Limited like a prison cell

Saddam City

By Mahmoud Saeed

Some novels written about a certain time and place can become classics. The author must pull together everything in the right order with a spark of originality. Saddam City is not one of those books. It has the potential to be one – a bare, simple account of a man’s captivity at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s secret police in the late 1970s. But Saeed’s approach is too straightforward, too expected.

The novel starts out with our protagonist, a family man and teacher, snatched from in front of his school gates. He is transported around several prisons and institutions, manhandled, tortured, abused and starved. He learns of the compassion of strangers, plus the power and futility of hope. The story grips and is enlightening. But it is not moving. That’s where Saeed falls down. His narrative does not transcend the experience of the captive. It stays in his mind, between the four rotten walls of whichever cell he happens to inhabit. If Saeed wanted his book to reach the classic status of other famous political prisoner novels, he should have thought wider. It is a difficult job: the writer must craft a character who is not a mere cipher but a real person who can connect his situation to a bigger picture – and never overtly. Saeed chose to do something much more obvious: create an everyman who is confused and annoyed by the injustices committed against him.

In this way the novel forces us into his cell with him. We sit alongside him every step of the way, but we don’t learn anything of humanity. This is not an entirely fair analysis; Saddam City is a competent book, a valuable and rare insight into Saddam’s tyranny. It provides a useful backdrop to the later war in Iraq: through it, I learnt about the regime of the Ba’ath Party. But I felt that while the desert lay ahead of Saeed, he was content to drink from the oasis next to him rather than explore deeper into the sands.

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