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Mahmoud Darwish among poets.
Journalism is not subservient to inspiration or revelation – you write what you observe and what you feel. No matter what your aptitude or temperament, your job is to report. You must write because such is the nature of your job. In simpler words, it’s a test of pragmatic thinking. It was these sentiments that compelled me to take to writing novels.
TNS: What material are your characters made of?
AS: It may not be possible to name out any influence singularly. In fact, people who I meet enter the world of my novels as characters, one by one. For instance, while I was returning home from work one night in Baghdad, I began thinking of writing a new story but the protagonist, the hero of the story had not yet transpired. The story, as I had conceived of it, had a skeleton but I still did not have any idea about what the hero may look like. What would be the colour of his skin? What racial type would he be? I was perturbed by the thought.
It was past midnight when I hitched the taxi ride. While the taxi driver drove me home, I struck a conversation with him on the way. He was a well-dressed, good looking young man. He shared with me the problems faced by his family. As soon as we entered my street, it occurred to me that he was the hero of my story I had been looking for. I ended up incorporating every single detail about his family into my story.
I am often curious about the characters I encounter in my life. People are the origin of stories and narratives. They are the ones stories are born of. A good writer doesn’t write about himself. On the contrary, he writes about his society, about the people he lives among.
TNS: What, in your opinion, is the true Iraqi identity at the moment?
AS: Human consciousness and societies remain steady when there is a firm system of governance, and disperse when the government is in conflict. They are linked to each other. Iraq is one of the ancient most territories in the world. It has seen major political upheavals, epidemics like plague, debacles, and invasions such as the one by the Mongols. But, despite all that, it has continued to survive. The inhabitants still retain the sensibility of being Iraqi Arabs. And even though they are disturbed by the political situation in the country, they still preserve a strong sense of attachment to the land.
The stability of the state dispenses peace to the country. All the parties in the leadership regard themselves unimpeachable, and the others guilty. If they are all honourable, who is the perpetrator of crime? Why is there conflict in the state? The system of governance and the judiciary should decide as to who should be acquitted and who should be indicted. No matter which government, law and order should prevail and draw the line between the criminal and the victim.
The educated and the sensible lot in Iraq believes in supporting the government and making the judiciary strong. If we stage an uprising against the government, who will be responsible for restoring peace? The issue is not about who’s in control.
TNS: Where does your Frankenstein draw a line between the criminal and the victim, being a monster himself?
AS: Frankenstein is a generic character. There is a Frankenstein in all of us. That is to say, we are all criminals and victims at the same time. There are different components in human genes. I have a friend in Baghdad who is of Pakistani descent. His family name is Al-Hindi. Apparently, his family migrated to Iraq during the British rule in India. About four years ago, he travelled to the subcontinent in search of his roots. His family in Pakistan informed him that they had originally emigrated from Yemen and had an Arab ancestry. No one on earth is unblended or ‘pure’, as they say; everyone’s a mix. The best is to live together in harmony.
Frankenstein is a symbolic character. One side of it speaks for the problematics of existence while the other side reflects on reality. One side of it stands by justice and believes in avenging the dictator while the other believes in compromise and reconciliation.
TNS: What are your earlier novels about?
AS: My first novel is set in 19th century Baghdad, in times of economic crisis. My second novel Indeed He Dreams or Plays or Dies is about the American intervention and the presence of the militia; it’s about the international hero and the architects of war. The novel describes the personality of the hero and his conflict with others. There are different anecdotes and incidents in his life, from the mundane to the extraordinary, such as a car breakdown. The novel is composed of many different stories and is not an easy read. In some situations, the hero feels he’s living a real life while in certain others, he feels he’s in a state of trance, far removed from reality.
TNS: At one point you’ve said: “All the tragedies we are going through are due to fear.” How do you explain that?
AS: Man finds himself caught in the grip of fear when he lacks the means to defend himself when he is vulnerable. When he knows that the government or the head of the state is out there to take on the responsibility of defending his rights, his fears dissipate. It is in times of terror and dismay that rebels are born. And rebels alarm people of their opponents.
In my opinion, the two biggest enemies of mankind are ignorance and fear.
TNS: What turn of events gave birth to Frankenstein?
AS: When I was working as a journalist, I chanced upon a mortuary, in fact where post-mortems were performed. It was choked with corpses because of the explosions in Baghdad resulting in casualties. A young man walked in while I was there and started rummaging through the pile of bodies looking for his brother. He could neither find him among the patients nor among the dead bodies. He was almost sure of finding him in the ambulance that had just arrived. Eventually, he asked a caretaker for his missing brother who led him into a room. The room had nothing but an array of body parts. He said: “I can’t find my brother here.” He was told to collect different body parts, assemble them, and create a brother for himself. This is how the Frankenstein of my novel was created.
The interview was conducted in Arabic with the kind help of Sammi Mufti Sahab, the translator.