The Baghdad Noir anthology paints a city both brutalised and inspiringly resilient

Why have writers in Iraq finally penned ‘Baghdad Noir’, the country’s first collection of crime? Because now it’s for real

Iraqis do last minute shopping before the start of Ramadan at the Al-Shurja Market in Baghdad October 3, 2005. The holy month of Ramadan, a time of fasting and prayer, is set to begin over the next several days, but few in Iraq hold much hope that it will be observed in a peaceful climate. [Since the U.S.-led invasion three years ago, attacks by insurgents have increased at the start of Ramadan]. - PBEAHUNWSAK
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It is said that crime stories are less concerned with the crime as they are with the aftermath.

That principle holds true today, with crime fiction not only a permanent fixture on bestseller lists, but also often act as the safest and most accessible literary form to investigate society's strengths and ills. And in some cases, the genre – with its heroic, villainous and passionate characters living on society's margins – often acts as a welcome window into new and misunderstood parts of the globe.

The Arab world has long been a beneficiary of crime fiction's popularity, with Arabic translations of Maurice Leblanc's detective series, featuring the classy thief Arsene Lupin, dating back to 1910. These books influenced Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who went on to pen his own crime stories including 1981's The Thief and Dogs.

More recently, Sudanese writer Jamal Mahjoub has found success under his nom de plume.

He goes by the moniker Bilal Parker, and his novels feature Sudanese private investigator Makana, and take readers from the underbelly of Old Cairo to the gritty streets of Khartoum. Meanwhile in Algeria, Yasmina Khadra (real name Mohammed Moulessehoul) also garnered an international audience through his terse political mysteries. His novels featuring the Algiers superintendent Llob are positively Raymond Chandler-esque in their tone and brute efficiency.

Now, the crime-fiction juggernaut has arrived in Iraq. Despite the country being a cultural citadel and pioneer, crime fiction has only relatively recently begun to spring from the country – ironically, it is the bloodshed of the past decade that is partly responsible for the literary development. The most significant leap is the success of Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad. He won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for the Gothic mystery, an award he received in Abu Dhabi, and the title has been shortlisted for this year's Man Booker International Prize. So it's no wonder Saadawi is the linchpin of the marketing campaign for the new short story compilation Baghdad Noir, released by New York's Akashic Books. He joins 13 other authors – all Iraqis with the exception of four – in this engrossing collection of crime stories all set in various districts of Baghdad.

How the novel came to Iraq

Presented with a detailed map of the ancient city to illustrate where all the stories are based, the plots are all well-executed and offer various takes on the trusted genre.

Salima Salih's The Apartment adopts a classic whodunnit structure with a weary detective investigating the death of an elderly lady in her home, while Mohammed Alwan Jabr's Room 22 is more visceral as it violently describes the kidnappings and abductions of Iraqi families since 2003. But perhaps the most enlightening read of all is the compilation's sterling introductory essay by the editor, the acclaimed Iraqi novelist Samuel Shimon. Titled, Garden of Justice, City of Peace, Shimon paints a picture of a multiethnic and pluralistic Baghdad, from the advent of the British Invasion of the Ottoman Empire in 1917 to the societal ruptures caused in the aftermath of the "American Invasion of April 2003." Among all these changes, he recalls the birth of the modern Iraqi novel, which is widely considered to be Mahmoud Ahmed Al Sayed's 1921 Mark Twain-like adventure Jalal Khalid.

Baghdad Noir (Iraq) Edited by Samuel Shimon. Courtesy Akashic Books
Baghdad Noir (Iraq) Edited by Samuel Shimon Courtesy Akashic Books

Iraqi novels took on a more serious tone after the Second World War, with the gritty and surrealistic works of pioneers Abdul Malik Nouri and Fouad Al Tokerly influenced by American and European literature translated to Arabic at the time. The Iraqi novel finally became ubiquitous after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein. Shimon states that over the past 15 years, nearly 700 novels were released, many of which took on a darker tone as authors surveyed the toll of UN-enforced sanctions and how Iraq’s social fabric was ripped apart by sectarianism.

It all goes to shape what Shimon calls “Iraq’s Noir story”; one that began at the arrival of the Iran-Iraq War and gained steam with the bombing of Baghdad during the first and second Gulf Wars of 1990 and 2003.

Crime fiction as a measure of a city

The authors in Baghdad Noir dissect that experience in various ways. For Salih, the crime novel has become an effective method to analyse the state of play in Iraq today.

Based in Germany, she was a journalist with the Iraqi press before turning her hand to short stories and releasing three Arabic anthologies. “It is the best way to show the human and political changes that have happened over the past 20 years,” she says. “Baghdad was so different 20 years ago, and we have fallen behind in so many ways, things that were unthinkable back then, that we now see with these stories of crime, murder and violence.”

Set in the suburban Al Ghadeer District of Baghdad, Salih’s short story vividly encapsulates the fraying of neighbourly ties – a bond viewed as sacred – as a result of the ongoing civil conflict. “These stories have become normal today, sadly. This idea that your neighbour will kill you for your apartment is something that is happening,” she says. “It goes to show what war can do. It’s not that it only turns neighbour against neighbour, it shows how everyone now is just trying to save themselves.”

One writer who is keenly aware of war and its unintended consequences is Roy Scranton. He spent 14 months "as an occupier" of Iraq as an American soldier, before returning four years ago as an acclaimed journalist and author of the celebrated novel War Porn.

His anthology contribution, Homecoming, is set in the Baghdad marketplace of Al Shurja and is a brutal examination of vengeance in war. While the story is mainly concerned with following an Iraqi soldier on the trail of militia leaders, it also paints a picture of a once proud marketplace reduced to a shadow of itself due to the arrival of American troops.

“One thing that goes on in the story is the coppersmiths in that street can no longer sell their handmade work because the market has been flooded with cheap goods from India and China owing to the way the US occupation opened up Iraqi markets to trade,” he says. “That’s an important part of the story, and it came from me doing my homework, being there and talking to people about that.”

Baghdad endures despite the carnage

In addition to the Iraqi authors involved in Baghdad Noir, Scranton describes writing about the war-torn city as an emotional experience.

“My feeling as an occupier and then as journalist and tourist in Iraq is sense of regret, lost opportunity or confusion and guilt and sadness,” he says. “All those feelings I always had in a sense. But what really comes to me now is the resilience of the people of Baghdad and their rugged determination to live life and find pleasure and happiness where they can.”

Shimon agrees with the notion. He closes off his essay by cautioning the reader not to view Baghdad Noir as doomsday tales from a once proud city: "The stories in Baghdad Noir testify to the enduring resilience of the Iraqi spirit amid an ongoing real-life milieu of despair that the literary form of Noir can at best only approximate."

Baghdad Noir, published by Akashic Books, is out now

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