Book review: Baghdad Central

I recently finally found the time to read friend-of-the-blog and esteemed Arabic literature professor and translator Elliot Colla's debut novel, the occupation/detective story Baghdad Central

The novel features a former Iraqi policeman (and, it turns out, a former former intelligence services officer) named Muhsin el-Khafaji, whose is mistaken for a namesake, a high-ranking Baathist official, and taken in by the Americans and tortured. When they realize their mistake, they put him in charge of re-organizing the Iraqi police force. Meanwhile, he is investigating the disappearance of several young female Iraqi translators, one of whom is his niece. 

Khafaji is sympathetic, depressed, afflicted (he has lost a spouse and child) and guilty (that career in the intelligence services…) 

What makes Iraq a perfect setting for a noir is not just the deadly chaos there, but the extreme power imbalances.The genre requires the presence of a rich and oblivious upper-class, uncaring of the damage it leaves in its wake. In Raymond Chandler, they are ensconced in the Hollywood hills. In Colla's novel, they live in the Green Zone. Some of the best scenes in the book track the extraordinary disconnect between the Iraqi narrator -- whose daily decision are a matter of life and death -- and the Americans who blithely deliver lectures about the future of Iraq. At a typical pep talk, "Each time the interpreter comes to the work 'benchmark' he stumbles. At first he translates it as 'the sign of the bench,' then 'trace of the longseat,' then 'imprint of the worktable' and so on. Other words like 'synergy' and 'entrepreneurism' wreak even more havoc."  I actually wish Colla had mined his premise for more of its dark humor. 

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