On Monday, October 3rd we discussed Saddam City ( أنا الذي راء ) by Mahmoud Saeed, in which Iraqi schoolteacher and novelist Mahmoud Saeed, arrested numerous times by former dictator Saddam Hussein, recalls the harrowing months he spent in prison. Translated into English by Lake Forest College sociology professor Ahmad Sadri, Saddam City was penned in the early 1980s as a “condemnation of all dictators and all tyrants wherever they are.”
About the author:
Mahmoud Saeed (born 1939) is an Iraqi-born American award-winning novelist. Born in Mosul, Saeed has written more than twenty novels and short story collections, and hundreds of articles. He started writing short stories at an early age. He wrote an award-winning short story in the Newspaper “Fatal Iraq, Newspaper” in 1956. He issued a collection of short stories, “Port Saeed and other stories” in 1957. In 1963, the coup of the government destroyed his two novels, The Old Case and The Strike, which he deposited in Iraqi Union Guild.
The authorities prevented his novel Rhythm and Obsession from being published in 1968, and banned his novel Rue Ben Barka, in 1970. Rue Ben Barka was published fifteen years later in Egypt, Jordan, and Beirut in 1997. Authorities banned the publication of any book written by him from 1963 to 2008. His most important novels after Rue Ben Baraka are The Girls of Jacob, The World Through the Angel’s Eyes, I am the One Who Saw, and Trilogy of Chicago.
After fleeing Iraq in 1985, Saeed had to leave his family behind in the United Arab Emirates to live as a political refugee in the United States. Saddam City, published in 2004 by Dar Al-Saqi in London, is Saeed’s most famous novel. The novel is based on the true experience of Saeed’s experiences as a political prisoner in Iraq.
Mahmoud Saeed currently teaches intermediate and advanced Arabic langauge courses at DePaul University, as well as Arab Culture and Iraqi Political History.
About the book:
Saeed’s novel depicts the fear and despair of Baghdad schoolteacher Mustafa Ali Noman as he is shuttled from prison to prison. The senselessness of his arrest and the torture he and other prisoners endure drive Mustafa to see Hussein’s Iraq as a place where “being free only meant one thing: imminent arrest.” Mahmoud Saeeds devastating novel evokes the works of Kafka, Solzhenitsyn and Elie Wiesel. It is a vivid account of the wanton and brutal treatment of the Iraqi people by Saddam Husseins feared secret police and of the arbitrariness of life under tyranny.
The novel has applauded for highlighting positive aspects of Arab and Iraqi culture, including friendship, community, respect, generosity, and hospitality. Saddam City was also considered one of the best 56 novels in the world by the website Library Thing in New York.
The original transcript of the novel included two additional chapters which were censored and removed from the novel by Arab authorities before he brought the book to be published in the United States.
One morning Mustafa Ali Noman, a teacher in Baghdad, was arrested as he reached the school gates. For the next fifteen months he was brutally interrogated, moved from prison to prison and barred from contacting his family; as he witnessed countless scenes of torture. It became clear to Mustafa along his journey through the desert gulags that the question of guilt or innocence was irrelevant. How do I know that I am not dreaming this? he asks himself, as, under intolerable pressure, his grasp of reality begins to weaken.
When Saddam City was translated into English, its title was changed from the original Arabic title, I am the One Who Saw (أنا الذي راء). It was translated into English by Lake Forest College sociology professor Ahmad Sadri, and was later translated and published in Italian with the same title.
Find out how Saddam City came to be translated into English by viewing the WTTW video posted here:
“‘… bracingly convincing … a simply beautiful, though inevitably harrowing, tale.”–Independent on Sunday (25/04/04)
“Compelling … close in tone to the work of Primo Levi … a bruising account of the brutally arbitrary way in which life can be derailed under dictatorship.”–Bookmunch
“Mahmoud Saeed’s devastating novel evokes the works of Kafka, Solzhenitsyn and Elie Wiesel. It is a vivid account of the wanton and brutal treatment of the Iraqi people by Saddam Hussein’s feared secret police and of the arbitrariness of life under tyranny.” — Amazon.com
Further reading: Review by Mary Whipple