The wounds of Baghdad's Frankenstein

Ahmed al-Sa'dawi's novel, rather than reconciling the complexities of violence in Iraq, seeks to exorcise the demons that haunt the lives of ordinary people left with wounds from decades of imperial brutality. From States of Impunity.

Omar Dewachi
26 May 2015

Mixing the past and present: the ruins of the Iraqi embassy in Berlin could easily be any Iraqi building after the 2003 invasion. Omar Dewachi. All rights reserved. 

In his award-winning novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad, Iraqi author Ahmed al-Sa’dawi offers us an insight into the convolutions and ambivalences of violence and terror in Iraq in the wake of the 2003 US occupation. Set in the winter of 2005, several months before the outbreak of the so-called 'civil war' in Iraq (2006-2007), the novel captures the everyday absurdities of the occupation project and its production and management of 'unruliness' under the guise of the 'war on terror'. While it is a vivid commentary on the depth of human experience under that war, the novel further undermines simplistic notions of justice through dissecting an anatomy of everyday violence and retributions.

The novel tells the story of Hadi al-Attag, a rag-and-bone, inebriated street-seller, who embarks on a “noble” mission to collect body remains from the daily explosions that hit Baghdad prior the outbreak of full-scale civil war. Troubled by the inability to give these body parts a proper burial, al-Attag attempts to stitch together his finds into a single corpse. His latest procurement is a nose, collected after a suicide attack of a garbage truck targeting a five star hotel in the capital. In the midst of the chaos of the explosion, al-Attag finds the nose remains on the side of the street, puts it in his sackcloth bag, and returns to his run-down home in the old Jewish cemetery in al-Bataween district–a religiously and ethnically mixed working-class neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. al-Attag stiches the nose into the oozing hodge-podge of flesh to complete his corpse, which he calls the shisma or the "what’s-its-name".Next morning, the shisma disappears, coming to life after a “lost soul”, whose body was completely decimated in that same explosion, finds a home in the stitched-up corpse.

The shisma embarks on a mission to seek revenge for the wounds that constitute his Frankenstein-like body, spreading phantasmagoric terror in Baghdad’s neighborhoods. Bullets do not affect the stitched-up body of Baghdad's Frankenstein–a body that speaks more broadly to the density of Iraq's history in which memories, wounds, grievances and invasions are packed heavily into the bodies and lives of Iraqis. This wounded body brings out the perverted logics of the US invasion where the boundaries between everyday crime and the violence of the occupation are blurred, so as that between the rational and the irrational.

The mysterious vigilante violence ultimately leads to a governmental inquiry and manhunt by the Special Bureau of Surveillance and Investigation–a bureau created by the US occupation authority that deploys sorcery and black magic to track an array of incidents in the war-torn city. The bureau mobilizes its employees of thugs, psychics, mediums, occultists and astrologists hired to predict violence. The investigation spreads further terror in the city, torturing suspects and witnesses, as all efforts to capture or kill the shisma are to no avail. Subsequently members of the bureau become possessed in the pursuit of the shisma and the chief sorcerer begins to question the bureau’s role in the making of Baghdad’s mystery criminal. 

Frankenstein moves at night from alley to alley, and across rooftops as he carries out his own form of brutal retribution. The victims of the shisma vary every night. On one occasion it was a member of al-Qaeda organization hiding in a small house in Abu-Ghraib district. Another is a mercenary from Venezuela working for a private security company in Baghdad. Another night, it is an opportunist warlord who supplies militias with explosives and weaponry, regardless of their political views or affiliations. Through his undertakings, the shisma displaces the commonly invoked sectarian logics of Iraq’s violence. He shows how everyday violence is mostly shaped by the state of 'disorder' under the occupation. There is only one problem: avenged body parts of Baghdad’s Frankenstein dissolve after each retribution and the monster turns into a killer who is ready to slay “innocent” citizens to replace the disintegrating flesh. The flesh of victims and perpetrators mix in a hallucinogenic mélange of magical realism that is deployed by Sa’dawi to capture everyday social relations and emotions under occupation. He shows how earthly notions of justice have become unavailable in the productions of such magical spectacles of violence, where yesterday’s victims are today’s avengers.

