Since the fall of the Baathist regime in Baghdad in 2003, hundreds of books have appeared on Iraq and the tragedies it has suffered over the past six decades. One frequent assumption in those books is that Iraq under monarchy was something of a terrestrial paradise and that its destruction in the 1958 military coup d’etat triggered the nation’s descent into an infernal spiral of violence and counter violence.
Abdullah Sakhy’s short novel, just 160 pages, offers a different perspective. By telling the story of a number of poor Iraqis who leave their native villages in the marshlands of the south in search of a “new life” in Baghdad, Sakhy starts with what could be described as the prologue to the Iraqi tragedy.
The 1954 floods in central and southern Iraq destroyed many villages and uprooted tens of thousands of families, marking a major shift of population from rural to urban areas.
When these ruined peasants arrive in Baghdad, the tract of land they begin to occupy has no name. It is, in fact, a no-man’s land, a kind of wasteland, on the edge of the capital that gradually eats its way towards the heart of the city. In time, it is baptized Madinat al-Thawra (The City of the Revolution) which turns out to be a grandiose insult as nothing is done to transform this hellhole into anything resembling a habitat fit for humans. Later, it is re-baptized Madinat al-Saddam, after Saddam Hussein, the Baathist despot whose megalomania who put his name on almost everything. Again, however, nothing is done to give the sprawling slum a minimum of urban structure. The name change continues in 2003, when the slum, now home to perhaps two million people, is renamed Madinat al-Sadr after a Shiite cleric murdered by Saddam Hussein.
The slum, taking shape between two dams built to protect Baghdad against annual floods, grows around two thoroughfares forming a giant cross, and is divided into segments named after Arab tribes or associations mourning Hussein Ibn Ali, the third Imam of Shiism. The events of Karbala that led to Hussein’s death in battle provide the backdrop of a tragedy masquerading as life in the slum.
Sakhy, a short-story writer before he embarked upon his first novel, writes in what could be described as a sure-bullet style with short, almost telegraphic sentences, bared to the bone for greater effect. The effect is almost electric, as Sakhy avoids the tendency of many Arab writers towards grandiloquence.
His style resembles that of Ernest Hemingway with the difference that unlike Hemingway who wrote about rich idle Americans getting bored in Paris, Sakhy portrays poor and oppressed Iraqis trying to extract some life out of death in Baghdad.
At one point, one of the slum-dwellers effaces the thin frontier between life and death with a short sentence: Here is my home; here is my tomb!
Sakhy depicts a landscape of desolation with dust, heat, mosquitoes, buffaloes, dead-water pools, donkeys, malaria, floods and, of course, hunger providing the themes of a symphony of poverty and terror. Palm trees, eucalyptuses and tamarinds provide some shade and the green promise of a solace that is always denied.
Reading the book, this reviewer at times felt physical pain as if Sakhy were transmitting the sufferings of those Iraqis to his readers thousands of miles away.
Sakhy’s writing is effective precisely because it is not sentimental. It is its clinical coldness that best conveys the horror he intends to communicate to us. Sakhy is also a natural storyteller in the ancient tradition of the One Thousand and One Nights, with one tale nesting within another and giving birth to a third. Starting to read “Behind the Dam” is like embarking on a carousel: you cannot stop until the wheel stops. And, when it does stop, you wish to re-embark.
Please, please, will someone translate this gem of a book into English or French or any other Western language to show the world that modern Arab literature is very much alive, and at least as far as Sakhy is concerned, kicking too!