Frankenstein in Baghdad, or the Postmodern Prometheus

© 2021, by M. Keith Booker and Isra Daraiseh

Ahmed Saadawi’s award-winning 2014 Iraqi novel Frankenstein in Baghdad features a being, the “Whatsitsname,” that is constructed of bits and pieces of individuals killed by car bombs in U.S.-occupied 2005 Iraq. This being is then animated and begins to shamble about, with dire results, much as does the monster in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein. Yet the Whatsitsname also clearly serves as a sort of allegorical stand-in for the condition of post-invasion Iraq. Saadawi’s novel thus demonstrates the ongoing relevance of the Frankenstein narrative in global culture, while conducting specific satirical commentaries on the shattered social fabric of Iraq after the 2003 American invasion. However, it is also a postmodern work that makes important comments on the process of capitalist modernization and on the way in which this process ultimately leads to globalization and to the development of a global postmodernist culture.

Frankenstein in Baghdad won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and has subsequently become one of the most talked-about Arabic novels of the twenty-first century. By 2018, it had appeared in an English translation by Jonathan Wright that was widely reviewed (almost entirely positively) in the Western press. The basic idea for the novel is a simple one: making reference to the well-known Frankenstein story, the novel features Hadi, a junk dealer in 2005 Baghdad, who responds to the constant violence that is ripping apart the city (including the death by car-bombing of his friend and partner, Nahem Abdaki) by gathering parts of the bodies of victims of car bombs and stitching them together, hoping eventually to compile a complete corpse that can be given a proper burial. Soon after Hadi completes the corpse, however, it is inhabited by the soul of another recent car bomb victim, causing it to animate and take on a life of its own, though its identity remains precarious, as is signaled by the fact that Hadi dubs (or doesn’t dub, to be precise) it “Whatsitsname.”[1] The monster then walks the streets of Baghdad, embarking on a reign of terror that makes him a prominent figure in the local media and a target of the provisional governmental authorities. Meanwhile, the story of Whatsitsname is told against the background of the stories of a number of local figures, which flesh out the picture of Baghdad as a city torn by sectarian violence to the point that life has become a sort of absurdist nightmare, even as the locals go about their daily lives with a strange sort of routine.

As a narrative informed by the genres of science fiction and horror, with elements of surrealism mixed in, Frankenstein in Baghdad departs from the main current of modern Arabic fiction, which has been strongly dominated by realism. To an extent, the mode of this text might be described as magic realism, which has been used so effectively around the world to capture the peculiar texture of events that have occurred in the wake of colonialism and other radical historical disruptions. However, in Frankenstein in Baghdad the deviations from realism are perhaps best captured via symbolic/allegorical readings, of which many are possible. This multiplicity, in fact, is one of the things that marks the text as postmodern. Murphy, for example, argues that “the fragmentary body of the Whatsitsname is a striking metaphor for the instrumentalization of human bodies in conditions of contemporary violent conflict” (277). Meanwhile, in one of the more ingenious readings of Frankenstein in Baghdad, Webster sees the novel as a sort of subversive parody that questions “miraculous accounts of experimental science being used to regenerate the bodies of injured US soldiers returning from military campaigns such as the Iraq War” (439)[2].

For our purposes, the most useful allegorical framework within which to read Frankenstein in Baghdad would involve the notion that the monster itself constitutes an example of what Fredric Jameson has called a “national allegory,” though, in point of fact, the allegory in this case functions in a fashion that is almost the exact opposite of the way in which Jameson envisions it. Meanwhile, it is also significant that Saadawi has chosen a prominent Western narrative around which to structure his novel, possibly suggesting the way in which postwar Iraq remains under the strong influence of Western culture—or, more accurately, of the postmodern culture of global late capitalism. Indeed, the reason that the national allegory in Frankenstein in Baghdad functions so differently from that envisioned by Jameson is that Saadawi’s novel is a thoroughly postmodern text, while Jameson envisions national allegory as an alternative to postmodernism. At the same time, Saadawi’s postmodern narrative of fragmentation is far more appropriate to the Iraqi situation than is Jameson’s vision of third-world wholeness and connectedness.

