Garden of Justice, City of Peace
In the aftermath of the British invasion of the Ottoman Empire in 1917 and the period of the British Mandate, modern Iraq came to consist of three provinces: Mosul, Basra, and Baghdad. After Iraqis rose up against British rule, Faisal I was crowned king of the Hashemite monarchy, with Baghdad as its capital — a city with a long, rich history that was founded by the Abbasid caliph Abu Jaafar al-Mansur in the year 762, and which he named Madinat al-Salaam (City of Peace). Since that time, Baghdad has remained a nexus of Arab culture, commerce, and learning, positioned literally in the cradle of civilization itself on the banks of the mighty Tigris River, within the area that once comprised Mesopotamia. When the modern Iraqi state was established in 1921, its population was barely three million; today, the population is approaching forty million — with nearly ten million people residing in Baghdad alone, making it the second-largest city in the Arab world, behind Cairo.
Historically, Iraq has been one of the world's most ethnically diverse countries. In the more distant past, before Arab tribes emerged on the scene, it was the land of the ancient Sumerians and Assyrians. Then, as the center of the Islamic Caliphate for a thousand years, it attracted various commingling nationalities. Until relatively recently, marriage by Iraqis to Circassians, Turkmens, Kurds, and Iranian people was commonplace, along with intermarriage between these groups. If we add to this the many Mughal, Turkic, and Iranian conquests of Iraq, and the innumerable pilgrimages to the Shia holy sites by various ethnic groups over the centuries, we are confronted with a picture that makes it impossible to countenance the idea of a singular national ethnic identity.
Although the Arabic language is dominant, Kurdish, Turkmen, Assyrian, Armenian, Syriac, and Persian are also spoken across the country. And these diverse ethnic and linguistic groups likewise reflect a multitude of religious beliefs. (Officially, Iraq remained a secular country from the establishment of the monarchy until the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime after the American invasion of April 2003.) The majority-Muslim population is divided between Shia and Sunni adherents — and while there are no official statistics, it's generally presumed that the number of Shia outnumber the Sunni. There is also a significant population of Kurds (majority Sunni Muslim) and Turkmen who are concentrated in the north, particularly around Kirkuk. Many Iranians settled around the holy sites in Najaf and Kadhimiya, as did Mandaeans in Basra and the greater south. The robust Christian population within the country comprises a variety of origins and denominations, forming a large part of the population in the north, while the Yazidis mostly settled around Mount Sinjar. Yet the once-vibrant Jewish community in Baghdad (and many other Iraqi cities) had mostly left for Israel by the end of the 1940s.
From amid this melting pot I commissioned fourteen brand-new short stories: ten written by Iraqi authors and four by non-Iraqis. Among the non-Iraqis, one author is American, another is Iranian, and two are Arab women from Tunisia and Lebanon. However, the latter four have all spent time in Baghdad and know the city well.
It proved to be a tough task to assemble the stories in this collection. In the Arab world we are not fully accustomed to the concept of commissioning stories around a specific theme or of a specific length — and in this case even set in a specific location — then working with the author on revisions. In general, Arab authors are not familiar with the editorial process found in the West, which posed some challenges. More significantly, given that this is the first collection of Iraqi crime fiction that I am aware of, few of these authors had previously tried their hands at writing noir literature.
In general, the development of the modern novel is a relatively recent phenomenon in Iraqi literature. Most people consider Jalal Khalid by Mahmoud Ahmed al-Sayed, published in 1928, to be the first Iraqi novel. Structurally, the book takes the form of a memoir by an Iraqi man in his twenties who moves to India in 1919 to escape the British Occupation, and ends up marrying a Jewish woman he meets during his travels. After World War II, Iraqi writers grew more influenced by the giants of American and European literature, whose works were translated into Arabic — though many would also read them in English. Some of the pioneers of Iraqi fiction include Abdul Malik Nouri, Ghaieb Tuma'a Farman, Fouad al-Tikerly, and Mahdi Issa al-Saqr, who were then followed by well-known names like Fadhil al-Azzawi, Lutfiya al-Dulaimi, Muhammad Khudayyir, and Abdul Rahman Majeed al-Rubaie, Mahmoud Saeed, among others. Their short stories and novels explored Iraqi society and the matters of everyday life: love, revenge, romance, illness, and isolation. In more recent years, some of these works have even adopted formal aspects of magical realism and existentialism.
The Iraqi novel became much more ubiquitous after the US invasion in 2003 and the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. In less than fifteen years, close to seven hundred novels have emerged from the country (more than had appeared over the entirety of the twentieth century), including works that deal with contemporary topics such as the UN-enforced sanctions, the Iraq-Iran War, the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, and, of course, the US invasion of Iraq. As reflected in these pages, the literature has condemned both the US occupation and barbaric destruction of Iraq, as well as the former dictatorial regime. Others have written about and criticized the dominance of religious and sectarian militias which largely control the streets of Baghdad today. The top Iraqi authors writing now (many of whom appear in this collection) include Ahmed Saadawi, Nassif Falak, Betool Khedairi, Ali Bader, Inaam Kachachi, Dheya al-Khalidi, Sinan Antoon, Muhsin al-Ramli, Duna Ghali, Dhia al-Jubaili, and Shahad al-Rawi, among others. Many of their works have been translated into other languages. Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and is a best seller in the United States.
