Book 30: Frankenstein in Baghdad

Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013) by Ahmed Saadawi was the winner of the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, as well as the Man Booker International Prize finalist of 2018.

This is a strange book, that’s for sure. It’s a magcial realism/sci-fi esque look into the Iraq War and takes place in a US-occupied neighbourhood in Baghdad.

“The door swung wide open and beyond the doorway loomed the dark figure of a tall man. His blood froze in his veins as he saw the figure approach. The yellow light of the lantern struck the strange man’s face – a face with lines of stitches, a large nose and a mouth like a gaping wound”

Reading the English version, I felt like the translation was a bit sloppy so I started cross referencing with the original Arabic text. It was funnier, with the cultural references making more sense. The story was a bit slow for me – there were many tangents I could have done without – but I love how, like most war-based fiction, it pared down to the questions of morality, humanity, blame and innocence that crop up during such times.

Personally, the book is a bit slow for me. It elicited a few chuckles from me and I get how it’s a satire on the way religions form, and sectarian rife and political parties etc. But I feel like the translation was a bit sloppy so I have been cross-referencing it at times with the OG Arabic text.

“كل يوم نموت خوفاً من الموت نفسه”

Frankenstein in Baghdad was all about questioning how innocent we truly are, how everyone is a criminal in wartime and noone is 100% a victim. It satirized the way political factions and religious sects form and then fight with each other even when they all stem from the same source. Complete with gossiping “7areem il 7arra” (LOL I don’t even know if that term makes sense but I’m giving it a shot) and sons who don’t come back from the war, black magic from old guys with long white beards and idiots who start worshipping a monster. Frankenstein was portrayed as a misunderstood vigilante who was also going through an existential crisis. It focused a lot on journalism (merits and methods). Some things you have to flip to your Arabic part of your brain to fully appreciate (may God take you = allah ya5thek; the orange = the song ilbrta8ala *deneneeng*

غير أن أحد الجن ممن نَجَوا من المذبحة الرهيبة خلال معركة مطار بغداد بقي يطوف حوله, ويزوره أحياناً لتسليته في وحشته. وأخبره أن لديه مهمة كبيرة واحدة باقية

I also liked how one of the repeated questions in the book is how does it feel to be the parent of a serial killer, or a dictator or a monster. How do parents feel when they end up being vessels to something greater than themselves? That was the way they used the connection between Frankenstein and the man who accidentally created him. That’s the main difference between Shelley’s and Saadawi’s monsters. In this book, the man wasn’t experimenting or trying to create anything at all. That was used to explore a whole new aspect of the father/child relationship.

It was an okay read. I don’t urge anyone to rush out this second to purchase it. But if you have a rainy day one October, it might be nice to curl up with this read.

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