Frankenstein in Baghdad as Postmodern Text

Before exploring the postmodern nature of Frankenstein in Baghdad, it is useful first to acknowledgethat the novel, whatever postmodern textual games it plays, represents a serious literary engagement with the reality of life in post-invasion Iraq.As a whole, the novel shows surprisingly little animus toward the United States, though it makes it clear that the American action that was supposed to bring “enduring freedom” has in fact brought a nightmare of violent sectarianism, with virtually all aspects of Iraqi civil society in a state of collapse. The novel also makes it clear that the American military, in 2005, still maintains a shadowy and terrifying presence in Baghdad. Fred Botting, while providing an excellent survey of some of the geopolitical issues addressed by the novel, describes the American presence in the Baghdad of the novel:

US soldiers on patrol, at checkpoints, or engaged in nocturnal firefights form a constant backdrop. Hummers prowl the avenues; Apache helicopters skim city skies. US intelligence agents observe government security committees, exerting pressure and influence. Their presence, visible throughout, remains in the background of a novel in which no single US character or American voice is to be heard. (16)  

Taking the fantastic images of the novel as a serious commentary on material reality in post-invasion Iraq, Haytham Bahoora makes the sensible observation (without reference to Jameson) that the motif of fragmentation in Frankenstein in Baghdad mirrors the fragmentation of post-invasion Iraq as a whole and that this fragmentation reflects the failure of the “national project” and thus of “national allegory” in this and many other “postcolonial” situations. As Bahoora sees it,

The nightmare visions articulated in this fiction stage violence through spectacular returns of the suppressed historical past to haunt the present and through reanimation of the voices and experiences of the dead. Sa‘dawi’s reanimated corpse, a sectarian mélange of body parts, represents the frightening return of the dead, unjustly killed and improperly mourned. (205)

Bahoora sees Frankenstein in Baghdad as particularly gothic in both style and content, regarding it as a deadly serious horror story. For him “the postcolonial gothic, as a literature of horror that intervenes to narrate national failure and disintegration, is defined formatively by a historical sensibility that is manifested in the return of the repressed and the deliberately silenced histories of the colonial” (192).

Botting and Bahoora are surely correct to read Frankenstein in Baghdad as a serious political novel. But Bahoora’s reading in particular seems to derive as much from an understanding of the horrifying events that informed Iraqi history after the American invasion as from the actual characteristics of the novel itself, which is actually written primarily in a mode of dark, absurdist comedy, an aspect of the text that Bahoora ignores in the interest of his desire to read the novel within the context of postcolonial tragedy. In so doing, Bahoora adheres to a paradigm that has been dominant in criticism of Arabic fiction for some time, in which Arabic literature is viewed as a postcolonial cultural phenomenon and interpreted accordingly[3]. In many cases, this approach has been quite useful. In other cases, however, reading Arabic fiction strictly within the context of postcolonialism can obscure important aspects both of the texts and of the historical contexts in which they appear. In particular, postcolonial readings of Arabic fiction make it very difficult to appreciate the fact that the proper historical context within which to read much contemporary Arabic fiction is not postcolonialism, but globalism, so that the proper cultural context is not postcolonial fiction, but postmodernism.

As late as 2001, Stefan G. Meyer, in a survey of “experimental” Arabic novels, expresses skepticism that Arabic novels to that time could be considered postmodern, because “we could not expect to see an emerging Arabic postmodernism until the modernist impulse had reached some degree of maturity” (260). But, as Booker and Daraiseh elaborate in great detail, the nearly two decades since 2001 have involved an extensive modernization of Arab societies and especially of Arab culture, which, by Meyer’s own argument, would suggest that a postmodern Arabic literature should be emerging. In addition, it should be noted that the global transnational flow of culture is now such that contemporary Arabic fiction responds not just to Arabic fiction (and Arab society) but to global fiction. Indeed, though there have, in fact, been Arabic novels that could be considered postmodern since well before 2001[4], while the trend has only gotten stronger in recent years. We are thinking here of such examples as Ahmed Alaidy’s Egyptian cyberpunk novel An takoun Abbas El Abd (2003, available in English as Being Abbas el Abd); Rajaa Alsinea’s hip Banat al-Riyad (2005, available in English as Girls of Riyadh), a Saudi epistolary novel told via e-mails; and Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Egyptian hallucinatory dystopian novel Utopia (2009). One of the best examples of Arabic postmodernism, though, is Frankenstein in Baghdad.

