25 January 2011

Mahmoud Saeed, Saddam City, 2004

One morning in 1979 Mustafa Ali Noman, a Basra schoolteacher, is arrested, imprisoned and tortured by Saddam’s secret police, yet no reason is given other than the shrugged-off possibility of mistaken identity, and even that’s not enough to stop the juggernaut of institutionalised cruelty that defined Saddam Hussein’s era of paranoid and terrifying power from bearing down on him, similarly inflicted upon maybe hundreds of thousands of others who refused (or neglected) to join the Ba’ath Party. What Mahmoud Saeed does in this brief novel is to tell the story relatively straight without expending unnecessary effort to draw the reader further into the experience, instead offering a simple window on events. In this way the reader doesn’t then feel manipulated in any way into revulsion for the baseless cruelties the narrator is describing – they’re self-evident, while Mustafa alternately descends into further despair or rises to occasional hopes and with such an emotional rollercoaster ride being his alone, the Western reader may feel a little detached from it, somehow separated from the horrors and injustice by the matter-of-fact tone of the narrator. This is not so much an experiential novel as, moreover, a descriptive one, with emphatic shades of both Kafka and Solzhenitsyn informing the true-to-life events, which could well be based on Saeed’s own experiences as an occasional prisoner of Saddam himself. As a document of the abuse of power on a frighteningly extensive and systematic scale that was possibly only surpassed by Stalin or the Khmer Rouge, this realistic fiction is a useful and necessary one.  PY


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