Reading 'Frankenstein in Baghdad'

While many Iraqis have grown accustomed to daily violence and attacks, some writers are trying to tackle these topics in literary works.

al-monitor Iraqi women browse through books during a reading initiative in Baghdad, Sept. 28, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Ahmed Saad.

Topics covered

violence, suicide bombing, society, literature, iraq, culture, bagdad

Mar 18, 2014

Iraq is still witnessing the highest rates of political violence across the world, and the death toll since 2003 is estimated at more than half a million, according to an academic research team.

There have been approximately 2,500 civilian casualties since the beginning of this year, a conservative figure that mainly depends on incidents documented in the media.

While much has been written about the political motives behind the ongoing violence and the reasons behind the spread of armed groups and terrorism in Iraq, the majority of Iraqis still find it difficult to interpret all this violence through conventional methods.

For most Iraqis, especially those who live in unsafe areas such as the capital, Baghdad, it is still difficult to understand how some young people could turn into suicide bombers who kill themselves amid innocent civilians and expect to be rewarded by God for such acts. They do not understand who has a political interest in having this kind of murder continue.

For others, it is difficult, after all these years, to explain the Iraqi security forces’ failure to develop successful security plans for dealing with car bombs and other traditional methods of violence adopted by extremist groups.

The absence of logical answers to those questions led many Iraqis to despair, and perhaps to accept violence as part of their daily routines. Instead of focusing on confronting violence and its political, social and cultural causes, a lot of Iraqis prefer to live with it and accept that violence has become part of their lives.

In the absence of clear political solutions, Iraqi literature and art started focusing more on addressing violence and its impact on the lives of citizens, sometimes in a fantastical way. This is what the novelist Ahmed Saadawi did in his novel “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” which was shortlisted for the Arabic Booker Prize this year. The novel revolves around a nameless figure, an Iraqi version of the fantasy creature of Frankenstein, which is made by a garbage man from the remains of the bodies of bombing victims. Frankenstein subsequently turns into a living person and avenges the killers of the victims from whom his body is made.

Like any literary or artistic work, fantasy in this novel can be interpreted in multiple ways, but it is difficult for one to miss that it reflects the general feeling of helplessness and aspiration to justice toward violence witnessed in Iraq.

During an interview with Al-Monitor, Saadawi said that fantasy is just one of the aspects of this novel, which also includes social and political dimensions.

“Fantasy is not an escape or alienation from reality. It is rather a way to reach greater depth in this reality, which is packed with fantasy as a daily behavioral and rhetorical practice, no matter how organized and logical it looks. We see fantasy as a general headline for the supernatural that prevails over social and popular consciousness. We see it as an inclination to believe illogical explanations or think in a specific spiritual and metaphysical way of salvation from depression and despair,” Saadawi added. 

Saadawi sees the “nameless” Frankenstein character as a symbolic figure who represents political, social, psychological, metaphysical and moral issues. He believes that the Iraqi political mix that surfaced in 2003 failed to create horizons for common action or at least to set a work program that could help the state rise from the ashes. The shape and identity of the state became ambiguous, as is the character of the nameless figure in the novel.

“The Iraqi citizens found themselves fighting a battle for self-protection on their own, and struggled to distinguish between friend and foe. This created a fertile environment for militias and armed groups that extracted their legitimacy from the public need for protection. The security and judicial institutions are growing weaker, and the law enforcement bodies remain incompetent and unable to execute fair measures in dealing with violence and its consequences. As a result, public fears linger in the absence of the state’s power to achieve justice,” Saadawi concluded.

This literary treatment of violence in Iraq represents a new episode in the quest of Iraqi intellectuals and writers to make sense of the continuing plight in their country and to transmit this ordeal to the outside world. After all, numbers alone cannot fully reflect the problems, pressure and suffering faced by people who have to deal with violence on a daily basis and must develop their instincts to anticipate this violence and survive.

The problem deepens when the state institutions fail to provide protection for the people, justice for victims and clear answers about the sources of violence, its causes and ways to counter it. While it seems that the Iraqi political class dealt with the continuous bombings and killings as a daily reality and washed its hands clean of confronting this reality or resolving it, researchers, artists and writers have taken it upon themselves to understand, interpret and unveil violence. 

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