BEIRUT: 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.” The deck of cards, each printed with the photograph, name and job description of one of Iraq’s “55 Most Wanted” officials, aimed to sear these details into the troops’ minds.
Colla’s protagonist, an ex-policeman named Muhsin Khadr al-Khafaji, is snatched from his Baghdad apartment by soldiers in the dead of night. He wakes to the sound of the triumphant words: “Confirmed. Three of diamonds!”
It transpires that the unfortunate man shares the name of the former Baath Party chairman for the Qadisiyah Governorate, No. 48 on the U.S. most wanted list.
This is not the only occasion in which fact meets fiction in “Baghdad Central.” Colla’s debut novel is a genre-defying blend of thriller, police procedural and historically informed fiction. The extensive research he clearly did betrays Colla’s day job as associate professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University.
The book opens in November 2003, eight months after the Anglo-U.S. invasion of Iraq. Khafaji’s brother-in-law begs the former policeman to find his daughter Sawsan, who has disappeared while working for a professor at her university. Despite Khafaji’s protests that he had merely been a paper pusher, never a detective, he agrees to search for Sawsan, who is the spitting image of his dead wife.
The missing person is a staple of detective fiction, but Colla’s tale is much more complex than its premise. A lover of poetry, in particular the work of free verse pioneer Nazik al-Malaika, Khafaji is no action hero. He does have a weakness, though, in his love for his daughter Mrouj, who suffers kidney problems.
After Khafaji’s mistaken arrest, he finds himself in Abu Ghraib. A harrowing description of waterboarding follows. Khafaji’s true identity eventually becomes clear, but reluctant to simply free him, Khafaji’s captors blackmail him. In exchange for his release and top-notch medical treatment for his daughter, Khafaji agrees to work in the city’s U.S.-held Green Zone, helping to rebuild the country’s decimated police force.
From this point on, Colla’s protagonist is engaged in a delicate balancing act. Should U.S. troops suspect him of being an infiltrator or his Iraqi neighbors discover he is a collaborator, his life is forfeit. 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. In this respect, the tale also becomes a personal journey as he wrestles to regain control of his own destiny.
Khafaji’s passion for poetry allows Colla to embellish the text with lines from some of Iraq’s best-loved poets, contrasting the country’s rich heritage with the brutality and ruin wrought by the invasion and its aftermath. Poetry also generates one of the few scenes in the novel in which Khafaji displays the sort of devil-may-care spirit associated with hard-boiled heroes like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.
During his interrogation – conducted by a high-profile ex-Baathist and an unknown American – the protagonist makes his contempt for his captors known by quoting banned Iraqi poet Muzzafar al-Nawwab.
“They say that the Minister of Oil has a tail that he keeps hidden in an American pocket,” he recites, earning himself a vicious beating from his Iraqi interrogator.
Aside from the beauty of the writing, the strength of Colla’s work lies in its ambiguity. Unlike many thrillers, there are no “good guys” here, save perhaps Khafaji’s daughter. There are few definitively “bad guys,” either. Colla paints a nuanced landscape of a country at war, where each character is driven by a complex tangle of personal and nationalistic aims.
The novel’s action takes place over the course of a few weeks. Colla punctuates Khafaji’s tale with first-person passages detailing the suffering of a mother whose son has vanished, then switches to the protagonist’s flashbacks – first as a child rebelling against the state, later as a regime policeman. The structure is confusing at first, requiring readers to pay close attention to the dates heading each chapter, but ultimately it adds to the novel’s scope and complexity.
By beginning the story post-invasion and ending it just after U.S. forces capture Saddam Hussein, Colla avoids having to comment on the legitimacy of the war or its legacy. Instead, he focuses on its ramifications for Iraqi civilians and low-ranking U.S. troops.
Colla decides not to tie all his loose ends into a neat bundle, and the novel’s rather abrupt ending may disappoint some readers. In fact, by refusing to bring the tale to a clockwork resolution, Colla only increases the story’s realism. For Khafaji – as for us all – life goes on. Death provides the only true ending.
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.
In one of the novel’s flashbacks, Khafaji recalls a schoolteacher’s comment on Ibn al-Rumi’s account of the destruction of Basra during the Zanj Revolution.
“There is a tension between the beautiful imagery of the lines and the ugliness of the subject matter – which is death and destruction,” she says. The description applies equally well to “Baghdad Central.”
Elliot Colla’s “Baghdad Central” is published by Bitter Lemon Press and is available to download from amazon.com.