Among other things, Frankenstein in Baghdad is a highly self-conscious, highly constructed literary text, very much in the mode of so many works of Western postmodernism. The novel’s narrative, which contains a number of different components with different narrators and presumably different sources, is in fact stitched together very much in the same manner as the Whatsitsname. For example, the novel contains a sort of frame narrative that explains how a character known as “The Writer” comes into possession of various material relating the story of the Whatsitsname; presumably this Writer has used this material to construct the novel that is Frankenstein in Baghdad.

In addition, Frankenstein in Baghdad draws extensively on previous narratives (especially the well-known story of Frankenstein and his monster) in a way that essentially amounts to the kind of pastiche that Jameson has identified as the principal technique used by postmodern artists to construct their texts. Frankenstein in Baghdad is overtly constructed from a variety of documents (such as a lengthy voice recording in which the Whatsitsname tells part of his own story). But it also draws extensively upon texts (mostly Western) of the past. For example, the novel begins with three epigraphs, one of which was supposedly composed by the Whatsitsname, and two of which identify crucial stories that provide background to the novel. One of these is a quotation from Mary Shelley’s novel, while the other is a passage from the story of the martyred Saint George. In particular, this passage relates one of the many legends surrounding Saint George, this one involving his execution and subsequent dismemberment by the “king,” only to have Jesus collect the pieces of his body, join them together, and then resurrect him. Best known in the West as a semi-mythical slayer of dragons, Saint George appears in both Christian and Muslim traditions, though his appearance within Frankenstein in Baghdad has to do with the fact that he is revered by the old Christian woman Elishva, who has a painting of him on her wall and views him as her patron saint. It is, of course, the Frankensteinstory that functions as the most important source for Saadawi’s narrative, but the inclusion of Saint George within the text makes clear that there are a number of stories from a variety of cultural traditions around the world that contain elements similar to those that drive this narrative.

The text then proceeds to present a list of its many characters, with brief identifications[5], followed by a “Final Report,” which details the findings of an investigation into the sources of a novel that is clearly meant to be Frankenstein in Baghdad, though it is not identified by title. Among other things, this inserted segment is a key marker of the novel’s satire, much of which is aimed at the post-invasion Iraqi government. In particular, the investigation has involved the leaking of information to the novel’s author by the “Tracking and Pursuit Department,” which serves in the novel as an emblem of bureaucratic inefficiency—in this case including the fact that the department has not only gone well beyond its original information-gathering function, but has employed unconventional methods such as the hiring of astrologers and fortune-tellers to try to predict “security incidents” before they actually occur, so that they can be prevented. Amusingly, the report’s conclusion regarding the novel is that, while it does not technically break any laws, “the information in it should not be published under any circumstances and that the story should not be rewritten” (2).

This sort of metatextual commentary is not uncommon in postmodern fiction, of course, though here it does call attention to the playfulness and humor of this text, something that would be easy to miss given its grim subject matter. Indeed, Frankenstein in Baghdad plays with its own construction in a number of ways. One of the most important of these is the way in which the Whatsitsname is a reflexive repetition of the text in which it appears, patched together from parts gathered from diverse sources. In this sense, it is significant that Hadi, who constructs the monster, is a junk dealer by profession, accustomed to gathering the flotsam and jetsam of post-invasion Baghdad and trying to make something useful (or at least sellable) from the gathered materials. Hadi is also a prolific storyteller, thus making him somewhat of an author figure.

