Mahmoud Saeed’s Saddam City may also be aptly called I Am the One Who Saw, as the author originally intended, although both titles fit the context of the novel. Titling the book Saddam City attempts to give the novel a more political grounding whereas Saeed intended to observe Iraq as he saw it on many levels beyond political references. Saddam City assumedly refers to the dictatorial nature of life under Saddam and the omnipresence of his regime and personality in Iraq which penetrates all levels of society. I Am the One Who Saw, on the other hand reflects the author’s intentions: an attempt to recount experiences in prison through the lens of a mistakenly jailed school teacher; it just so happens that politics plays a dominant role. Saeed explores much more than just Saddam (the dictator himself is never explicitly mentioned) despite the overwhelming presence of politics in everyday life—through Saeed’s eyes the reader can glimpse into Iraqi society and the plethora of different experiences under Saddam, exploring the Iraq’s people, religion, language, and culture as the author experiences them on a deeply personal level, but also as an observer of other individual experiences.
In the novel, the main character, Mustafa Ali Noman, recounts his experiences in jail and with other inmates. However, his experiences are often in relation to the outside world or how prisoners ended up detained. The many stories recounted in the novel reflect the nature of arbitrary arrests and absolute power in Iraq, lending credence to the title Saddam City. The fact that everybody and anybody, from peasants to ministers, were subject to imprisonment, torture, and death reveals the dominance of authoritarian government and uncertainly at the time. The narrator recounts the tales of a legal investigator who “had seen a Special Forces sergeant who later died under torture; he had lost his mind after being forced to kill three children” (76); a state employee had been arrested for making reference to a founding Baath party official while making love to his wife (76), and of course Ansar al-Islam guerillas or supposed sympathizers were also imprisoned and executed en mass (88). Yet, these experiences only serve to further the point of arbitrary (absolute) government in Saddam’s Iraq and how it affected nearly everything else: “At that moment I became convinced that all or at least ninety-nice percent of the men in that prison were wrongly accused of sedition. If they were inclined to violence, they could have easily taken this lone, cruel guard hostage, or done him in” (93). The people have nothing to do with sedition and yet they languish in Saddam’s jails.
The varied experiences of Noman are a result of his transfers to prisons in many of Iraq’s provinces. In the process, he encounters broad swaths of Iraqi society including different ethnicities, religious preferences, and languages. But his is also a personal story. When someone asks Noman if he would join Ansar al-Islam upon his release, he responds “I could not think about anything before making sure my children were all right. I longed for them, dreamed about them every night” (104). While his voice is certainly apparent throughout the novel, he also serves as a witness to other peoples’ experiences and outlooks. In Dahouk, one fellow inmate who could have been a prestigious Baath party member states “I do not believe in a system that benefits a few to the point of saturation at the expense of millions who are barely surviving” (98). So while Noman certainly is “someone who sees,” almost every experience in the novel relates back to state-society relations and the presence of the “narcissist” in all levels of society. The extent of arbitrariness is to such an extent that the lack of a proper license plate on a car can result in jail time… perhaps that is what “Saddam’s City” really tries to show.