While all Iraqis will readily agree that their life has always been noir, the majority of the stories in Baghdad Noir are set in the years following the American invasion of 2003, though one story is set in 1950 and three are set in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet it is this recent history of Iraq — over the last few decades — that serves to inform its present.
I fled the country mere months before Saddam seized power in July 1979. Back then, before the regime declared war on Iran, the Iraqi dinar was worth $3.60 US — today one dinar trades at $0.00084 — and the country was at the height of its prosperity, boasting an international workforce and an upwardly mobile middle class. Upon arriving in Damascus, I was immediately arrested by the Syrian secret police for being a Jewish spy. This happened for two reasons: firstly, because of my name (I am actually of Assyrian descent); and secondly, when I explained that I was heading to Lebanon to look for work, one of the officers looked at me in disbelief and shouted: "How do you expect me to believe that, when everyone dreams of working in Iraq!"
The Iran-Iraq War was the beginning of the end for Iraqi civil society, with half a million soldiers and half a million civilians killed on each side, effectively wiping out an entire generation. Unfortunately, most of the literary production of that time glorified the war effort against what were known as the Iranian Magi — and, of course, very few other writings were allowed to be officially published in the first place. Cementing the destruction of Iraqi life was Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The seventeen days of bombs falling on Baghdad and other cities, dropped by the US-led military coalition in defense of Kuwait, and the subsequent thirteen years of crippling economic sanctions took Iraqi society back to the stone age. But that was hardly the end of Iraq's noir story. In April 2003, the US invasion, though it precipitated the end of Saddam's dictatorial rule, killed off any possibility of a secular, modern Iraq once and for all.
To help guide the authors in this collection, I turned to one of the first books in Akashic's Noir Series, Queens Noir. In particular, I found the story "Alice Fantastic" by Maggie Estep to be a quintessential noir story, so I asked the publisher for permission to have it translated into Arabic, then sent the translation to most of the authors to show them an example of good noir — one of the best I've ever read, one without a Monsieur Poirot–type character taking center stage. The author Hussain al-Mozany loved Maggie's story and, after reading it, wrote his own tale, "Empty Bottles." Unfortunately, "Empty Bottles" was the last story he ever wrote, as he died after a heart attack in December 2016 at the age of sixty-three. (Maggie also passed away far too soon in February 2014, at the age of fifty.)
The three stories set during the Saddam era tell readers about Iraqi life over the last fifty years. In "The Apartment" by Salima Salih, appearances may be deceptive when an old lady living alone is found dead after apparently hitting her head in a fall. "Tuesday of Sorrows" by Layla Qasrany and "The Night Sabah Disappeared" by Hayet Raies capture the atmosphere and climate of fear in Iraq in the 1970s, when Saddam Hussein was ruthlessly consolidating Baathist power. "Baghdad House" by Ali Bader is a tribute to Agatha Christie, who famously lived in Iraq during the 1950s.
The random kidnappings and abductions that have terrified Iraqi families since 2003 feature in the story "Room 22" by Mohammed Alwan Jabr; meanwhile, in "Getting to Abu Nuwas Street" by Dheya al-Khalidi, a story set after the American troops left Iraq, the protagonist wakes up in a living nightmare, held captive by schoolchildren in an abandoned workshop. "Homecoming," by former US soldier Roy Scranton, is a dog-eat-dog tale of brutal savagery set in Baghdad just before Daesh occupied Mosul, in which an Iraqi soldier takes revenge against militia leaders; while "Jasim's File" by Sinan Antoon is based on the true story of patients from al-Rashad mental hospital escaping en masse after the Americans invaded — but with a crucial difference. In "Baghdad on Borrowed Time," Salar Abdoh writes about an Iranian war veteran and private detective who is tasked with investigating a series of murders of regime conspirators.
A prominent theme in the collection is family, and specifically the deteriorating relationship between parents, children, and even siblings. In "I Killed Her Because I Love Her" by Muhsin al-Ramli, two beautiful sisters are murdered by someone close to them in a whodunit that asks why? as it reveals the terrible fracturing of post-2003 Iraqi society. Nassif Falak's "Doomsday Book," set during the time of UN sanctions, unearths dire warnings, disappearances, secret directives, and riddles that end in assassination, ordered by mujahideen as "the express will of God" and all recorded in a ledger, line by line. Hadia Said's aptly titled "Post-Traumatic Stress Reality in Qadisiya" is a skillful portrayal of the unraveling of a man's mind as he returns to Iraq from abroad and encounters his destroyed and deserted family home. In "A Sense of Remorse" by Ahmed Saadawi, the protagonist Jibran combines a detective's curiosity with pragmatic and persistent inquiry as he uncovers the surreal story behind his brother's apparent suicide.
Taken as a whole, the stories in Baghdad Noir testify to the enduring resilience of the Iraqi spirit amid an ongoing, real-life milieu of despair that the literary form of noir can at best only approximate. Yet the contributions here manage to hold their own as individual stories, where the rich traditions of intersecting cultures transcend the immediate political reality — even while being simultaneously informed by it.
Much like the diverse tapestry of cultures that join together on the banks of the Tigris to form the City of Peace, Baghdad Noir reveals that there's nothing monolithic or ordinary about the voices of its writers.
Samuel Shimon June 2018