Baathist treasure, blood feuds and bedlam in Baghdad (Book Review)

Title: Escape from Baghdad – A Novel; Author: Saad Z. Hossain; Publisher: Aleph Book Company; Pages: 281; Price: Rs.399

Repression, deprivation, and then an ostensible liberation that led to unimaginable violence, misery and suffering, and near anarchy – the insanity that Iraq, particularly Baghdad, has been living in for over two decades now can be represented in many ways but humour seems unlikely to be one of them, unless it is a particularly dark black farce.

And this Bangladeshi author plumps for this with a darkly comic, surrealistic, subversive, and genre-hopping debut, depicting brutal violence in one part of the Iraqi capital as a treasure hunt – for a cache hidden by a member of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle – gets underway.

The plot thus appears simple. Former university professor Dagr and small-time hood Kinza, thrown together and struggling to survive as the US forces shamble around creating chaos, get lucky when they capture Saddam Hussein’s star torturer Hamid who promises them a fortune in gold if they smuggle him out of Baghdad. Helped by a corrupt US marine, Private Hoffman, they plan to escape but an effort to help residents of a neighbourhood traumatised by a suspected serial killer sees things spin out of control – and a new cycle involving securing the secret of immortality, the machinations of a long-alive malignant mastermind and the irresistible lure of revenge.

Towards this purpose, the motley cast of characters are joined by a Golem-like figure (quite far from 16th century Prague) who turns out to be a Druze, with an ostensibly malfunctioning watch once gifted to early 20th century Lebanese politician Fouad Jumblatt (the founder of prominent political clan), a particularly psychopathic cleric-cum-strongman, a former Baathist intelligence man, various clueless American officers fixated on finding WMDs, a band of dysfunctional American soldiers, and an insolently intransigent helicopter pilot.

For good measure, there are also medieval-era savants and polymaths Avicenna (or Ibn Sina) and Geber (Jaabir ibn Hayyan) and even the Three Fates in a new, Arab avatar.

All ends in an encounter of unchecked bedlam in which the foes deal with each other in various ways including Private Hoffman with a bundle of love poetry and tackling five men by himself (by bribing them to go away) before almost all ends in a thunderous explosion.

Hossain, who tongue-in-cheek describes himself in writing in a “niche genre of fantasy, science fiction and black comedy which, on the balance of it, very few people actually want to read”, presents an engrossing but heartbreaking picture of a city both under siege and at war with itself.

Sometimes it is hard to believe he has no direct experience of Iraq, especially when he describes the intimation of an US army turning up at your home for a search mission. “… Ghazaliya bell, they called it, the knock of rifle butts against splintered wood, the three-second grace time before boots and flashlights, lasers and automatic rifle barrels. Better than the Mahdi Army, who didn’t bother to knock…”

And he can be refreshingly witty too. As another small-time thug willy-nilly drawn into working for the psychopathic cleric, observes in a raid on a mysterious house which goes terribly wrong reports: “Its just that we’ve lost two fanatics and one True Believer already. Soon we’ll be down to a handful of Pious.”

The course of the narrative is rollicking, chock-full of action, and madcap fun but also considerably dark at various times and disturbingly poignant too. There are also some lessons of cryptography and cell biology and pathology – and of the bewildering mosaic of legends that make up the Middle East.

But amid all the comic farce is the terrible truth of indiscriminate, unrestrained and unconscionable violence that has Iraqi society (and quite a bit of the wider region) in a choke grip – and the question of how and why this ensued. Laughs can help us to deal with it partly but are not a viable, long-term solution. Focussing attention to this is the importance of this and other celebrated works on the absurdity and insanity of war.

Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

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