By constructing his own text in the same way that Hadi constructs the monster, Saadawi displays a postmodern self-consciousness that also resembles the related poststructuralist notions of textuality. We are thinking of conceptualizations such as Jacques Derrida’s declaration that all writing is a process of “grafting,” or assemblage of pre-existing fragments, whether or not the author is aware of this process. Derrida relates his vision of the construction of texts through the assemblage of intertextual fragments to the process referred to by Claude Lévi-Strauss as “bricolage,” where the bricoleur is a sort of junk man who randomly collects odd bits and scraps without any particular plan, and then uses those collected materials as the need arises. Indeed, Derrida sometimes relates his own methods of constructing texts to those of the bricoleur, and even suggests that, due to the “necessity of borrowing one’s concepts from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur” (“Structure” 255). Elsewhere, Derrida speaks of the way his own texts are quite literally “assembled,” making them typical of texts in general (Speech 132).

The fact that Saadawi’s texts are constructed in much the same way has implications that go beyond the simply formal. In particular, his use of materials from Western culture constitutes an important nod toward globalization and toward the fact that the postmodern culture of late capitalism is becoming more and more of a global dominant, gradually dissolving the opposition that Jameson once saw between postmodernism and “Third-World” national allegory. It should thus come as no surprise that Frankenstein in Baghdad, far from functioning as a national allegory in the way described by Jameson, functions as what might be described as a postmodern parody of such national allegories.

The most obvious way in which Frankenstein in Baghdad draws upon the culture of the West resides in its title and in the way it makes such central use of the Frankenstein story that originates in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. Importantly, though, despite the epigraph, Saadawi does not draw upon Shelley’s novel directly so much as it draws upon film adaptations of that novel. Most importantly, the effectiveness and implications of the Frankenstein conceit in Saadawi’s novel crucially depend upon the fact that the Whatsitsname is assembled from the bits and pieces of corpses, after which the assemblage is reanimated. This well-known motif, however, does not actually appear in Shelley’s novel, where Victor Frankenstein builds his creature from scratch (though the process through which he does so remains a bit vague). He studies corpses and attempts to replicate their parts (though on a larger scale, to make their construction easier), but he does not use their parts as construction materials.

The notion that the Frankenstein monster is constructed from the body parts of corpses, then, does not originate in Shelley’s novel but in James Whale’s 1931 film—which, in fact, at this point probably exerts more influence on the popular perception of the Frankenstein story than does Shelley’s novel. In fact, after the epigraph, Shelley’s novel is never again mentioned in Frankenstein in Baghdad. All direct references to the Frankenstein story in the novel are to Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film adaptation, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Granted, this film is so titled because it was intended to adhere much more closely to Shelley’s novel than had the many previous films adapted from or inspired by Shelley’s novel. Nevertheless, Branagh’s film does deviate from Shelley’s novel in a number of ways, the most important of which is that Victor Frankenstein does, in fact, build his creature from parts of corpses (though most of the body comes from a single corpse, thus simplifying the construction considerably).

This deviation from Shelley, of course, makes Branagh’s film a much more appropriate source for Frankenstein in Baghdad, anticipating the important bricolage nature of the Whatsitsname. But the manner in which Branagh’s film is acknowledged as a source is also important. There is, in fact, no direct reference to the Frankenstein story whatsoever until a moment, almost exactly halfway through the text, when a journalist named Mahmoud al-Sawadi (another author figure in the text) writes a story about the Whatsitsname for a magazine published by his boss, Ali Baher al-Saidi: 

Two days later Mahmoud gave Saidi an article headlined “Urban Legends from the Streets of Iraq.” Saidi liked it immediately. When Mahmoud did the layout for the magazine, he illustrated the article with a large photo of Robert De Niro from the film of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (139)

Subsequently, though, Mahmoud is horrified when he finds that Saidi has changed the title of his article in its final published form to “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” feeling that this title has sensationalized the story (and again taking an amusing swipe at the novel’s own title).

