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Those who recall the "personality identification playing cards" handed out to U.S. soldiers during the Iraq war may briefly find themselves one step ahead of the protagonist in Elliott Colla's first novel "Baghdad Central".Colla's protagonist, an ex-policeman named Muhsin Khadr al-Khafaji, is snatched from his Baghdad apartment by soldiers in the dead of night. A lover of poetry, in particular the work of free verse pioneer Nazik al-Malaika, Khafaji is no action hero.Khafaji's true identity eventually becomes clear, but reluctant to simply free him, Khafaji's captors blackmail him.Intensifying the suspense is Khafaji's want of clear aim or plan of action, aside from ensuring his daughter's safety.Unlike the typical action hero, working to achieve his own ends, Khafaji is caught up in events beyond his control, buffeted this way and that in his struggle to stay alive. Unlike many thrillers, there are no "good guys" here, save perhaps Khafaji's daughter.In this regard, "Baghdad Central" is more effective as a historically informed look at life under U.S. occupation than as a mystery, but the story's fictional element allows Colla the freedom to communicate the experiences of Khafaji – a sort of Iraqi everyman – with an immediacy lacking in most historical accounts.
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