The shisma symbolizes this lack of a comprehensive project of justice after 2003 that became blind to the complex wounds that constitute the Iraqi social body. The occupation institutionalized a process of retribution–where personal vendettas and settling old accounts became normalized under the banner of de-Ba’thification. The denial of the US occupation of its own implications in the production of decades of violence dating back to the first Gulf war and sanctions toxically metabolizes in the narratives of the novel. Soon characters in the novel begin to recognize how they too are implicated by the terror of the shisma whose flesh is constituted of more than wasting flesh, but also the different grievances and injustices of post-invasion Iraq. 

With the inevitable failure of “earthly” forms of justice, the shisma cultivates a cult of followers in the city, from the most wretched who see him as the embodiment of a perverted God-sent justice. His followers offer him comfort, love and their own bodies as a sacrifice towards his undertaking. Eliashu, an elderly Christian women living alone in an old house in Bataween recognizes the shisma as her returning son, Daniel, whose body remained missing after his assumed death during Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). The shisma was the answer to her decades of prayers to Saint Georges, whose iconic image combating the dragon hung in her dusty and unkempt home. She offers him Daniel’s clothes and a silent motherly presence as the shisma returns every night to her modest dwelling.

Fighting along his side are a number of demoralized followers: there is the disheartened sorcerer, a member of the demised Ba’th Party, whose mobilization of djinn (spirits) had failed in the face of the high-tech military power of the US occupation. There is the sophist whose ability to rationalize the retributions carried out by the shisma allows the monster to strategize, and moralize, his daily killings. There is also the enemy, an officer in the Iraqi government’s Anti-Terrorism Brigade who, after two years of work with the corrupt Internal Security Forces, came to the conclusion that justice was a fiction in present-day Iraq. The enemy frequently leaks to the shisma secret intelligence about the mobilization of the US and Iraqi security forces in the city and supplies him with official government uniforms to carry out, incognito, his assassinations. 

In addition to such “logistical” support the shisma is also shadowed by three faithful foot soldiers:  the “lesser madman”, the “great madman” and the “greatest madman.” The first believes that the shisma is the “ideal Iraqi citizen” that succeeding Iraqi governments failed to mint since the creation of the Iraqi state under the British mandate from 1920 to 1932. He is a figure that has internalized discourses of Iraq’s “ungovernability”, often invoked by media and political pendants commenting on the “incommensurability” of the Iraqi nation-state project. The second holds that the shisma is God’s tool of destruction that will lead to the coming of the Savior; the Messiah; the Mahdi. The third believes that the shisma is actually the Savior himself, who has finally arrived to bring God’s justice in preparation for judgment day.

Frankenstein in Baghdad captures the impossibility of justice in the aftermath of decades of US war and violence in Iraq. Rather than focusing on witnessing as a way to document this troubled past/present, the magical realism of the narrative allows the author to explore the array of emotions of terror and vengeance that characterizes the frayed fabric of life and justice in the country. It is indeed a commentary on contemporary colonial violence and its attempt to obscure and deny local and personal histories and wounds of ordinary Iraqis. It is a response to the simplistic characterization of Iraqis as ungovernable–torn between sectarian and ethnic identities.

While such discourse has deep roots in the politics of colonial and state violence, the novel brilliantly shows how unruliness in Iraq is both produced and renounced by the perverted logics and workings of the US-led war on terror. Indeed, the novel is a response to the 'shock and awe' doctrine of US campaign in Iraq and its consequences that shape through the stratum of wounds of the Iraqi social body. The novel does not attempt to give us answers to how one could reconcile the complexities of violence in Iraq. Rather, it is an attempt to exorcise these demons that haunt the life of ordinary people who are caught in the 'awe' of decades of imperial brutality.

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