The classic Reader’s Digest story ‘Stowaway’, about a teenager’s miraculous escape from Cuba in the wheel of a DC-8, was also called ‘Escape from Cuba’. Saad Z. Hossain’s ‘Escape from Baghdad!’ took me back many years, to Jorge’s disillusionment with Cuba because ‘the system takes away your freedom—forever,’ to the girl from California who said ‘You are a hero, but not very wise’ and to the narrator confessing ‘Even knowing the risks I would try to escape again, if I had to.’ By an absurdist twist of fate, with a mind tunneled on existentialist philosophy, these phrases come alive for Saad’s bizarre debut novel.
The story unfolds in Gazaliya, with the blood of the Iraq War on every door and guns going off in every street. Dagr, a former university professor, and Kinza, a thug, are trying to escape undead to find the bunker of gold (‘maybe it’s filled with 72 virgins too’) in return for smuggling out safely their captive, Captain Hamid, the star torturer of Saddam Hussein. Private Hoffman, a corrupt US Marine, is helping them. But as Baghdad turns to bloody dust, they find themselves in the eye of a chaotic plot, twisting with unexpected turns. Every informant, including an Old Man who has lived for centuries, is looking for these ‘three petty thieves’ who chance upon a Druze watch which is ‘doing something’. Teeming with finely etched characters who add to this cauldron of terror, death, comedy and insanity, the reader, like the main characters, finds it impossible to escape this peculiar world.
A very peculiar world, actually…
Like mtabbag simach, an Iraqi fish delicacy, each layer of the plot pushes us into another till we are left wondering on unsteady ground – Can Hoffman indeed be so stupid? Is Mother Davala a witch? Kevlar? A boy cut into 17 pieces and alive? What flew out of the urns? The Lion ‘has been fighting this war for a millenium’? Did this scene of action in the ‘witch house’ actually occur or is the character imagining it? What all are we imagining?! Oh dear, Plausibility has been hit with a grenade!
And the very next moment, the real story amidst the madcap events crawls upon us like poisonous smoke. The poignancy of Dagr’s loss of family and of a past erased forever, the Shi’a or Sunni or Coalition issues, the imam being Al Qaeda, ‘stolid Iraqi soldiers debating whether to shoot or salute’ civilians, interrogation torture methods tested on mentally ill, bumbling American soldiers in their Humvees … the reality of the invasion of Baghdad has a conspicuous presence. So …
‘It was not certain who was who anymore, which camp, which informant, how many dead in each family, and by whose hand.’
We oscillate between the possible and the impossible at the speed of a machine gun, through scenes as visual as would make you feel you’re watching a movie in 3D! Because fantasy, mythology, mystery, history, satire and parody are expertly brought together in this novel. This is done not just for entertainingly hooking the reader, at which the book soars anyway! For discerning eyes, and this is why I loved Saad’s work, ‘Escape from Baghdad!’ becomes a spectacular literary member of war literature which marries the Post-War nihilism of Existentialism with the uncomfortable laughter of Black Comedy to create a landscape which delights and depresses, both.
The quiet notes of Existentialism
Existentialism, simply put, says the world is meaningless. After all, see how “unfair” it is – war, disease, death, catastrophe! Anything can happen to anyone, and it takes a tragedy to drive in the reality of this meaninglessness. It confuses man with this absurdity. There is despair, a hopelessness which comes when one’s identity is broken down. (The crisis, as we call it.) But then, the philosophy also says there is anyway no meaning in the world beyond what meaning we give it. And so each individual, not society or religion, is responsible for giving meaning to his life, by living it passionately. Thus, the most important consideration for individuals is that they are individuals, conscious beings and not labels, albeit loose in a universe empty of real meaning. No one can escape this.
‘Escape from Baghdad!’ is rich with this philosophy, reminding us of Vladimir and Estragon from Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’. ‘Someone had taken a gigantic brush of whitewash to their past’ and so the characters in Gazaliya are ‘stuck in a piece of circular fate’ now, ‘Cut off. Unmoored…flounder purposeless’, despairing …
‘No happy endings for us I suppose.’
‘Look around. No happy endings for anyone. Not for a long time. Not ever again, perhaps.’
‘What makes us go on like this, I wonder?’ Dagr said. ‘Day after day this whole damned mess.’
The truth of the New Baghdad was that ‘freedom had a price, as the Americans loved saying’ and everyone, including The Lion, ‘seemed to want to escape, to retain a sense of purpose’. But then comes this conversation between Dagr, Hamid and Kinza…
‘And how do we get out?’
