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Frankenstein in Baghdad

by Ahmed Saadawi and Jonathan Wright

Paperback, 281 pages, Penguin Books, List Price: $16 |


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Frankenstein in Baghdad
Ahmed Saadawi and Jonathan Wright

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NPR Summary

After he constructs a corpse from body parts found on the street, Hadi wants the government to prepare a proper burial, but when the corpse goes missing, a series of strange murders occur and Hadi realizes he has created a monster.

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Excerpt: Frankenstein In Baghdad

Chapter One

The Madwoman


The explosion took place two minutes after Elishva, the old woman known as Umm Daniel, or Daniel's mother, boarded the bus. Everyone on the bus turned around to see what had happened. They watched in shock as a ball of smoke rose, dark and black, beyond the crowds, from the car park near Tayaran Square in the center of Baghdad. Young people raced to the scene of the explosion, and cars collided into each other or into the median. The drivers were frightened and confused: they were assaulted by the sound of car horns and of people screaming and shouting.

Elishva's neighbors in Lane 7 said later that she had left the Bataween district to pray in the Church of Saint Odisho, near the University of Technology, as she did every Sunday, and that's why the explosion happened-many of the locals believed that, with her spiritual powers, Elishva prevented bad things from happening when she was among them.

Sitting on the bus, minding her own business, as if she were deaf or not even there, Elishva didn't hear the massive explosion about two hundred yards behind her. Her frail body was curled up by the window, and she looked out without seeing anything, thinking about the bitter taste in her mouth and the sense of gloom that she had been unable to shake off for the past few days.

The bitter taste might disappear after she took Holy Communion. Hearing the voices of her daughters and their children on the phone, she would have a little respite from her melancholy, and the light would shine again in her cloudy eyes. Father Josiah would usually wait for his cell phone to ring and then tell Elishva that Matilda was on the line, or if Matilda didn't call on time, Elishva might wait another hour and then ask the priest to call Matilda. This had been repeated every Sunday for at least two years. Before that, Elishva's daughters had called irregularly on the land line at church. But then when the Americans invaded Baghdad, their missiles destroyed the telephone exchange, and the phones were cut off for many months. Death stalked the city like the plague, and Elishva's daughters felt the need to check every week that the old woman was okay. At first, after a few difficult months, they spoke on the Thuraya satellite phone that a Japanese charity had given to the young Assyrian priest at the church. When the wireless networks were introduced, Father Josiah bought a cell phone, and Elishva spoke to her daughters on that. Members of the congregation would stand in line after Mass to hear the voices of their sons and daughters dispersed around the world. Often people from the surrounding Karaj al-Amana neighborhood—Christians of other denominations and Muslims too—would come to the church to make free calls to their relatives abroad. As cell phones spread, the demand for Father Josiah's phone declined, but Elishva was content to maintain the ritual of her Sunday phone call from church.

With her veined and wrinkled hand, Elishva would put the Nokia phone to her ear. Upon hearing her daughters' voices, the darkness would lift and she would feel at peace. If she had gone straight back to Tayaran Square, she would have found that everything was calm, just as she had left it in the morning. The sidewalks would be clean and the cars that had caught fire would have been towed away. The dead would have been taken to the forensics department and the injured to the Kindi Hospital. There would be some shattered glass here and there, a pole blackened with smoke, and a hole in the asphalt, though she wouldn't have been able to make out how big it was because of her blurred vision.

When the Mass was over she lingered for an extra hour. She sat down in the hall adjacent to the church, and after the women had set out on tables the food they brought with them, she went ahead and ate with everyone, just to have something to do. Father Josiah made a desperate last attempt to call Matilda, but her phone was out of service. Matilda had probably lost her phone, or it had been stolen from her on the street or at some market in Melbourne, where she lived. Maybe she had forgotten to write down Father Josiah's number or had some other excuse. The priest couldn't make sense of it but kept trying to console Elishva, and when everyone started leaving, the deacon, Nader Shamouni, offered Elishva a ride home in his old Volga. This was the second week without a phone call. Elishva didn't actually need to hear her daughters' voices. Maybe it was just habit or something more important: that with her daughters she could talk about Daniel. Nobody really listened to her when she spoke about the son she had lost twenty years ago, except for her daughters and Saint George the Martyr, whose soul she often prayed for and whom she saw as her patron saint. You might add her old cat, Nabu, whose hair was falling out and who slept most of the time. Even the women at church grew distant when she began to talk about her son—because she just said the same things over and over. It was the same with the old women who were her neighbors. Some of them couldn't remember what Daniel looked like. Besides, he was just one of many who'd died over the years. Elishva was gradually losing people who had once supported her strange conviction that her son was still alive, even though he had a grave with an empty coffin in the cemetery of the Assyrian Church of the East.