This article is quite central to Frankenstein in Baghdad in ways that go beyond supplying the book with its title. After the mention of this article, the name “Frankenstein” is mentioned only four more times in the novel, all of them in Chapter Eighteen, in which “The Writer” narrates some of his own experiences gathering material for his novel about the Whatsitsname. The Writer, meanwhile, makes it clear that he derived the notion of the Whatsitsname as a sort of Frankenstein’s monster from Mahmoud’s article, as retitled by Saidi.

There is, however, one earlier, reference to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in Saadawi’s novel, though not by title. As Hadi attempts to tell the story of the Whatsitsname to a skeptical audience in a Baghdad coffee shop, one of the listeners is Mahmoud, accompanied by a German woman journalist who is with him as part of her research for an article she is writing about journalists in Baghdad. “That guy’s recounting the plot of a movie,” she tells Mahmoud, as they leave the coffee shop. “He’s stolen his story from a Robert De Niro film” (19). Mahmoud acknowledges her comment, noting that Hadi apparently watches a lot of movies, though one can only speculate about whether the German journalist’s remark might have inspired his use of De Niro’s photo to illustrate his magazine article about the Whatsitsname.

There are a number of things about Saadawi’s use of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that are worth noting. For one thing, the fact that the film is initially referred to in the novel as a “Robert De Niro” film suggests the star power of De Niro, a major American film star who is much better known in both America and the Middle East than is Branagh, even though Branagh is both the director and the star of the film (as Victor Frankenstein), while De Niro plays the monster. But it also suggests the extent to which this film has circulated to the Middle East more as part of the transnational flow of popular culture than as part of the international literary reputation of Shelley’s novel. Indeed, the prominence of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in Frankenstein in Baghdad is only one of several suggestions that the novel’s Iraqi characters are quite familiar with American popular culture. For example, when Mahmoud intercepts a call meant for Saidi (from a mysterious Iraqi woman film director who floats through the entire novel), her number shows up on the cellphone screen as “666,” which has no special significance in Islamic or Arabic culture, but we are told that Mahmoud “knew from an American film that this was the number of the ‘beast from the sea’ in the book of Revelation” (99)[6].

There are also other examples in the novel that demonstrate the extensive penetration of American popular culture into daily life in Iraq during the present time of the action. For example, at one point in the novel, Saidi “turned on the stereo, and a Whitney Houston song came on” (73). Slightly later, Mahmoud employs a digital voice recorder, and we are told that he understands how to use it because he had “often” seen such devices in “American movies,” which suggests that he has long had a habit of watching such films (126). At another point, Hadi imagines that the career of the Whatsitsname might “proceed as in an American action movie. His superhero would suddenly appear on the roof in the form of a dark hulk, then come down and at the speed of lightning fell his enemies with powerful punches, saving his friend and creator, his aging father” (192–93).

Other characters view the Whatsitsname in a way that is informed by American media as well. For example, Brigadier Sorour Mohamed Majid, the commander of the Tracking and Pursuit Department that is charged with hunting down the monster, clearly views his job largely through the fact that the Whatsitsname has emerged as a sort of media star, his adventures followed avidly by television audiences all over Baghdad. The brigadier thus eagerly anticipates that apprehending the monster will make him a star as well: “The criminal was a television star, and when the brigadier caught him, he too would immediately become a celebrity” (209). Meanwhile, in general, the brigadier views his job as being one that should be very familiar to American readers: controlling the narrative of events as part of an “information civil war” currently underway in Baghdad (77).

In short, it is clear that Baghdad had been “invaded” by American popular culture long before the 2003 military invasion[7]. In this case, however, the invasion would have been part of a large, complex process of transnational flow that has seen the Middle East come more and more to be a part of the global system of postmodern culture, rather than simply a case of straightforward cultural imperialism, or “McDonaldization.” As Booker and Daraiseh discuss at length, not only have Arabs come, in the twenty-first century, to consume a wide variety of American popular culture, but the popular culture produced in the Middle East itself has increasingly come to resemble the popular culture of America and other Western countries—in a process, not of slavish mimicry, but of mutual cultural convergence. In this sense, both attempts to isolate Iraq through the various sanctions that were imposed in the 1990s and the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq by American-led military forces should be seen not as an extension of the intrusion into Iraq of postmodern Western culture, but instead as an interruption of that process, while Frankenstein in Baghdad can be taken as evidence that the process has continued nevertheless.

