Baghdad Central by Elliott Colla
Baghdad Central by Elliott Colla (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014) is another of these deeply political novels which deals with controversial recent history. In one sense, it’s easier for an author to be more dispassionate about the book’s theme if the genre is switched to near-future science fiction or alternate history or an allegorical fantasy. That way, potentially unpalatable “truths” or inferences can be swept away by readers as fiction or willful mischaracterisation to create irony or satire. But the problems immediately pile up if the author is claiming realism. In part this explains why so few American authors have felt comfortable to write about 9/11. The emotional wounds are still raw. But here we have a book about the American occupation of Baghdad although the British and other allies do put in an appearance towards the end.
We begin in April 2003 with the reality of American coalition troops rolling almost unopposed into Baghdad and the decision of Inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji to keep his head down until he can see how the conquest will turn out. He hopes he will be passed over in any process of de-Ba’athification. He was only a mid-level follower in the police force. But life is never simple or straightforward. It seems there is another Muhsin al-Khafaji who was quite senior in the party and, as is required when November arrives, our hero is picked up through the natural misidentification. He endures the pain and humiliation as best he can but, when the Americans finally admit their error, they compound his problems by recruiting him as a figurehead senior police officer in the newly reconstituted force. When he prefers not to be seen as a collaborator, his daughter Mrouj is offered treatment at a hospital inside the Green Zone. This earns his reluctant co-operation with the Coalition Provisional Authority created by L. Paul Bremer. Against this background, the book follows the Inspector’s attempts to rescue his brother’s family, investigate the murders of interpreters, and avoid being killed by Iraqi patriots as a collaborator or by the Americans for being an infiltrator.
By starting with the physical conquest of Baghdad and ending with the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003, the author avoids the need to discuss any of the controversy surrounding the legality of the invasion or the subsequent occupation. It simply confronts the hero with the need to survive the arrival of the Americans. The selection of the capture of Saddam is also a convenient place to stop. This is dealt with in a stoic fashion with the relevant Iraqis already resigned to the shift in political power, and the Americans convincing themselves this will see the end of their immediate problems in controlling the population. This does not in any way mean the book is defanged as a critique of the occupation itself. But it does carefully narrow the focus of the criticism and leaves the tone inferential rather than overt in its denunciation of less than appropriate behaviour both by the occupying forces and those opposing them. Insofar as such a stance is possible, this is an author determined to appear even-handed. In the protagonist, he has an older man who’s experienced in navigating difficult political waters. On one side, he must appease the Iraqi militant factions which are determined to harry and strike both at the foreign invaders and those who collaborate with them. But given his daughter’s health is now dependent on treatment by the Americans, he must seem to be actively assisting the CPA. This gives us a chance to view both sides through the eyes of a man to whom poetry and his family are everything. In the end, we see the emergence of greater stability in his life. It’s not, you understand, that either side thinks him indispensable to their needs, but there’s hope he will not be killed for being who he is.
In a way, the book is fairly damning of the CPA, its personnel and the corruption it encourages. It’s equally scathing of the Red Zone occupation managed by the British who are great at the theory of how the whole process of occupation should be managed, but less than effective when it comes to implementing it in the face of local opposition. In genre terms, this makes Baghdad Central partly a political thriller as our hero navigates the minefield, partly a police procedural as he investigates the murder of the interpreters, and partly historical fiction. Books which deal with such controversial source material are not intended to make the reader comfortable. But they must also have sufficient entertainment value to persuade the readers to go through to the end. I think Elliott Colla has struck the right balance here. There’s enough of a mystery to resolve while our protagonist is put in situations where his life is very much at risk for the thrillerish moments. For all those with an interest in what life was like in Baghdad under the CPA, this should be required reading. It comes over as credible and authoritative, making Baghdad Central a book I recommend.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.