Friendship in Light of Tragedy
Mahmoud Saeed’s “Saddam City” reveals the true atrocities of a broken country while under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. As an unjustly accused prisoner, main character Mustafa Ali Noman brings us on a whirlwind journey of torture and horror as he is transported between prisons throughout Iraq—despite his innocence and confusion about what his “crime” actually is. However, during this dark phase of his life, Mustafa is surrounded by similar cases all around him. He finds something that one would never expect to find under the harshest conditions and the cruelest torture: hope through friendship.
It is quite a striking phenomenon how easily strangers come together when faced with unimaginable tragedy. Mustafa Ali Noman’s story is no exception to that phenomenon. Throughout the novel, Mustafa finds himself bonding with his fellow prisoners—speaking Arabic, telling stories about their lives before imprisonment, and sharing tips on how to deal with the guards. As Mustafa explains, “The awareness of the difficulties of the trek melted formalities on the spot and generated warm friendships” (68). The typical protocol of how to interact with strangers is tossed out the windows of Basra, Baghdad, Mosul, Dahouk, Irbil, and Sulaymaniyah. A sense of camaraderie takes over, and the prisoners lean on one another for physical support (literally) and hope.
After hours of confusion, painful handcuffing, and interrogation, Mustafa was feeling terribly scared after his first day at Basra. This feeling slightly faded when he had human contact with another inmate. As Mustafa states, “For the first time there I felt connected to another human being; human warmth radiated from whomever was on my right side” (32). Here, we begin to see Mustafa seeking warmth and comfort from those around him—who are complete strangers. In this situation, it wasn’t deep self disclosure, or Mustafa and this man bonding over telling each other stories from their lives. To us, being handcuffed to another prisoner doesn’t seem to be something that would evoke such warm feelings. But to Mustafa, this human interaction was a necessity.
This sense of camaraderie only increases as the torture from the guards becomes more horrendous. After a particularly grueling truck ride between Basra and Baghdad, the inmates on board experienced true friendship. Whether it involved sharing a blanket with one another or huddling close for warmth, undergoing this experience created a very real bond between them. As Mustafa says, “We embraced and kissed like long-lost friends. Living through twelve hours on that truck was enough to cement our friendship” (53). This friendship continues up until the end of the novel.
While the friendships made in the cells of Basra, Baghdad, Mosul, Dahouk, Irbil, and Sulaymaniyah certainly served as a way to cope with the horrifying predicament they all faced, the parting of friends brought back the reality of their fate. As Mustafa’s friend Amarah prepares to leave, Mustafa states, “Before leaving he hugged me and wished me a speedy return to my wife and children. His words came from the heart and affected me so much that I started to cry” (71). This statement shows how deeply Mustafa valued Amarah’s friendship, as his farewell brought Mustafa to tears at the realization of how terrible their situation was. Letting go of these friendships just meant the inmates were one step closer to determining their fate of death or life. Just as Amarah’s departure was heartrending, so was the sheikh’s. As he prepared to leave, he turned to his inmate friends with tearful eyes. Mustafa explains, “…he looked at us with deep affection and said: I wish we could have met in a more proper setting” (92).
Saeed’s “Saddam City” captures the necessity of friendship in light of tragedy. Faced with fear, strangers joined together as a way to cope with the terrors of torture. These friendships prove to be instrumental in aiding prisoners in survival: literally, by sharing blankets, and also metaphorically, through the sense of hope these friendships brought. Mustafa discusses his friendships throughout the course of the novel, proving to us that they are valued and important to him. Without the sense of hope these friendships brought, Mustafa and other inmates may not have been able to endure the pain of “Saddam City.”