Frankenstein in Baghdad as National Allegory

Jameson put forth his theory of national allegory in an extremely controversial essay, first published in 1986, in which he argues that it is useful for Western readers to consider “Third-World” literature precisely because this literature is still informed by a strong sense of connection between personal private life and public political life, a connection that has now been lost to Western literature, after centuries of withering and unremitting pressure beneath the fragmenting tendencies of capitalism and its accompanying bourgeois ideology. Jameson goes on to argue that the public and the private remain connected in Third-World texts, because these realms remain connected in Third-World societies as a whole. Thus, the experience of the individual character in a Third-World narrative is inevitably connected to larger social experience, even to the experience of his or her nation as a whole. “All third-world texts are necessarily,” Jameson argues, “allegorical, and in a very specific way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories, even when, or perhaps I should say, particularly when their forms develop out of predominantly western machineries of representation, such as the novel” (“Third-World” 86, his emphasis). In short, Third-World texts, Jameson concludes, “necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory: the story of a private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society” (86, Jameson’s emphasis).

Jameson even goes so far as to suggest that these national allegories, in one way or another, ultimately tell the story of colonialism, anti-colonial resistance, and the ultimate founding of the postcolonial nation. This totalizing argument, not surprisingly, drew considerable criticism from postcolonial scholars, as when Aijaz Ahmad, though identifying himself as a great admirer of Jameson’s work in general, protests that Jameson’s model of national allegory completely fails to comprehend the tremendous diversity of Indian literature and culture (and, by extension, of “Third-World” literature as a whole). Later reassessments have shown more appreciation for the heuristic value of Jameson’s model, even if it is not literally accurate. Buchanan, for example, insists that Jameson’s argument concerns the form of Third-World texts, not the content (173)[8].

Our concern here is not to examine the merits (or lack thereof) of Jameson’s concept of national allegory. We would, however, like to contextualize his original argument, which was made during the same period in which he was developing his now seminal theorization of postmodernism as the “cultural logic of late capitalism.” For Jameson, postmodernism, informed by a rejection of totality and a celebration of fragmentation, is a cultural dominant in the West that is gradually moving toward becoming a global dominant. His notion of national allegory, which envisions an organic unity between individual and community in the Third World, is informed by a sense of totality unavailable to individuals in the fragmented societies of the West. Viewed in this context, Jameson’s vision of national allegory in Third-World texts clearly emerges as a sort of utopian alternative to postmodernism, which for Jameson contains extremely weak utopian energies. Meanwhile, his “Third-World” essay as a whole becomes an argument for the study of non-Western literatures in order to attempt to discover utopian perspectives no longer available amid the postmodern culture of the West.

Of course, if the Whatsitsname of Frankenstein in Baghdad is seen as a national allegory, it is a highly problematic one that is related not to the building of a postcolonial nation but to the virtual destruction of one[9]. Still, there are a number of ways in which Saadawi’s Whatsitsname is presented to us as a sort of allegorical figure of the post-invasion Iraqi nation. In one segment of the text, narrated by the Whatsitsname himself, he notes that one of his many followers, “the young madman,” thinks that the Whatsitsname is “the model citizen that the Iraqi state has failed to produce, at least since the days of King Faisal I. Because I’m made up of body parts of people from diverse backgrounds—ethnicities, tribes, races, and social classes—I represent the impossible mix that never was achieved in the past. I’m the first true Iraqi citizen, he thinks” (146–47). The monster is even, at other times, characterized by some of his followers as a sort of messiah figure, come to save post-invasion Iraq—to the point that he begins to believe it himself.

