Book Review: A monster in Baghdad

Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Beghdad
Updated 28 March 2018
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Book Review: A monster in Baghdad

“Frankenstein in Baghdad” is an incredibly inventive and captivating thriller set in modern-day Iraq amidst American occupation, violent backlash to the Iraq war and political instability. Where daily life is a struggle in the debris that has become the Bataween district of Baghdad, a creature is born one night. Hadi, the local tale-teller and junk collector, has created a man made up of the body parts of suicide bombing victims and plans to send the body to forensic science laboratories in Baghdad to send a message to the government. Too many empty coffins are being buried in the city and the violence has piqued. But one night, the figure disappears and a string of strange and violent murders follow.

Ahmed Saadawi — who is a novelist, poet and documentary film-maker — first published “Frankenstein in Baghdad” in 2013 in Arabic. The book was then translated into English by Johnathon Wright in 2018 and published by Penguin Random House. It won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014, which made Saadawi the first Iraqi to win. Earlier this year the book was selected for the Man Booker International Longlist.

In the book, Saadawi reveals an incredibly heart-breaking tale made up of different stories from people who are dealing with the daily struggles of life in Iraq. Saadawi introduces his readers to incredible characters such as Elishva, a devotee of the Church of Saint Odisho; Hadi, a perpetual liar and scavenger; Mahmoud Al-Sawadi, a local journalist; and Faraj, owner of the Rasul realty offices who “took advantage of the chaos and lawlessness in the city to get his hands on several houses of unknown ownership,” among others. The character’s stories converge in Baghdad and become intertwined through tragedy and disorder. The rule of law is thin as people are secretly taken by security forces and others fall victim to violent gangs and suicide bombings.

The book tells a dark story in which the pandemonium allows for the unimaginable. The consequences of war and the ensuing mayhem question whether a real monster made up of victims is terrorizing the streets of Baghdad or the terror is now the reality that is Iraq. It is an extraordinarily ingenious tale of the events that follow warfare and the citizens who stay behind and are forced to live through the mess. Saadawi brings to the forefront the idea of good and bad in the world, where vigilante justice is sometimes more effective than justice by law. The book reflects the tragedy of the Iraq War and the illusions of heroes and villains. Saadawi’s monster is unique to Baghdad, but the monster is a global phenomenon that blurs the line between right and wrong, especially during wartime, forcing people to confront misconceptions in their realities and adjust to life.


What We Are Reading Today: Reading Machiavelli

Updated 19 September 2018
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What We Are Reading Today: Reading Machiavelli

Author: John P. McCormick

To what extent was Machiavelli a “Machiavellian”? Was he an amoral adviser of tyranny or a stalwart partisan of liberty? A neutral technician of power politics or a devout Italian patriot? A reviver of pagan virtue or initiator of modern nihilism? Reading Machiavelli answers these questions through original interpretations of Niccolò Machiavelli’s three major political works— The Prince, Discourses, and Florentine Histories— and demonstrates that a radically democratic populism seeded the Florentine’s scandalous writings. John McCormick challenges the misguided understandings of Machiavelli set forth by prominent thinkers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and representatives of the Straussian and Cambridge schools.
McCormick emphasizes the fundamental, often unacknowledged elements of a vibrant Machiavellian politics: The utility of vigorous class conflict between elites and common citizens for virtuous democratic republics, the necessity of political and economic equality for genuine civic liberty, and the indispensability of religious tropes for the exercise of effective popular judgment.
Interrogating the established reception of Machiavelli’s work by such readers as Rousseau, Leo Strauss, Quentin Skinner, and J.G.A. Pocock, McCormick exposes what was effectively an elite conspiracy to suppress the Florentine’s contentious, egalitarian politics. In recovering the too-long-concealed quality of Machiavelli’s populism, this book acts as a Machiavellian critique of Machiavelli scholarship.
Advancing fresh renderings of works by Machiavelli while demonstrating how they have been misread previously, Reading Machiavelli presents a new outlook for how politics should be conceptualized and practiced.