Elishva no longer shared with anyone her belief that Daniel was still alive. She just waited to hear the voice of Matilda or Hilda because they would put up with her, however strange this idea of hers. The two daughters knew their mother clung to the memory of her late son in order to go on living. There was no harm in humoring her.

Nader Shamouni, the deacon, dropped off Elishva in Lane 7 in Bataween, just a few steps from her door. The street was quiet. The slaughter had ended several hours ago, but the destruction was still clearly visible. It might have been the neighborhood's biggest explosion. The old deacon was depressed; he didn't say a word to Elishva as he parked his car next to an electricity pole. There was blood and hair on the pole, mere inches from his nose and his thick white mustache. He felt a tremor of fear.

Elishva got out of the deacon's car and waved good-bye. Walking down the street, she could hear her unhurried footsteps on the gravel. She was preparing an answer for when she opened the door and Nabu looked up as if to ask, "So? What happened?"

More important, she was preparing to scold Saint George. The previous night he had promised that she would either receive some good news or her mind would be set at rest and her ordeal would come to an end.


Elishva's neighbor Umm Salim believed strongly, unlike many others, that Elishva had special powers and that God's hand was on her shoulder wherever she was. She could cite numerous incidents as evidence. Although sometimes she might criticize or think ill of the old woman, she quickly went back to respecting and honoring her. When Elishva came to visit and they sat with some of their neighbors in the shade in Umm Salim's old courtyard, Umm Salim spread out for her a woven mat, placed cushions to the right and left of her, and poured her tea.

Sometimes she might exaggerate and say openly in Elishva's presence that if it weren't for those inhabitants who had baraka—spiritual power—the neighborhood would be doomed and swallowed up by the earth on God's orders. But this belief of Umm Salim's was really like the smoke she blew from her shisha pipe during those afternoon chats: it came out in billows, then coiled into sinuous white clouds that vanished into the air, never to travel outside the courtyard.

Many thought of Elishva as just a demented old woman with amnesia, the proof being that she couldn't remember the names of men—even those she had known for half a century. Sometimes she looked at them in a daze, as though they had sprung up in the neighborhood out of nowhere.

Umm Salim and some of the other kindhearted neighbors were distraught when Elishva started to tell bizarre stories about things that had happened to her—stories that no reasonable person would believe. Others scoffed, saying that Umm Salim and the other women were just sad that one of their number had crossed over to the dark and desolate shore beyond, meaning the group as a whole was headed in the same direction.


Two people were sure Elishva didn't have special powers or anything and was just a crazy old woman. The first was Faraj the realtor, owner of the Rasoul realty office on the main commercial street in Bataween. The second was Hadi the junk dealer, who lived in a makeshift dwelling attached to Elishva's house.

Over the past few years Faraj had tried repeatedly to persuade Elishva to sell her old house, but Elishva just flatly refused, without explanation. Faraj couldn't understand why an old woman like her would want to live alone in a seven-room house with only a cat. Why, he wondered, didn't she sell it and move to a smaller house with more air and light, and use the extra money to live the rest of her life in comfort?

Faraj never got a good answer. As for Hadi, her neighbor, he was a scruffy, unfriendly man in his fifties who always smelled of alcohol. He had asked Elishva to sell him the antiques that filled her house: two large wall clocks, teak tables of various sizes, carpets and furnishings, and plaster and ivory statues of the Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus. There were more than twenty of these statues, spread around the house, as well as many other things that Hadi hadn't had time to inspect.

Of these antiques, some of which dated back to the 1940s, Hadi had asked Elishva, "Why don't you sell them, save yourself the trouble of dusting?" his eyes popping out of his head at the sight of them all. But the old woman just walked him to the front door and sent him out into the street, closing the door behind him. That was the only time Hadi had seen the inside of her house, and the impression it left him with was of a strange museum.

The two men didn't abandon their efforts, but because the junk dealer usually wasn't presentable, Elishva's neighbors were not sympathetic to him. Faraj the realtor tried several times to encourage Elishva's neighbors to win her over to his proposal; some even accused Veronica Munib, the Armenian neighbor, of taking a bribe from Faraj to persuade Elishva to move in with Umm Salim and her husband. Faraj never lost hope. Hadi, on the other hand, constantly pestered Elishva until he eventually lost interest and just threw hostile glances her way whenever she passed him on the street.

Elishva not only rejected the offers from these two men, she also reserved a special hatred for them, consigning them to everlasting hell. In their faces she saw two greedy people with tainted souls, like cheap carpets with permanent ink stains.

Abu Zaidoun the barber could be added to the list of people Elishva hated and cursed. Elishva had lost Daniel because of him: he was the Baathist who had taken her son by the collar and dragged him off into the unknown. But Abu Zaidoun had been out of sight for many years. Elishva no longer ran into him, and no one talked about him in front of her. Since leaving the Baath Party, he had been preoccupied with his many ailments and had no time for anything that happened in the neighborhood.