A suspense fiction bound by poetry and set in Iraq
Bookxpert Rating: 4/5
A huge thank you to the author Elliot, tour organizer Anne, and publishers Bitter Lemon Press for having me on the tour!
Baghdad Central is a noir debut novel set in Baghdad in September 2003. The US occupation of Iraq is a swamp of incompetence and self-delusion. The CPA has disbanded the Iraqi army and police as a consequence of its paranoid policy of de-Ba’athification of Iraqi society. Tales of hubris and reality-denial abound, culminating in Washington hailing the mess a glorious “mission accomplished.”
Inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji is a mid-level Iraqi cop who deserted his post back in April. Khafaji has lived long enough in pre- and post-Saddam Iraq to know that clinging on to anything but poetry and his daughter, Mrouj, is asking for trouble. Nabbed by the Americans and imprisoned in Abu Ghraib, Khafaji is offered one way outwork for the CPA to rebuild the Iraqi Police Services. But it’s only after United States forces take Mrouj that he figures out a way to make his collaboration palatable, and even rewarding. Soon, he is investigating the disappearance of young women translators working for the US Army. The bloody trail leads Khafaji through battles, bars, and brothels then finally back to the Green Zone, where it all began.
I’d read 1 book based in Iraq before Baghdad Central, and quite a few based in the Middle East. I have to say, this story would have been perfectly believable as a non-fiction if Khafaji, a retired policeman, didn’t find himself in the middle of all the action. And even then, I wasn’t absolutely certain.
The book follows Khafaji’s life as it is turned upside down. From quiet days spent with his daughter in their apartment to those, when his daughter gets admitted in the hospital with Khafaji working for the very Americans he had not desire to work for. It takes us through his trauma of being thrust in the middle of a job he doesn’t care for, in the middle of investigations where he discovers things he doesn’t want to. I connected perfectly with Khafaji through his confused state through the webs of lies woven around him. I pitied him when he found his dead niece while investigating a case. I felt as curious as him, when he discovered that the interpreters working for the Americans were something more.
There’s a lot of poetry in Baghdad Central, which unfortunately I didn’t connect to since I don’t read a lot of it, but a poetry and ghazal enthusiast would absolutely love it. Khafaji thinks, talks, and breathes poetry. He quotes poetry when he feels happy. When there’s a mishap, he takes solace in it. He feels lost if he can’t remember lines from his favorite Nazik. If Khafaji’s days are like the pages of this book, the binding would be the poetry running through it.
The author’s imagery is very powerful. The details and descriptions of smallest things to set the scene bring the scene to life in front of the eyes.
He turns the corner and starts to walk faster through garbage. It is everywhere. Piling up in vacant lots. Heaped around gates and entrances and walls. Spilling across streets, filling up alleys. Concrete and broken brick. Plaster, metal, paper and rubbish. Piles of white cement. Dry bread, tin cans, empty bottles, and broken glass. Fish bones and chicken bones. Mounds of soggy stuff, wet matter, rotting meat. Khafaji stumbles over the carcass of a dog. He covers his face with a handkerchief, but the stench cuts through. His toe catches on something, and a thick curtain of flies draws back to reveal more dogs. Khafaji jumps over them and runs as fast as he can. He stops to light a cigarette. The old tobacco smells and tastes like cardboard. He gags for a moment, then forces himself to finish the cigarette.
I like how the author has described the feelings of Iraqis towards American interference in their internal affairs– subtle but present. At several points where an American character proudly proclaims that they’ve come to establish democracy in Iraq, I found myself wondering- But is that what the Iraqis want?
All in all, I really liked the suspense arc this book followed, while also relying on the softer subject of poetry to move it forward. The years of turmoil in Iraq, those preceding his arrest, are very well described.
About the Author:
Elliott Colla divides his time between Washington DC and the Middle East. This is his first novel. He teaches
Arabic literature at Georgetown University. He has translated much contemporary Arabic literature, including:
Ibrahim Aslan’s novel, The Heron, Idris Ali’s Poor, Ibrahim al-Koni’s Gold Dust, and Rabai al-Madhoun’s The
Lady from Tel Aviv.