Ahmed Saadawi on being an artist ‘in Iraq’s chaotic boiler room’

In 2014, Saadawi became the first Iraqi to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” which also won Le Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire in 2017.
Sunday 09/09/2018
Iraqi novelist, poet, screenwriter and documentary film-maker Ahmed Saadawi. (Courtesy of Ahmed Saadawi)
A ray of hope. Iraqi novelist, poet, screenwriter and documentary film-maker Ahmed Saadawi. (Courtesy of Ahmed Saadawi)

LONDON - Ahmed Saadawi is an Iraqi novelist, poet, screenwriter and documentary film-maker. In 2010, he was selected for Beirut 39 as one of the 39 best Arab authors aged under 40. In 2014, he became the first Iraqi to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” which also won Le Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire in 2017.

Saadawi lives in Baghdad with his wife and four children. In an interview conducted via e-mail and through a translator, Saadawi talked about what it is to be an artist in Iraq today.

 The Arab Weekly (TAW): “What was it like growing up in Baghdad and how do you remember your childhood?”

Saadawi: “I was born in the early 1970s and many Iraqis of various sects and ethnicities see the 1970s as the golden age of Iraq. There was a secular alliance of communists and Arab nationalists who controlled the political scene in the country, ending decades of power struggles. I remember cinemas, beautiful parks, popular songs and weddings and an affluent economy but all this soon ended with the start of the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam Hussein monopolised power and pursued his political opponents.

“I still have beautiful photographs of my childhood in the mid-70s. I have an album of black-and-white pictures of me wearing expensive clothes and, in the background, you can see the flowering shrubs in the Zawra gardens, the most famous park in Baghdad. I remember falling asleep in the cinemas on Saadoun Street when my uncle took me.

“But my memories from the 1980s are of dead bodies and women screaming in my neighbourhood when a young man arrived in a coffin.”

TAW: “Have you ever thought about leaving Baghdad?”

Saadawi: “Emigration has been one of the most common themes for us in Iraq, at least since the 1980s. Each generation relives the dream of immigration in its own way.

“I spent the second decade of my life, in the 1990s, under stifling international sanctions and the grip of dictatorship. We did not have enough money to buy a cup of tea and, on top of that, the authorities were conscripting us young men to do military service.

“By the time the Saddam regime fell and the US occupation began in 2003, I had served in the Iraqi Army three times. It would be very natural to think about emigrating, even in illegal ways. There were new reasons for migration during the civil war between 2005 and 2007 but it was only coincidences that prevented me from emigrating. I have no objection to the idea of emigration.

“Sometimes I receive threats, messages and words that could endanger my life. Sometimes I think of my children and their future. I am still anxious about ensuring my family’s safety in the unstable conditions in the country. On the other hand, I benefit [creatively] from the advantages of being in the chaotic ‘boiler room’ of the real world of Iraq.”

TAW: “What is the art scene like in Baghdad?”

Saadawi: “I have many friends in various creative and artistic fields in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. The Iraqi cultural and artistic scene is lively and full of activities, especially in writing, film-making and short films. If you ask any Iraqi intellectual, author or artist what they need, they will tell you that we need to fully stabilise the security situation and address the question of basic services. When there is stability, artistic and cultural life in Iraq will increasingly flourish.”

TAW: “How do you see the current political situation?”

Saadawi: “Generally speaking, there has been relative stability in the security situation for two years but today we are at a dangerous juncture. We have emerged from poorly conducted elections in which a large segment of the electorate did not take part and the same names have come to the fore again.

“Although months have passed since the elections, we haven’t seen any clear sign of negotiations to form a government. There have been serious demonstrations in southern Iraq in which young people have set fire to the headquarters of political parties and taken control of some government buildings and blocked access to the oil fields. There have been serious epidemics and instances of poisoning in the city of Basra and we may see a cholera epidemic there in the near future. Yet the government has no quick solution to these problems.

“Overall, none of the problems of the 15 years since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime have been dealt with and now they are piling up on top of each other.”

TAW: “What gives you hope for your country?”

Saadawi: “Ethnic and sectarian hatreds go back a thousand years in Iraq but that does not mean they have always been exploited. Today, after the elimination of [the Islamic State] in Iraq, we seem to have left the arena of sectarian conflict, albeit temporarily. Today, strangely enough, we see the most radical Shias meeting Sunni militants, embracing and kissing each other in front of the television cameras. All that is so that they can sign political deals to share out jobs and ministries in the next government.

“What gives me hope is the possibility that, despite everything, the process of institution-building in the state will be reinforced, that civil society will be given a stronger voice and those religious institutions with a higher moral sense will protect the interests of citizens and not fuel conflicts.”