The Arabic world has seen an upsurge in speculative fiction in recent years. Some attribute it to the disappointments of the Arab Spring and the disaster of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Others point to ready access to the Internet, allowing Arab writers to communicate more easily with genre fans in other parts of the world.
Of course this ignores the fact that Arabic literature has a long tradition of the fantastic. Arab writers are working from very deep roots. So it’s interesting that one of the most successful Arab speculative novels of the past decade takes its inspiration from a Western source.
Frankenstein in Baghdad retells Mary Shelley’s classic tale in American-occupied Baghdad in the early years of this decade. The book originally came out in Arabic in 2013. Baghdad is a nightmare of opposing factions shooting it out while a corrupt Iraqi government propped up by the clueless Americans tries to keep it all together.
***Spoilers follow. If you don’t like spoilers, just go out and buy the novel. You’ll be glad you did.***
Hadi is a junk dealer who drinks too much and works too little, living in an abandoned house and telling wild tales at the local cafe to anyone who listens. On his rounds he comes across the wreckage of countless car bombings. While the emergency crews try to clean up as much as possible, they often miss small body parts. Hadi decides to take these home and sew them together, making a complete body that would be suitable for burial.
I didn’t read many comics growing up. My pocket money was very limited and if I had a spare dollar, I was far more likely to spend it on a used fantasy or science fiction paperback than a comic book. It wasn’t that I didn’t like comics, it was simply a matter of practicality. A paperback would give me a couple of days of entertainment while a comic would only last an hour.
What comics I did read were never of the superhero variety. I liked grittier stuff like Sergeant Rock and Eerie. And of course every straight male adolescent growing up in the 1980s liked to sneak a peek at Heavy Metal.
Now that I’m older and have more spare cash, plus a kid getting into comics, I’m beginning to learn about a vast field of literature I’ve missed. Superheroes still don’t interest me (or my son) but I’ve found some really good stories set in the real world.
One of the best is The Sheriff of Babylon, published by Vertigo. A collection of the first six issues is out now.
The setting is Baghdad in 2003, as the American occupiers scramble to reorganize the country. Former police officer Christopher Henry has taken a lucrative contractor job to help train the new Iraqi police force. When one of his recruits gets murdered along with his entire family, Christopher tries to investigate the killing. He enlists the aid of Nassir al Maghreb, a former police investigator from Saddam’s regime who everyone from the CIA to a shadowy militia seem to be after. He also joins forces with Saffiya al Agani, a female Iraqi politician who spent most of her life in exile in the United States and has returned to join the interim government. Soon they find themselves in over their heads trying to make sense of Iraq’s Byzantine politics and warring factions.
Writer Tom King worked a brief stint in Iraq as a CIA operative and brings an insider’s knowledge to the story. Artist Mitch Gerards knows his subject too, and fills the larger panels with telling details.
With all the grim news coming out of Iraq, it’s easy to think the country has no future. That’s wrong, of course, because being one of the oldest countries in the world, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
But what will that future look like? To answer that question, UK publisher Comma Press has released Iraq +100, an anthology of Iraqi writers imagining the future of their nation. As the blurb says:
Iraq + 100 poses a question to ten Iraqi writers: what might your country look like in the year 2103 – a century after the disastrous American- and British-led invasion, and 87 years down the line from its current, nightmarish battle for survival? How might the effects of that one intervention reach across a century of repercussions, and shape the lives of ordinary Iraqi citizens, or influence its economy, culture, or politics? Might Iraq have finally escaped the cycle of invasion and violence triggered by 2003 and, if so, what would a new, free Iraq look like?
Covering a range of approaches – from science fiction, to allegory, to magic realism – these stories use the blank canvas of the future to explore the nation’s hopes and fears in equal measure. Along the way a new aesthetic for the ‘Iraqi fantastical’ begins to emerge: thus we meet time-travelling angels, technophobic dictators, talking statues, macabre museum-worlds, even hovering tiger-droids, and all the time buoyed by a dark, inventive humour that, in itself, offers hope.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time here on Black Gate bemoaning the loss of some of the places I’ve visited. ISIS wrecked Palmyra, Mosul, and Hatra, three of the most stunning archaeological sites I have ever seen. Witnessing historical wonders disappear at the hands of savages has become such a regular thing for me that my first reaction to the terrible destruction of the Nepal earthquake was, “Well, at least people didn’t do it this time.”
Iraq gets a lot of bad press. As usual with far-off countries, we only hear about them on the news when something goes wrong, and a lot has been going wrong in Iraq for the past few decades.
As usual, though, the news doesn’t tell the whole story. Iraq may be home to the 21st century’s most psychotic religious group and countless warring factions, but you can also find decent people and bastions of culture. The Iraqi intelligentsia fights a peaceful daily struggle to keep the nation’s culture and history alive.
Nowhere is this more clear than at the National Museum of Iraq. Like the Iraqi people, it’s a survivor, having withstood sanctions, invasion, and looting. That it’s survived at all shows just how dedicated its staff is to preserving humanity’s past.
The Iraqis we see in the news almost always fall into three types–The Evil Fundamentalist, The Useless Official, and The Wailing Victim. The media have a hard time dealing with a broad range of characters, so they tend to fall back on these types again and again.
Of course the reality is more complex. While there’s no shortage of bloodshed and corruption, most of Iraq’s 33 million people go about their day-to-day affairs trying to live a normal life.
Back in 2012 I traveled to Iraq to write about it for the now-moribund travel blog Gadling. Click the link to read the series. Sadly, the photo galleries have been taken offline, but you can still read the articles for the moment.
Last week I shared some of my memories of visiting Mosul before it was taken over by ISIS. In that post I wondered if the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud would be destroyed just like Nineveh was. A day after the article went live, ISIS militants moved in and started smashing all the statues.
A week later they did the same with Hatra, an ancient site that’s less well known. This time they weren’t just smashing Iraq’s ancient history, they were smashing their own ancient history.
What struck me the most when I visited Iraq as a journalist in 2012 was how many people smiled at me. On the street, in mosques, in museums, people came up to welcome me to their country. There was a lull in the fighting and the Iraqis were beginning to allow themselves hope. Nothing brought that home to me like the first time I heard gunshots in Baghdad. Early in the trip I was in my hotel room when that distinctive popping noise came from outside. Peeking from my window, I saw a wedding in progress in front of the hotel. Some of the men were firing into the air to celebrate, oblivious to the sensitivities of hotel guests or the consequences of gravity.
Baghdad celebrated its 1,250th birthday this year. It’s been through a lot since it was founded by the Caliph al-Mansour in 762 AD, seeing more than its fair share of invaders come and go. Nowadays, Baghdad shows little of its former glory. It’s a dusty place of crumbling concrete buildings, blast walls, and traffic jams. Look harder, though, and you’ll find some of Baghdad’s former glory still shining through.