Born in Baghdad in 1973, Ahmed Saadawi became the first Iraqi recipient of the International prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014, for his novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad. Set in Iraq in the years after the 2003 invasion, the book tells the story of a man made of limbs assembled from corpses in Baghdad. Once brought to life, he roams the streets of the city, seeking revenge on those who killed the different parts of his body. Saadawi talks to RUYA about the power of words, his favourite fictional character, and the impact of journalism on his work. An audio extract of the interview is also available in Arabic.
ولد أحمد السعداوي في بغداد عام 1973. و هو أول عراقي حصل على الجائزة العالمية للرواية العربية عام 2014 عن روايته “فرانكشتاين في بغداد”. إحداث الرواية تدور في وسط بغداد في السنوات التي تلت احتلال العراق عام 2003 وهي حكاية رجل تم تجميع أطرافه من بقايا جثث ضحايا التفجيرات الإرهابية في بغداد. سرعان ما ينهض للحياة و يطوف في شوارع المدينة ليقوم بعملية ثأر و انتقام من المجرمين الذين قتلوا أجزاءه التي يتكون مهنا. أحمد السعداوي يتحدث إلى RUYA عن قوة الكلمات و شخصيته الوهمية المفضلة وكذلك عن تأثير عمله في الصحافة و الأعلام على كتاباته. يوجد مقتطف صوتي من المقابلة باللغة العربية
Imagine your perfect Baghdad. What would it look like? Baghdad is one of the world’s oldest cities. It was once a global city, where Chinese merchants, among others, sought the teachings of Muslim scholars. Nobody can erase this history, and it must be present in its landmarks. First, I would restore the city’s historic buildings of the Abbasid and Ottoman period, as well as the Syriac churches. I would make them the face of Baghdad, and the city’s cultural and touristic assets. I would put an end to these random, unplanned restoration attempts on buildings in Baghdad’s main high streets, Rashid Street and Saadoun Street. The concrete barriers, which were put in place for security reasons, are also ruining the face of the city. I would put together a committee of well-known artists, poets, sculptors, architects, musicians and literary figures who can express Baghdad’s heritage through public gardens and installations – to make Baghdad resemble other cities. I don’t mean a glitzy, soulless city like Dubai and cities in South East Asia, but a modern city with its roots and the weight of its history laid bare.
How much of literature lost in translation? Languages have their own idiosyncrasies and local idioms. It is natural to lose these when texts are translated to another language. This is the case for Frankenstein in Baghdad, where I have used classical Arabic as well as the local Baghdadi dialect. I even use phrases that are specific to some neighbourhoods. Novels convey a narrative and sense of place, which makes them easier to translate than poetry. However, translations are important as they give us access to the literatures of other cultures.
You cite the authors Ernest Hemingway and Gabriel Garcia Marquez as inspirations. What draws you to them? How did you react to Marquez’ death this year? I can relate to both of these authors, who were journalists before they became novelists. I admire Hemingway’s bare and austere prose, which I find graceful. He has been a big influence on modern and contemporary Arabic literature. As for Marquez, so many aspects of his work feel oriental. He drew from Caribbean and Latin folklore and was one of the masters of the post-modern novel. Frankenstein in Baghdad was described in some reviews as a successful postmodern Arabic novel. I am also inspired by his personal life, his struggles and the belief he had in himself as a writer. His life showed that success comes with persistence and perseverance.
What made you want to write? There is no logical explanation. As a child, I was always exposed to art and literature. I came from a simple, petit-bourgeois family. My father was a government employee and growing up, I didn’t lack anything. I was always given storybooks, notebooks, sketchbooks by my family, and encouraged to read, write and draw. As a young adult, I sought solitude and reading. When visitors asked my father where I was he would reply in his slang “ga’id wia awraqah” (“he is sitting with his papers”.) He saw that I was unlike other young men of my age, who were out in the markets earning money through commerce. I was just lost in my own world. Writing is a gamble, and nothing is guaranteed. There is no economic security, and no fortunes ahead. Perhaps I can make something for myself out of my novels.
How did your experience as a journalist inspire your work? When I started writing for cultural magazines, it brought me out of my seclusion. I travelled to meet new people and was exposed to new worlds and cultures in Iraq and the Middle East, which in turn fed my writing. As a journalist, I would go to a place and capture an impression of it, so I could write about it that same day. Before, I’d been waiting for the muse of inspiration to come down, but this is an illusion, a klawat as we say in Iraq. One’s imagination matures as we become better writers. I always say that the enemy of writing is writing itself. Journalism takes up time, and there is little left for writing novels. However, I still recommend it to any aspiring novelist. The novel is the art of detail and relaying life. I don’t think that anyone isolated from the world can write a successful novel.
What is the power of words? Most problems start with words. Politicians throw words and can trigger a mass reaction. The media is what creates our real world, unfortunately. What is being said in the media is real, and what isn’t being said doesn’t exist.
As well as novels and poetry, you draw comic books and children’s illustrations.Do you find that writing limits what you want to express? The most important thing for me is to be free in my creativity and not bound by form. Most of my childhood friends know me as someone who draws. Those who left Iraq were surprised to hear that I wrote. Cartoons and television has been a huge influence on me. In 1989 I worked at Dar Thaqafat Al Tifal (the House of Culture for Children), as a cartoonist. I wrote a comic, My Head, about the body’s relationship with the head, which was published in the Egyptian Magazine Akhbarak in 1999. I still draw and write poetry, but dedicate most of my time to writing novels. It is so time consuming: the research, the meditating on different scenarios as well as the writing. I work the story in my head for a long time before I start writing.
Who is your favourite literary character? King Suleyman of the Thousand and One Nights. He is stripped of his power and authority because of his arrogance, and roams the country as a drifter and vagabond. He then regains this power when he learns to be wise and humble. I like this tale because it teaches a person not to be over-confident or unjust towards others. It also reflects the ups and downs of life.