There is, of course, a serious problem with this vision of the Whatsitsname as the bringer of post-Saddam Iraqi multicultural unity. For one thing, while the monster does gain a number of followers, those followers are hardly united and tend to fight furiously among themselves. For another, while the Whatsitsname does become a legendary figure with a tendency to become all things to all people, he generally does so in a negative way, becoming the embodiment of what each person or each group hates and fears most. Thus, late in the novel, we learn that

Fear of the Whatsitsname continued to spread. In Sadr City they spoke of him as a Wahhabi, in Adamiya as a Shiite extremist[10]. The Iraqi government described him as an agent of foreign powers, while the spokesman for the U.S. State Department said he was an ingenious man whose aim was to undermine the American project in Iraq. (268)

In addition, as the events of the novel indicate, there is no post-invasion Iraqi unity for which the Whatsitsname might stand. Different groups are locked in a fierce and violent struggle for power and influence, as is represented most clearly in the constant car bombings that punctuate the day-to-day lives of the book’s characters. Indeed, while Frankenstein in Baghdad builds upon the multiculturalism of Iraq, it depicts the nation as anything but a heteroglossic utopia in which all voices are welcome. In the course of the book, for example, Elishva leaves Iraq for Australia, where the rest of her family had already gone, suggesting that Christians are in the process of fleeing the Iraq. Even more pointedly, Frankenstein in Baghdad makes numerous references to the fact that Jews had once played an active role in Iraqi culture. But all of these references are to ruins and traces. There are, in fact, no Jews at all in the book, just as there are essentially no Jews left in current-day Iraq[11].

It is also the case that the very body of the Whatsitsname completely fails as a marker of unity: his various constituent parts do not peacefully co-exist, but instead are constantly failing, even falling off. As a result, he is forced to walk the streets of Baghdad, murdering a series of victims in order to collect replacement parts, at first justifying these killings as revenge for crimes committed by the victims but ultimately giving up this pretense and simply killing at random. In short, if the story of the Whatsitsname is a national allegory, it is a failed one. Far from expressing the building of a unified Iraqi nation in the wake of the U.S. invasion and collapse of the regime of Saddam, the fate of the Whatsitsname demonstrates the fragmentation of post-Saddam Iraq. Thus, the simplest reading of Frankenstein in Baghdad is that it uses its central conceit to dramatize the failure of nation-building in the Iraq of 2005, a failure that is usefully illuminated, if only by contrast, by Jameson’s notion of national allegory. However, the global social and political situation in 2005 is quite different from that in 1986, when Jameson’s concept was formulated, and the failure of national allegory in Frankenstein in Baghdad is, accordingly, more complex than it might first appear.

For one thing, Frankenstein in Baghdad is far from sentimental about the days of Saddam; in no way does it suggest that the 2003 invasion shattered an idyllic utopia (to which Jameson’s model of postcolonial national allegory might apply), plunging it into chaos. We would argue, in fact, that the Whatsitsname is as much an emblem of pre-invasion Iraq as it is of post-invasion Iraq. We take this to be the central implication of the otherwise puzzling element of the novel that involves Elishva, who lives next door to Hadi and who seems to contribute to the animation of the Whatsitsname when she mistakes him for her lost son Daniel, welcoming him into her home. What is crucial here is that Daniel had been lost in the Iran-Iraq war that raged from 1980 to 1988 and that solidified Saddam’s control over Iraq, aided by the significant amount of support that flowed from the U.S. to Iraq in the interest of the Iraqi war effort.

The Frankenstein metaphor serves as an apt image for this support: as filmmaker Michael Moore has noted, through its support for Saddam, the U.S. helped to create a sort of Frankenstein monster that would later come back to haunt them[12]. Within the context of Frankenstein in Baghdad, Elishva’s equation of the Whatsitsname with her son Daniel suggests that he might serve as an allegorization of both the current situation in 2005 and the past of the 1980s. The monster is composed of disparate parts stitched forceably together. In 2005, these stitches do not ultimately hold, and the monster begins to fall apart. But, if the monster is also seen as an emblem of the 1980s, it suggests that, during the Saddam years, Iraq was not so much unified as held together by force, so that the kind of utopian image of national totality envisioned by Jameson in relation to national allegory was never really applicable to the Iraqi situation in the first place, even in its immediate postcolonial phase. The diverse factions that make up Iraq were cobbled together into a nation by the British in the wake of World War I, creating a fragmented situation that could ultimately be held together only by Saddam’s Ba’athist tyranny.

