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. 

Colla's writing is stripped-down and evocative. In the beginning the book has several very short sections narrated from different, ambiguous, sometimes collective viewpoints. When US patrols close in on a building to make a middle-of-the-night arrest, their radios "were clicking and chirping like little birds." After the raid goes awry, "the whole building could feel the silence. It was like getting a shock. That silence was an electric wire lying on the ground."

The plot involves a prostitution ring, terrorists, an alluring university professor, the potential jihadis that have moved into the ground floor of Khafaji's building, and much more. Colla weaves it all together confidently, mixing reminiscences, diversions and well-timed jolts. I was quickly hooked and read the book in a few days (although I wasn't quite satisfied by the story's denouement). 

Colla is a professor of Arabic literature at Georgetown University. His down-beat cop is a lover of poetry who makes identifying citations a game with his sick daughter (and meanwhile gives the reader a glimpse of Iraq's extraordinary poetic heritage). One of the poets that Khafaji, and presumably Colla, loves and quotes often is Nazik Malaika: 

I will hear your voice every evening

When light dozes off

And worries take refuge in dreams

When desires and passions slumber, when ambition sleeps

When Life Sleeps and Time remains

Awake, sleepless

Like your voice.

In the drowsy dusk resounds your wakeful voice

In my deep yearning

Your eternal voice that never sleeps

Remains awake in me. 

Colla even develops an analogy between police work and poetry reading that has to do with noticing rhythms and gaps (I'm not sure how most Arab poets will feel about the parallel). 

This atmospheric and gripping book creates a compelling mystery and predicament for its hero, and memorably evokes a time and place many in the US have all too quickly put out of mind.