Saddam City (I Am The One Who Saw) by Mahmoud Saeed

Mahmoud Saeed was born in Mosul, Iraq in the late 1930s, but after being imprisoned six times for political reasons between 1963 and 1980, in 1985 he finally succeeded to emigrate to the United Arab Emirates. Since 1999, he has been living as a political refugee in the United States.

The novel I Am The One Who Saw was originally written in Arabic in 1981 and published for the first time in Syria in 1995. It was later published in English as Saddam City by Saqi Books in 2004 and in Italian by Edizioni Spartaco in 2005 with the same title of the English edition.

Saeed’s books were censored and banned for their political content. Nobody could disagree with the government. Reading Saddam City prompted me to look for more information about the historical background. Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire, but after World War I, the United Kingdom established a pro-British regime ruled by a dynasty of Saudi kings. This monarchy lasted from 1921 to 1958, until an Iraqi nationalist coup d’état. The dictator Saddam Hussein was born in 1937. He was a leading member of the Ba’ath Party, founded in 1947 and inspired by a mix of Arab nationalism and socialism. Saddam joined the Ba’ath Party in 1957 and played an important role in the 1968 coup that brought it to power in Iraq. He was Vice President of Iraq from 1968 to 1979 and then the absolute leader of the country from 1979 to 2003. Saddam was executed in 2006.

I was born in 1983, so the first time I heard about Iraq was during the First Gulf War (1990-1991). I still remember the black and green images of night bombings shown on TV and one of my primary school teachers asking us for newspaper pictures about the war. She thought that every kid had parents who read newspapers, but mine were too busy with their jobs to read them, so my mother bought one just to allow me to cut and bring some pictures to my teacher.

The novel Saddam City starts on the first Monday of the year. A note says that the novel is set in 1979. The narrator is released after 15 months, but in the meanwhile the Iran-Iraq war has begun (22 September 1980), so there’s something wrong! Maybe the note?

Mustafa Ali Noman is the main character and first-person narrator. He has a teaching job, a wife and two school-age children, a son and a daughter, but one day his routine is tragically disrupted by two agents who are waiting for him on his workplace. They think his real identity is Mustafa Ali Othman and for this reason he’s taken to the Security Headquarters for an interrogation. After arriving to the Security Headquarters, Mustafa is blindfolded and handcuffed. He’s slapped in the face and his right eye starts to bleed. Mustafa Ali Othman has supposedly spent several years in the northern Kurdish-speaking part of Iraq and has traveled extensively abroad. Maybe Mustafa has been mistaken for a supporter of the Kurdish rebels who fight for their independence.

Mustafa Ali Noman hates the Ba’ath Party and his wife has been accused of having Iranian ancestry, but he only occasionally talks about politics with his friends. He knows that it’s risky to utter even a single word in a society full of amateur spies.

Saddam City made me think about the book “La frontera extraviada” (The Lost Frontier) written by the Chilean Luis Sepúlveda, the Argentinian desaparecidos and the people spied by the Stasi, the official state security service of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in the novels I read for a German literature exam.

Saddam City allows the reader to witness the mass wave of arrests, torture and assassinations for political reasons in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

The day after his arrest, Mustafa is obliged to board a truck because Basra is already full of prisoners. The truck stops in Baghdad.

A few months before being arrested, two agents had visited Mustafa’s house to oblige him to become a member of the Ba’ath party.

During his detention, Mustafa Ali Noman meets several other prisoners, but I found two stories particularly scary. The first was that of a man executed because his little daughter had been asked at school if her father loved Saddam and she answered that he spat every time he saw Saddam on TV. The second deals instead with some prisoners who lost their hair and went insane after mysterious injections. I was reading in bed and I couldn’t sleep well that night.

In Sulaymaniyah, Mustafa Ali is interrogated again. He is accused of being linked to the Peshmerga guerrillas, military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan. He is tortured with electrical cables. The torturers show him a picture taken fifteen years before. Mustafa was playing poker in a casino and standing behind him there was a wanted man called Amr Abbas, but the truth was that he didn’t know him.

The officers finally realize that there has been a mistake about Mustafa Ali’s name. They decide to release him, but he must heal completely before being allowed to go home after fifteen months spent in several jails across Iraq. The protagonist case is an example of mistaken identity and it is possible that the photograph showed to him has been modified to cover the mistake.

Mahmoud Saeed was so kind to send me a paperback copy of the Italian edition, but I also bought the ebook version in English. I read both. It was the first time that I read the same novel in two different languages and it was interesting for a translator like me to compare the two editions. I usually prefer to read a book in the original language, but in this case it wasn’t possible since I don’t speak Arabic and I must admit that I was really surprised to see that the Italian text (even if it had been translated from English and not from the original Arabic novel) was better than the English one! The latter is indeed full of grammar and spelling mistakes, maybe due to the fact that the translator isn’t an English native speaker. It was really a pity to find errors like “Lets (Let’s) leave the rest to him”, “May be (Maybe) they intended to inquire”, “several time(s)”, “the sort kind of mistake” instead of “the same kind of mistake” and “May be (Maybe) they would contact the school”. “Maybe” meaning “perhaps” is systematically wrongly spelled as “may be” throughout the novel! Then there are also mistakes like “confusion about may (my) name”, “like (al)most everybody”, “he is a looser (loser)”, “coup de tate” instead of “coup d’état”, “In those days I used to buy a few bears (beers) from the black market”, “to by (buy) cigarettes”, “a peace of meet” instead of “a piece of meat” and “an easy pray (prey) for their traps”. This novel deserves a better English translation. It also lacks consistency: it isn’t acceptable to find the characters’ names written in two or even three different ways (ex. Mustafa Ali Noman/Mustafa Ali Nomaan, Mustafa Ali Othman/Mustafa Ali Ottoman, Javaad/Javad, Hossein/Hussein, Abu-Wael/Abu Wael/Abu Waeel). It was as painful as when I had to translate English manuals written by some Chinese native speakers or when I had to correct the exams of many of my English students.

As I said above, the Italian translation is better than the English one, but isn’t perfect. In this case, the biggest mistake is surely the word “yashmagh” (headdress worn by Arabs, also called keffiyeh) that becomes “yashmak” (a Turkish type of veil or niqab worn by some Muslim women to cover their faces in public).

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