Free as a Bird: Expressing the Joy of Freedom in
Saddam City (Mahmoud Saeed)
BY JONES MILLER
In Saddam City by Mahmoud Saeed, we are alongside the narrator, Mustafa Ali Norman, as he experiences torture in Iraqi prisons for fifteen months. The novel is filled with graphic scenes and tales of lives ruined, but surprisingly, I found the most moving passage to be at the end of the story, when Mustafa is finally released from custody. In the final passages of the novel, Mustafa expresses the joys of a free life, and focuses on the happiness of the present without dwelling on the hardships he endured.
The author writes Saddam City with strong imagery and metaphors. In the very beginning of Mustafa’s imprisonment, he feels “shock,” “fright,” and that his “fate had swallowed [him] whole” (15). In the end of the novel, the author expresses Mustafa’s emotions with the same sense of emotional potency, except all negative connotations are replaced with positives. When he is released, Mustafa says that he can no longer wait to see his family, and the “prospect of seeing them was sweeping me off my feet and washing over me like tidal waves” (128). This metaphor perfectly encapsulates Mustafa’s desire and emotions as being uncontrollable, like the tide. In his euphoria of freedom, Mustafa “ran” and “clasped” his belongings, “lost track of time,” and seeing that he was standing in an ordinary town, his “smile filled the universe” (129). Words such as “ran” and “clasped” give the reader a strong sense of Mustafa’s emotions in the physical form; these words clearly indicate the excitement and fervor that Mustafa experiences in trying to reconnect with his family. He “loses” time because he is awash with so many emotions, and his smile that “filled the universe” is similar to the earlier wave metaphor; his emotions cannot be contained. Mustafa expresses that he wishes he could “take pictures of my feelings”, “record the joy” of returning to his family, and take a picture of “the rainbow” inside him (129). He wants to always remember the sensation of savoring freedom and life after being oppressed for so long.
In the last two pages of the book, Mustafa only mentions his imprisonment once. He relates his imprisonment as being in “the fangs of a snake dripping with venom” (129). This phrase gives a strong connotation of the danger and the overall pain Mustafa experienced. However, I was surprised that in the end of the novel, Mustafa focused his attention primarily on his positive and overflowing emotions. This really moved me. Although he had experienced the bowels of hell, Mustafa focuses on his freedom and the joys of living. Instead of dwelling on the past and becoming bitter at those who imprisoned him, Mustafa clearly is embracing the present and looking to a bright future. Earlier, he decides that if he were to be imprisoned again, it “would not be for nothing” (128). Mustafa is being realistic by realizing that being arrested again is possible, but he knows that he should embrace freedom while he can. Mustafa’s release from imprisonment serves as a release for the reader as well. The reader, who has been following the despair of Mustafa’s pain and abuse, finds relief when Mustafa is rightfully freed. Personally, I would have been upset and concerned if Mustafa had not been released; Saeed is an author who can really connect the reader with the character.
In the last paragraph of the novel, Mustafa keeps “flying on the wings of my imagination” (130). As a bird freed from a cage, Mustafa embodies the idea that liberty and happiness should belong to every living being on Earth. The ending of this novel reminds us that it is important not to focus on the past, when at the present moment, there is happiness and joy to be embraced.