Found in Translation
The contemporary Arabic novel.
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 “Bagdad Burning,” fled with her low cost of video cameras–but the care and cogitation required for a novel (never mind the publishers and book stores) 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; Saqui 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 startling warm and humane book. Saeed, despite the incitements of his subject, does not aspire to the Kafaesque-Kafka, it must be admitted, is among the most impossible of authors to emulate, along with Garcia Marquez-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 runup to the Iran-Iraq war, in the late ninteenseventies, this slender novel tells of a mild-mannered Basras schoolteacher who, although cautiously apolitical, is whisked off one day for ”a simple interrogation”. His subsequent experience in six levels of hell-six prisions 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.