An Explanation of Survival
In the novel, Saddam City, Mahmoud Saeed tells the world what he experienced and witnessed while he was a detainee in various Iraqi prisons during the reign of the dictator, Saddam Hussein. Bones can heal, wounds will close up, but the lasting effects of living in the horrendous conditions of these prisons is one that the character, Mustafa Ali Noman, must burden the rest of his life. In a cruel twist of fate, he was mistakenly singled out as an enemy of the state. Should he consider himself unlucky, or is the experience of luck something that is contextual and limited to a current situation? Saeed’s account of the events he witnessed through Noman’s eyes, call attention to what people free from oppression consider to be lucky. By the end of the novel, it is clear that to survive such treatment one should proclaim himself as more than lucky.
The first chapter is the only time the reader knows Noman as a free unburdened man. The audience follows him through an all-access camera through his Monday morning activities and anxieties. In this life, Noman would consider the collapse of his car into “a dead heap of junk” before getting him to work, unlucky, as indicated of his questioning if such a thing was a “good omen” on “the day of Prophet’s birth”(9). On an ordinary Monday, this would have been the worst part of his day. However, it is on this day that Mustafa Ali Noman’s perception of ordinary and what it means to be a lucky man are altered forever due to a simple case of misidentification.
Once Noman enters into the prison system of Iraq during the years of Saddam Hussein as dictator, it becomes apparent that his individual survival and release are determined by nothing more than blind luck. A prisoner’s location and stay in that location are attributed to how lucky or unlucky they are; when Noman arrives in Baghdad he is considered lucky for making it beyond the gates of the prison, he has entered “the house of the living”, because those who do not enter are executed(50). When he is transferred again to what he denotes as purgatory, in order to wait for the move to Dahouk, the other detainees sarcastically label him “the lucky one” as he has missed the transfer truck to his next destination(66). Until the next truck, Noman must sit and wait in the cold and cramped cell overflowing with inmates similarly awaiting transfers. Living in the conditions of a tyrannical government’s prisons, the expected comforts of life, such as keeping warm, when fulfilled in these places are considered fortunate; “the luckiest” detainees were those “who had something to wrap around their heads”(92).
As his year in captivity continues, Noman realizes the lucky ones are not the ones who have the most food, clothing, cigarettes; it is the ones who were still breathing and had a shimmer of hope should be thanking “their lucky stars”(83). To be able to think, hope, dream of freedom, those are the men, Noman believes are those that are lucky, even if trapped behind bars and will most likely die behind cement walls. The releasing officer temps Noman to feel lucky, to feel like he is special and distinct from all the other men he encountered in prison just because the officer “likes the people of Basra”, Noman’s hometown(122).
But he is not. As Mustafa Ali Noman takes his first breath as a freeman in over a year, he realizes it is not luck, but “a miracle” that he is “alive and free”(129). He should have died, like all the others who were just as innocent. Upon release it becomes clear that no one is safe, “sooner or later everybody was liable to run afoul of the regime or be mistaken for someone who had”(128). Mahmoud Saeed took hold of the new life he was given and chose to educate those around him by reporting what he saw. Saddam City forces the audiences to question the stability of their own lives and bring all of humanity into focus. What is deemed lucky is based upon context and it should be understood through this book that the fragility of life is to be respected and be considered a miracle that it occurs at all.
rate�4cm�ڽ(z�nge from the submissive and weak Mustafa that was exhibited when he was confronted with the questionnaire from Security. The new Mustafa is strong, aggressive, and without fear-even the fear of death. The significant changes of Mustafa is foreshadowed early in the novel when he is riding in the same truck as men who are about to be executed. Mustafa observes a young man who knows he is about to be killed: “The solid, imperturbable impression of the young man in the opposite row, however, was unchanged. He reminded me of the rock face of mountains. His was defying death. But I was shaking with dread and cold” (Saeed 39). Now, at the end of the novel, Mustafa is the one who is defying death. He is completely free because he is no longer afraid; to be free of the fear of death “is the end of all fears” (Saeed 129). Of all of the freedoms that Mustafa acquired during his time in prison, this is the most significant and valuable because it has changed him as a man. While Mustafa was in a physical prison for over fifteen months, he was already in a prison all of his life. He was forced to obey and submit to everything the government said and was forced to give up his principals and beliefs. However, he redeems himself when he is offered the choice of either confessing or facing the consequences, even death. Mustafa’s experiences in prison gave him the strength to choose the death of his body over the death of his principals. Because of this, Security has nothing to threaten Mustafa with because he no longer has fear, therefore he has gained complete freedom.
Saddam City describes Mustafa Ali Noman’s journey to freedom. Falsely imprisoned and under unimaginably harsh conditions, Mustafa’s courage and personal strength were pushed to their limit. However, Mustafa’s imprisonment led him to freedom. Prison led Mustafa to be free of society’s distrust of individuals, enabled him to be free of the feeling of total and complete loneliness, and lastly, evolved him into a man that is free of the fear of death. To conclude, the courage that Mustafa exhibits is admirable, and the personal growth and development he gains through his acquisition of freedom is nothing short of incredible given the extreme physical and emotional torture he endured during his 15 months of hell in prison.