Book review: Saddam City
December 1, 2010 Ali Latif
Amidst the turmoil of post-war Iraq, it’s unsurprising that many chose not to mull over the demise of the previous regime as real and present challenges they faced quickly put pay to any initial euphoria. However given the duration and barbarity of Saddam’s rule it is surprising that there have been few books that have effectively articulated its horrors throughout the years.
In contrast to the mediocre propaganda they spew out, totalitarian regimes seem to spur some of the best literary works in those resisting them, be it the Soviet Union for Solzhenitsyn and Nabakov or the rise of European fascism for Kafka.
Saddam City by Mahmoud Saeed is a definite contribution in this regard and reading through, it is uncanny how similar it reads to the above-mentioned writers. The macabre absurdities generated by such systems seem to yield close parallels despite vast contextual differences that separate them.
Saeed’s story is about an Iraqi teacher from Basra who is one day whisked into the brutal world of the Iraqi Emin, shuttled from prison to prison with no idea of the case against him. Effortlessly shifting from the mundane to the harrowing, the tale is spun in such a matter-of-fact way as to reflect the brutal but cold arbitrariness of the regime.
To give him credit, Saeed does not attempt to capitalise on the graphic aspects of his and other prisoners’ ordeals, but still manages to shock and unsettle to reader. The protagonist’s journey across Iraq reveals the breadth of the regime’s destruction as he finds tremendous warmth from amongst the very many facets of Iraq’s populous united in their common brutalising ordeal. Rather an optimistic take given the post-regime aftermath.
A former prisoner and schoolteacher himself, the autobiographical nature of this work is taken for granted and its original Arabic title was in fact I am the One Who Saw but published by Dar Al-Saqi in London under the title of Saddam City. A short but engaging read, this work is a worthy attempt at doing justice to the very many victims of the Saddam era.