‘We don’t worry about that, Hamid’
‘We don’t worry’, Dagr said, ‘because we won’t come out’.
‘There was a reason they were stuck in this perpetual cycle of escalation’, confused ‘whether they were coming or going’. All of them know there is no use ‘to an unending life when one is forced to run and hide and fight continuously for every breath of air’, but every character in the book is fighting for that breath, and in doing that giving meaning to an otherwise hopeless life falling apart around them. Dagr and the Druze show that angst:
‘Reality isn’t there anymore. What do I have left?’, Dagr said.
‘You have no hope then?’
‘Hope? Not that kind…What’s the point of running now?’
In the final scene of action, Hamid speaks:
‘The normal controls of society are gone, and then you realize that you don’t have to take their shit anymore.’
‘Whose shit don’t you have to take anymore?
Everyone’s shit. Your teachers, your boss, your banker, the bill collector, the cop, the army. It’s all gone now. No more parents. We’re free.’
Free of social baggage and labels each character, no matter how minor, becomes an existentialist individual. Despairing, yet forcing meaning into his or her life. There is no Godot to wait for here, where life is like a toothpick on the road and to keep alive the point. All everyone seems to be following is their dream, simple yet as unreachable as ‘the old dream of the alchemists…’
Does this insistence on living constitute their freedom then, their real “escape” from Fate and rising above it, like Sisyphus? Saad Hossain, by adding that telling exclamation mark in the title, is ordering his characters to keep on trying to escape. Except, where to?
The loud laughter of Black Comedy
‘It’s a war. We kill you. You kill us. Who cares? The important thing is to have a sense of humour about it. When we were bombing the Kurds, do you think they were crying like babies?’
Saad Hossain does not give you the privilege to ponder on the philosophical alone. He makes his story provoke discomfort too, through Parody and Satire, enough to make you want to ask him like Xervish, the scared boy ‘How can you joke about this?’ And he does that by making light of dreadful subjects – of war, terror, violence and death. The opening lines of the book see Kinza saying for Hamid, ‘We should kill him, but nothing too orthodox’. The tone has been set!
Death is so commonplace, so usual, that ‘the neighbourhood had suddenly realized that they had been bombed and were going through the usual reactions: disbelief, anger, exhibitionist wailing.’ There is an easy-going attitude towards killing and a mockery of death, even as the characters try their best to survive. While suffering is not trivialized, ‘colossal stupidity of plans’ of attack, comic armours, mock-epic scenes of combat and larger-than-life episodes of heroism mark the narration, making the characters seem like actors fittingly in a Theatre of the Absurd.
‘You think logic operates anywhere in this entire fucking circus?’ Private Hoffman’s questions near the dangerous climax, while hatching a plan which ‘involved rope, a belt, scotch tape, nails, a Swiss army knife – a plan of such genius that it could not help but succeed through sheer chutzpah alone.’ We know the answer by now.
A not-so-flattering portrayal of the American presence in I-Raq adds to the humour, leaving even the 600-years-old Mother Davala ‘bereft of speech’. In the book, ‘Saddam is dead. We are ruled by American sheikhs now.’ Of course, Saad shows us the consequences of war on their psychologies too. But, showrooms are being ‘mistakenly raided’ as bomb factories and subsequently being looted, nursing homes are being converted into triages, dim-witted, doped soldiers are at high-level duties showing-off by giving a higher body-count, and ‘uncouth Americans’ are at every corner in the road. The American hunt for WMDs continues in a world where ‘weaponized laundry detergent’ is a plausible object to their phobic brains! Says Sabeen, a crucial character in the second half of the book:
‘What kind of person makes up ridiculous lies about a random country, invades it, destroys all its civil institutions, brands all its citizen terrorists, causes a civil war, and then pretends everything is alright?’.
Perhaps, therein lies Saad’s subtle political comment, albeit tip-toeing, for does he not say in this book itself that ‘in passing judgement, in executing that judgement, you become tainted yourself’?
‘Stranger things have happened …’
…in the real Iraq of our world map, perhaps.
‘Escape from Baghdad!’ is an exhilarating depiction of what those things could be. As if they were the Djinns of Solomon, Saad Hossian has commanded various literary elements to create a landscape of ‘eerie darkness’, to show ‘the depths to which the world was deeply fucked up beyond the patina of normality that coated most lives.’ You finally put down this book, feeling a numbness – from all the laughter it generates and from a realization that it is our own gravely terrifying reality we are laughing at.
An outstanding book for all kinds of readers!
'Escape from Baghdad!' by Saad Z. Hossain is published by Aleph Book Company, 2015
[This review was commissioned by the publisher. Views are my own.]