Frankenstein in Baghdad

Saadawi, Ahmed

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

  • Date of entry: Apr-19-2018
  • Last revised: Apr-19-2018


Hadi, a junk dealer and storyteller of Baghdad’s Bataween neighborhood, scans the scene of a suicide car bombing. Hadi collects more than rubbish: amongst the smoke, dust, and the bloody debris of human bodies, he stoops to pluck the remnants of a nose from the wreckage, wraps it in a canvas sheet, and leaves the scene. Curating the remains of human bodies blasted asunder by suicide bombs, Hadi sutures bloody remnants to form a complete corpse, stowed away in his crumbling flat.

Necromania is far from the reason Hadi pursues his gory task: “I made it [the corpse] complete so that it wouldn’t be treated as trash, so it would be treated like other dead people and given a proper burial” (27). The nose from that day’s bombing was the crowning remnant that perfected the corpse. The corpse comes alive and exacts a series of perverse murders. It is rumored throughout the city that the mysterious corpse—or the “Whatsitsname” or “Criminal X,” as it is dubbed by the Iraqi Tracking and Pursuit Department—is a ruthless superhuman. Hadi’s Frankenstein stalks the streets of Baghdad to slaughter the murderer responsible for each limb comprising its body, justifying the killing spree as a “noble mission.” It realizes that, before it can destroy its final victims, the organs and limbs of its putrid body begin to rot.

Requiring new hands and eyeballs, the Baghdad Frankenstein must obliterate more people for fresh parts. The Whatsitsname realizes the corporeal conditions of his bloody mission: “My list of people to seek revenge grew longer as my body parts fell off and my assistants added parts from my new victims, until one night I realized that under these circumstances I would face an open-ended list of targets that would never end” (153). To survive, the corpse becomes entangled in an ever-widening web of killings.


Far from a scheming necromancer, Hadi resembles a strangely forlorn ZAKA worker, exposed to the hazardous aftermath of explosions, surveying rubble for blast-torn limbs and scraps of flesh. Established by a group of ultra-orthodox volunteers (Hebrew acronym for the Israeli society, Identifiers of Victims of Disaster), ZAKA personnel collect bodies at scenes of mass violence to ensure proper burial. Despite his reputation for being a shady and garrulous drunk, Hadi works nobly to reclaim the wholeness of a human body. Comprised of the many parts of bomb victims—the limbs of those with different religious, political, socioeconomic, and sectarian allegiances—his Frankenstein creation becomes a walking necrology of Baghdad’s divided community.

In whatever way readers choose to ‘read’ the Whatsitsname, the figure is an allegory—a dark hyperbole—for cyclical sectarian violence carried out to the point of absurdity. Sadaawi’s novel concentrates on exteriors and interiors, explosions and implosions, and ‘boundedness’ and ‘unboundedness’ that exposes the vulnerability of religious, political, and social boundaries. The novel’s innermost tragedy, however, is that the Baghdad Frankenstein is not—despite its initial intentions to exact justice—a wartime messiah, but becomes, with its helpless victims, locked within the endless rotation of Hammurabian retaliation. As conditions in Baghdad deteriorate, Saadawi’s novel imparts to readers an anxiety over the possibilities of ever transcending sectarian boundaries in the Islamic world.


International Prize for Arabic Fiction (2014)Translated by Jonathan Wright (2018)


Penguin Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count