Found in Translation
The contemporary Arabic novel.
by Claudia Roth PierpontJanuary 18, 2010
Iraq is clearly not an easy place to write a novel these days. Even the brave young blogger known as Riverbend, the author of two published collections titled “Baghdad Burning,” fled with her family to Syria in the fall of 2007, and was last heard from as she rediscovered the pleasures of walking without continuously looking behind her. The American occupation has been the subject of a number of documentary films—more documentaries have been made about Iraq than about any other active conflict, thanks to the light weight and low cost of video cameras—but the care and cogitation required for a novel (never mind the publishers and bookstores) appear to have been most obtainable among members of the far-flung Iraqi diaspora, free in foreign lands to publish works that have often been simmering for years.
Mahmoud Saeed’s “Saddam City” (translated by Ahmad Sadri; Saqi Books; $12.95) was written in the early nineteen-eighties, soon after the author was released from the last of six terms of incarceration under Saddam Hussein. Saeed left Iraq in 1985, and managed to publish his book in Syria, albeit with two chapters destroyed, in the mid-nineties. Since 1999, he has lived in the United States, and for the past few years has taught Arabic literature and calligraphy in Chicago. He is in his seventies now, with a substantial and award-winning body of work in Arabic behind him. “Saddam City,” published at last in English in 2004, is based on what he saw in jail—the original Arabic title is literally “I Am the One Who Saw”—which he recorded, he says, “so that it would remain for future generations.”
For all the horror it details, this is a startlingly warm and humane book. Saeed, despite the incitements of his subject, does not aspire to the Kafkaesque—Kafka, it must be admitted, is among the most impossible of authors to emulate, along with García Márquez—but maintains a specificity of place and history (this happened in Basra, that happened in Mosul) and of the individuals who inhabit them. Set mostly in the run-up to the Iran-Iraq War, in the late nineteen-seventies, this slender novel tells of a mild-mannered Basra schoolteacher who, although cautiously apolitical, is whisked off one day for “a simple interrogation.” His subsequent experience in six levels of hell—six prisons in all—is exactingly described, but the long ordeal is mitigated, both for him and for the reader, by a dose of bitter humor, a share of personal good will, and the mutual trust that he discovers among the prisoners, a trust long since forfeited in the larger prison of the informer-ridden society outside.
Saeed’s style is plain and direct, without literary pretensions, but with a tone of emotional delicacy that is as odd in the circumstances as it is touching: treated with courtesy by a single officer, after much cruelty, the prisoner refrains from asking questions about his arrest, because “I did not want to appear to be exploiting his kindness.” Some references to unfamiliar figures and events benefit from the book’s tidy footnotes. And although Sadri’s rendering begins stiffly, it soon becomes rhythmically fluent, and one’s sense of reading a translation fades away.
Resilience against all odds appears to be characteristic of Saeed: the same force rises to a point of madcap buoyancy in “The Soldier and the Pigs,” one of four Saeed stories available from Amazon.com, in uneven English, for forty-nine cents each. (A writer new to the country must try to make his work known any way he can.) In this riotously original little tale of a soldier’s plight among not only pigs but many, many frogs, also set during the Iran-Iraq War, we catch another glimpse of a writer with the power to translate foreign histories into stories that we can make our own.
The new yorker