Unlike Adam and his friend, the hero of Mahmoud Saeed’s novel never finds the luxury of metaphysical musings. The title of Saeed’s gripping and relentless novel, “Saddam City,” refers to the over-crowded Iraqi prisons. Imprisoned himself six times, Saeed’s narrative follows the incarceration of Mustafa Ali Noman, an aging professor and non-practicing Muslim who suffers from chronic dysentery and who has recently arranged to purchase a house for his family. As his car stalls on his way to work on an otherwise ordinary day, security officials arrive, escorting this benign hero to an interrogation, thus setting off an odyssey of hunger, beatings, dislocation, blindfolds, handcuffs, hoods and various other forms of torture.
As Mustafa is herded from one prison to the next through Iraq, he becomes acquainted with the tapestry of Iraqi society. Although the prisoners hail from all socio-economic classes, political affiliations and educational levels, the prison cells pulse in the clandestine whispers of Kurdish and Arabic in the touching camaraderie founded on the Baath oppression. While some prisoners are being held for their support of the Ansar al-Islam resistance, others are jailed for nonsensical traffic violations or merely for being in the same family or location as a resistor.
While in prison, Mustafa learns about “never reported operations” of resistance and Saddam’s policy against the so-called “Iranian immigrants.” Despite the acceleration of his torture and his physical deterioration, Mustafa, as the narrator of his story, remains an astute, critical, steadfast and realistic observer of his environment. In the face of increasing hardship, he finds it “incredible” that the prisoners manage to adapt to each new level of degradation.
The advent of the Iran-Iraq war considerably alters the prison climate. When the government fails to send meals to the prisoners, the guards occasionally share their own meager rations with them. Eventually the policemen and soldiers who refuse to fight are integrated into the prison population. Understandably, to obtain his freedom, Mustafa agrees to join the Baath Party. Keeping with its poignant realism, the novel closes with the relieved and weeping Mustafa who, clutching a rock, embraces his first moments of relative freedom. Unhindered by poetic flights of fantasy or clichés, Mahmoud Saeed’s “Saddam City” captures the cruel capriciousness of tyranny and genuinely represents the variegated fabric of the seemingly endless guest list of Iraqi prisons. Although the media and attorneys await Saddam Hussein’s trial, these four authors have already reached their verdicts.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, no. 50/51 (Winter/Spring 2005)
Copyright (c) 2005 by Al Jadid