Frankenstein in Baghdad immediately addresses the context of a post-invasion 2005 Iraq still essentially under occupation by American forces, but it also carries resonances of a longer history dating back to the 1980s and even beyond. Its use of horror imagery—and particularly of the image of the Frankenstein monster—to allegorize the fragmentation of Iraqi civil society in the wake of the 2003 American invasion is apt, though complex. This allegory can best be understood in reference to Fredric Jameson’s well-known theorization of the concept of national allegory, or, more precisely, through the way in which this novel does not accord well with Jameson’s theorization of that concept. In particular, Jameson envisions national allegory as a “third-world” literary strategy that stands in opposition to Western postmodernism. However, the fact that the Frankenstein narrative is evoked in Frankenstein in Baghdad primarily through references to a film adaptation of the story combines with a number of textual elements of the novel to mark it as a clearly postmodern work that participates quite actively in the global culture of late capitalism. The postmodern nature of the text not only explains its departure from Jameson’s vision of national allegory but also sheds light on the position of Iraq as a participant in the global system of late capitalism.


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[1] In the original Arabic, the monster is called “الشِسْمه” (transliterated “ashismi”), for which “what’s its name” is a quite direct translation.

[2] Webster draws upon Jennifer Terry’s concept of “biomedical salvation narratives,” which Terry locates in media stories about the advanced medical treatments received by American soldiers wounded in recent wars, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan.

[3] See, for example, al-Musawi.

[4] For example, Edward Said, in his introduction to Elias Khoury’s Lebanese novel Little Mountain (1977), considers it to be postmodern. And see Daraiseh for an argument that Abdulrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt (1984) should be considered a postmodern novel.

[5] This list does not appear in the Arabic original. Presumably, it was inserted in the English translation to aid Western readers who might have trouble remembering the strange (to them) names of the characters.

[6] In the Arabic original, the number 666 is associated (incorrectly) in this passage with the apocalyptic visions of Daniel, potentially linking this motif to the Whatsitsname. In his translation, Wright has corrected the source of this number to the Book of Revelations, though of course the mistake might have been on the part of Mahmoud, not Saadawi.

[7] American film, music, and television were easily available in Iraq, even during the years of American-Iraqi hostility between the two Gulf Wars, though all imported American culture during that time was carefully screened for anti-Saddam content.

[8] See also the essay by Szeman, which seeks to rehabilitate Jameson’s concept of national allegory for the age of globalization.

[9] There is at least one clear precedent for this sort of national allegory. In Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), protagonist Saleem Sinai is clearly presented as a figure of the Indian nation, while his own fragmentation images the partition and other postcolonial tribulations of India. But the postmodern tone of this text also undermines the notion of national allegory as envisioned by Jameson. Thus, Booker has noted that, in this novel, the “overall theme of fragmentation makes Saleem Sinai more a postmodern parody of a national allegory than a national allegory proper” (Booker 139).

[10] Sadr City is a suburban district in Baghdad. Named for deceased Shiite leader Mohammad al-Sadr, it is something of a Shiite stronghold, where Sunni Wahhabism would be anathema. Adamiya (or Adhamiyah), on the other hand, is a Sunni stronghold that has been almost entirely cleansed of Shiites.

[11] Almost all Iraqi Jews immigrated to Israel in the early 1950s, essentially driven from Iraq and forced to leave their property behind. As many as 600,000 Iraqi Jews still live in Israel today. See Chmaytelli, Heller, and Farrell.

[12] Moore’s argument to this effect was originally posted on his personal website, though it has since been removed. However, it is cited both by Friedman and Kavey and by Young. The full text can still be found on-line at multiple sites, including