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Baghdad Central Paperback – February 18, 2014
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'It is rare to find a first book of such high quality, and which gives such a penetrating and realistic insight into the impact of a forceful external shock to an ancient and singular culture.’ Crime Review
'Colla writes with power and authority. Politically astute, beautifully constructed and a rattling good read.' New Internationalist
A very brave book.' San Francisco Book Review
Powerful and authentic, Baghdad Central is a perilous journey through the dark maelstrom of wartime Iraq that will make you want to reach for a flak jacket and glance over your shoulder for surveillance, even as you’re marvelling at its abiding humanity.’ Dan Fesperman, author of Lie in the Dark
"An intriguing first novel Colla writes of a beleaguered secular Arab culture with deep empathy." Publishers Weekly
'Aside from the beauty of the writing, the strength of Colla’s work lies in its ambiguity. Colla paints a nuanced landscape of a country at war, where each character is driven by a complex tangle of personal and nationalistic aims.' Daily Star
Just when you think that nothing in the overcrowded crime field can surprise you any more, along comes a writer like Elliott Colla who takes the genre by the throat and shakes it vigorously. Baghdad Central is a rich and allusive piece of writing, informed by the writer’s experience in both the Middle East and Washington. Its authenticity is matched by a masterly command of the mechanics of suspense.’ Barry Forshaw, Crime Time
One rarely finds Iraqis in American fiction except as Orientalist stereotypes or objects of political desires and fantasies. Baghdad Central is unique in this respect. Its Iraqis are subjects with agency and humanity. Colla knows the cultural and political topography very well. The chaos and cacophony of the American occupation are captured vividly. The narrative is smart and smooth. This is an intense and well-written novel. A pleasure to read.’ Sinan Antoon, author of The Baghdad Blues and The Corpse Washer
A gripping tale of mystery and intrigue in the claustrophobic, morally treacherous world of post-invasion Baghdad, an environment where relationships can detonate as readily as car bombs. This is a compelling noir crime novel told from inside Iraqi society that lays bare the easy slide from personal to political treachery, where every crime is also a national wound. A great read! Jenny White, author of The Winter Thief, A Kamil Pasha novel
"For all those with an interest in what life was like in Baghdad under the CPA, this should be required reading...credible and authoritative, [making] Baghdad Central a book I recommend." Opinionator
About the Author
Elliott Colla, 47, lives 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. He is also a co-editor of the e-zine, Jadaliyya.
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The "hero" is an older gentleman, adopted by the CPA to assist in rebuilding a functional Iraqi police, "for the Iraqis". Well, adopted after first being mistaken for a high value wanted Iraqi. He has the same name and gets tortured for it. He's an intriguing character, flawed rather than heroic, chain-smoking and lover of poetry. Desk-bound, yet, because of his love of poetry, really good at catching the rhythm and rhymes under the dry bureaucratic police reports he has to read and extracting actual information. A natural bureaucrat.
You see his interactions with a bunch of perhaps well-meaning, but most certainly clueless and out of their depth, US officials in the CPA. There is a criminal/mystery aspect to the story, but it is mostly subsumed by the author's attempt to show what life might have been like for an average middle class Iraqi post-Saddam.
It's not directly critical of the US invasion, and is often scathing to Saddam's rule. But you can't help but get the sense that the actual outcome for Iraqi civilians was disastrous and that exposing that was fully the intent of the author. About the impact of US sanctions "if you were chronically ill, had been denied medicine for a decade then told it was now easily fixable by basic medication, you might not feed totally grateful to the people now fixing you up" is what an American doctor tells a gushing US reporter during an interview.
And you can't help but think how naive and unprepared the US civilian administrators were when trying to run the country. Double and triple crossings abound and his handlers "don't know anything except for what he tells them".
There was a surreal moment when the protagonist is enduring endless PowerPoint pep talks at a talk shop for setting up a new police force. Most of the attendees don't speak English and the usual corporate jargon is hard for the junior interpreter to fathom:
Each time the interpreter comes to the word "benchmark" he stumbles. At first he translates it to "the sign of the bench", then "trace of the long seat", then "imprint of the work table" and so on.
A number of the attendees then subsequently get blown up during a suicide bombing at an induction ceremony for new police recruits a few days later.
Bit depressing, not fully developed as a crime story, lots of subplots that go nowhere (but intriguingly so). An unique take on the absurdity of zeitgeist that might have been for an Iraqi in 2003, engagingly written. The author is not Iraqi though he seems to know his way around Arab culture. Good fiction.
p.s. as another reviewer remarks - this is 2003. It gets worse. Much worse. With or without the US.
When the United States disbanded the military and police, a huge power vacuum was created into which various Shia and, later, Sunni factions moved. At the time that the novel is set, the rise of the death squads and the ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods is just starting. People disappear, sometimes to be found dead on the streets or sometimes not found at all. One of the disappeared is a young woman, Sawsan. One night she doesn't return from work and her family has no idea what happened.
The central character in the novel is Muhsin Khafaji, who is the brother-in-law of Sawsan's father, Nidal (a Palestinian, living in Baghdad). Before the Iraq invasion Khafaji was in the Iraqi civil police and before that he was a rising star in the Military police. Khafaji's star has fallen. He was forced out of the military police for political reasons and was exiled to the less prestigious civil police. Now the police have been disbanded and, like most of the people in the previous Iraqi government, he is unemployed.
Nidal asks Khafaji to find out what happened to his daughter and the plot of the novel loosely orbits this investigation.
The darkness of Iraq after the invasion makes San Francisco or Los Angeles during the Great Depression look positively bright and sunshiny. Murder is routine in Baghdad of 2003. Scores are being settled with past members of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime. At the same time, Sunni death squads are starting to rise in reaction.
One problem with a novel set in chaos is that the plot is necessarily chaotic. What is constant through the novel is the portrait of Khafaji as he tries to do his best for his family. Chiefly this is his daughter who is suffering from some kind of untreated kidney disease, but also for Nidal's family, who represents part of what is left of Khafaji's late wife.
Elliott Colla is a professor and Arabic scholar. He has translated several novelists from Arabic into english. In an interview he said that it was from these authors that he learned to be a novelist.
Colla writes well and his portrait of Iraq in 2003 is stark and unforgettable. What is terrible in reading the novel is that as bad as things were in 2003, they got worse. The car bombs and death squads have only started. Things will get worse and worse.
I have tried to avoid turning this book review into a political rant. There is little that I could write that has not already been written. But reading this novel brought back memories of anger and shame. I've read a number of histories of this time, but they were less immediate than the fictional account of Khafaji's life during the few weeks covered by the novel.
Most recent customer reviews
Good insights on security issues in Baghdad
Could have developed the plot and storyline better