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Finding horror and humour in Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad

Hadi, a junk dealer, alcoholic and habitual liar, starts collecting body parts from explosion sites, elaborately stitching them together into a composite corpse. 

Baghdad, 2005. Occupied Iraq is hurtling into civil war. Gunmen clutch rifles “like farmers with spades” and cars explode seemingly at random. Realism may not be able to do justice to such horror, but this darkly delightful novel by Ahmed Saadawi – combining humour and a traumatised version of magical realism – certainly begins to.

After his best friend is rent to pieces by a bomb, Hadi, a junk dealer, alcoholic and habitual liar, starts collecting body parts from explosion sites. Next he stitches them together into a composite corpse. Hadi intends to take the resulting “Whatsitsname” to the forensics department – “I made it complete,” he says, “so it wouldn’t be treated as trash” – but, following a storm and a further series of explosions, the creature stands up and runs out into the night.

At the moment of the Whatsitsname’s birth, Hasib, a hotel security guard, is separated from his body by a Sudanese suicide bomber. The elderly Elishva, meanwhile, is importuning a talking portrait of St George to return her son Daniel, who – though he was lost at war two decades ago – she is convinced is still alive.

In what ensues, some will find their wishes fulfilled. Many will not. After all, the Whatsitsname’s very limbs and organs are crying for revenge. And as each bodily member is satisfied, it drops off, leaving the monster in need of new parts. Vengeance, moreover, is a complex business. Soon it becomes difficult to discern the victims from the criminals.

This novel – a loping, murdering, free-floating metaphor for events escaping their intentions and violence gaining its own momentum – won Saadawi (also an acclaimed poet, screenwriter and film-maker) the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Detective story and satire as well as gothic horror, Frankenstein in Baghdad provides a tragicomic take on a society afflicted by fear, and a parable concerning responsibility and justice.

Mahmoud, a harried journalist, and the less intelligent but equally ambitious Brigadier Majid of the Tracking and Pursuit Department, try to chase the creature down. Madmen, religious entrepreneurs, a magician and a “Sophist” follow it, seeking a leader for their various ideologies. Those affected by the Whatsitsname’s actions include a newspaper editor, a migrant worker, a housewife and a real-estate agent. The subplots are sufficiently well developed, and the cast large enough, to form a lively portrait of a teeming, cosmopolitan Baghdad. It’s a city “where no-one could claim to be an original inhabitant” and that steadily diminishes as its residents either flee or die. In one of the novel’s many sad ironies, the Whatsisname, constructed from diverse “ethnicities, tribes, races and social classes” is declared “the first true Iraqi citizen”.

Jonathan Wright’s superb translation conveys the novel’s contemporary, urban edge as well as its light and witty style. Saadawi’s brand of horror is self-deprecating, always delivered with wry irony, so there’s nothing old-fashioned in the gothic. Brigadier Majid’s inefficient sleuthing may be assisted by a team of astrologers in conical hats, but they are too embarrassed to appear in public (one of them, as versatile as the times, will later adopt religious dress), and they employ “cell phone vibrations” for their occult communications.

The humour is sometimes laugh-out-loud. When four beggars are found dead, each with his hands round the throat of another “like some weird tableau or theatrical scene”, the Brigadier solemnly declares: “It was meant to send a message.”

The comedy heightens rather than detracts from the sober subject matter. As it unfolds, the story “explains” such real-world events as the August 2005 stampede of pilgrims on the Imams Bridge, when almost a thousand were trampled or drowned in the panic caused by the mere rumour of a bomb. This ubiquitous, arbitrary and excessively gratuitous death is the writer’s major theme. If Hadi’s original creative impulse was to restore what was broken, to establish dignity for the dismembered victims of war, this is Saadawi’s concern too. His novel moves as much as it entertains.

Under intense historical pressure, the current wave of Arabic prose fiction is adventurous in both form and content. Saadawi’s fellow Iraqi writers Hassan Blasim, Ali Bader and Muhsin al-Ramli – also translated into English – display similar ambition and freedom. In Saadawi’s Baghdad, tales of the Whatsitsname spread rapidly: “Over the last years the local people had heard many stories that were no more believable.” Iraq is a place where lived reality is often stranger and more terrible than fiction. 

Robin Yassin-Kassab is author of “The Road from Damascus” (Penguin) and co-author of “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War” 

Frankenstein in Baghdad 
Ahmed Saadawi - Translated by Jonathan Wright
Oneworld, 272pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”