Enduring Faith in Humanity
BY WILLIAMS DAVIS
Mahmoud Saeed’s novel, Saddam City
While reading Mahmoud Saeed’s novel, Saddam City, the reader is immersed into the bleak, cruel world of torture and suffering during Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical reign over Iraq. This comprehensive account of Mustafa Ali Noman’s time in prison challenges every optimistic belief about humanity and dignity as Noman endures a firsthand experience of the ruthlessness of Saddam and his followers. However, in the narrator’s unbearable physical and emotional agony, an unexpected compassion shines through even during Noman’s most difficult times. Select authority figures contribute to Noman’s moments of relief, but the majority of his support comes from prisoners he meets along his journey.
Although many of the officers mistreat Noman and abuse him constantly, a few stand out as genuinely concerned for him. After his initial exposure to abuse, Noman is transferred by truck to another prison where he witnesses an officer’s kindness for the first time. “[The officer] noticed how Waheed and I were shivering and silently pointed to a kerosene burner… I felt pleasantly warm and safe, and so did not dare question the officer… I did not want to appear to be exploiting his kindness” (43). Even though this is a seemingly small act of sympathy, the officer is risking his career and possibly his life by aiding the prisoners. Noman considers the officer is “simply a good man who had somehow ended up in the wrong line of work” (44). This possibility restores some dwindling faith in humanity because the officer’s motives for being involved in this process may be to save his life and the lives of his family.
The second authority figure to demonstrate consideration for Noman seems perplexed by the lack of charges against him. The warden offers to help him use the phone during his next shift and leaves Noman appreciating his compassion. “I found that I admired him as a champion of humanity, despite his uniform… I was seeing living proof that someone in his position could retain his humanity” (81). Most of the officers abuse their power and dismiss the laws of humanity, but a couple of the officers manage to maintain their concern for other human beings despite their role in the Leader’s dictatorship.
The most convincing displays of kindness occur while Noman is interacting with fellow prisoners. Instead of being solely concentrated on their own problems, the prisoners relate to one another and talk about the details of their lives outside of the prison’s grim walls. On different occasions, one prisoner comforts Noman with stories from his childhood; another prisoner shares his bed with Noman; and a group of prisoners provides a carpet and pillow for Noman when he falls ill.
Noman’s personal encounters with other prisoners also encourage the inherent goodness of humanity. When Waheed parts with Noman, they “embraced and kissed like long-lost friends” (53). Again, when he says good-bye to the Kurds and soldiers, “a flood of goodwill poured in” from their eyes and Noman knew he would never see them again “which made parting more difficult” (104). Noman connects with the other prisoners on a level he would never have been able to achieve so quickly outside of prison. He acknowledges that “this kind of instant trust was nothing short of miraculous in a society where the supposedly free people did not trust even members of their own families” (68). Humanity is truly present in the brief, but meaningful, relationships formed inside of Iraq’s brutal prisons.
Saddam City depicts an unfortunately devastating description of Mustafa Ali Noman’s fifteen-month stay in various prisons throughout Iraq. While it would be easy to give up and accept only the evils demonstrated by the Leader and his party, sincere compassion gives humanity a glimmer of hope through a few of the officers and many of the prisoners. I am inclined to observe this aspect of the novel because I agree with Noman’s transcendental belief “it is better to be bitten fifty times exploring the same crack than lose faith in the humanity of a single human being” (68).