“Scrap”ping Humanity: A Study of Monstrosity in Frankenstein in Baghdad

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Content Warning: This essay discusses the 2013 novel Frankenstein in Baghdad: a fictive representation of wartime realities in United States-occupied Iraq. This essay necessarily involves secondary source exploration which contextualises the biopolitical context of occupied and wartime landscapes, including examples pertaining to Gaza and Israel. The novel’s metaphoric and literal explorations of war, bodily injury, death, loss, and grief are graphic and may re-traumatise readers whose loved ones have died due to, become displaced as a result of, or otherwise experienced wartime trauma. Care and discretion are strongly advised when reading.

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh post in the Ghost Light II: Monstrosities series edited by Caroline Abbott. The 2023 theme of this series aims to problematise the notion of “monstrosity” in the environmental humanities in the interest of illuminating the relationships between non-human, or other-than-human beings, folklore, and environment.

The Gothic concerns an affect of excess: its writers use excess to “explore transgressions and anxieties over cultural limits and boundaries.”1 Its spectral presence haunts the ruins of the environments in which it takes place – frequently across discarded towers, castles, tombs and graveyards. Fragments and bits of human-world excess speck these places, too, and a sense of sublimity pervades. It is also within the entrapping of this excess that one locates waste. 

Published in 2013 by Ahmed Saadawi and translated to English in 2018 by Jonathan Wright, Frankenstein in Baghdad borrows certain Gothic elements from its eponymous predecessor, Mary Shelley’s (1818) Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. However, unlike Shelley’s novel, Saadawi’s work has for its “Dr. Frankenstein” a junk-dealer called Hadi, and instead of the Shelleyan aura of Enlightenment, we find ourselves amidst civil strife in United States-occupied Baghdad. Hadi assembles the body parts of the people who have lost their lives to bombings and violence with the initial intent to provide victims with proper burial, but ends up creating a monster. The resulting acts of the monster’s vengeance cause chaos in the city, allowing the reader a glimpse into the more-than-human biopolitics of discard at work within the novel.

Fig. 1. Aftermath of the August 19, 2003 bombing of the Canal Hotel, Baghdad, Iraq. Public Domain. Wikicommons.

With our introduction to the main characters in the novel, the havoc that war has wreaked upon the landscape becomes clear. Hadi loses his friend Nahim to the war, and, thinking he would give his friend a fitting burial, Hadi gathers his remaining parts, substituting those he cannot find with those of other victims to complete Nahim’s body. Things do not go as planned. The lost human spirit of Hasib, a hotel guard killed in a recent suicide bombing, finds its way into Nahim’s reconstructed corpse and inhabits it. It is a rebirth for Hasib, rendered in a vocabulary of excess – “with his hand, which was made of primordial matter, he touched the pale, naked body and saw his spirit sink into it.”2 It is so that Hadi creates a monster, who he later calls “Shesma,” or Frankenstein – and to whom he also assigns the nickname “Whatsitsname.” Shesma uses his new form to take it upon himself to seek retribution against those responsible for the death of each of his body parts.

Two major themes are pronounced from the onset of the work: one of these is the notion of discard. Discard studies scholar Susan Morrison writes about the varying significance of waste, explaining: “[w]aste has meant desolation, pointlessness, and uselessness, but also excess and surplus.”3 Indeed, discard and waste assume various social contours and meanings. It not only signifies the unproductive part of something but also the extra, the excess. As a junk dealer, both Hadi and Whatsitsname are at once glaring symbols of discard and characters reliant on disposability itself. Yet this is not only aspect of the work that paints a picture of trashscape. Disposability permeates the work: the suicide bomber whose bomb kills Hasib drives a rubbish truck; we witness a change of technology (the transition from “Thuraya satellite phone” to wireless mobile phones) which facilitates our introduction to Hadi.4 Its ubiquitous presence haunts our lives, breaking the divide between the public and the private. Objects (once deprived or extracted of their use) become waste. Waste, then, can be read for its Gothic elements: it is at once the unwanted, undesired remnant which we expel from society to maintain order, hygiene, and cleanliness and the decadence which underlies it.

Fig. 2. Piles of plastic waste in Thilafushi. Maldives. CC BY 2.0 DEED. Wikicommons.

Critically, the novel also engages Foucauldian notions of state surveillance. Michel Foucault’s thesis of biopower emerges as productive to delimiting the scope of any ecology of excess – from discarded objects to disposable bodies. Tracing the genealogy of how state actors come to control a population, Foucault explains the strategic shift in focus from public displays of torture to private ones.5 Significantly, this move from visible death to attempts propagandized as restoring offenders laid the foundation for the “modern biopolitical management of life” and formed a pathway by which the state could exercise its power over the lives – and deaths – of its subjects.6 Foucault terms this hold over life by the State as “biopower:”

“[T]he acquisition of power over man insofar as man is a living being, that the biological came under State control, that there was at least a certain tendency that leads to what might be termed State control of the biological.”

Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others (United Kingdom, Picador, 2011), 240.

From its outset, the novel blurs the line between fact and fiction and bears close resemblance to the United States invasion of Iraq. When the “Tracking and Pursuit Department” acquires a document (later revealed to be the story that forms the novel), the department follows recommendation that its “author” be found and detained for questioning. Importantly, the language is strongly suggestive of the surveillance techniques employed by the United States and its affiliated powers:

“…rearrested and questioned in order to learn his real identity and any other information relevant to the work of the Tracking and Pursuit Department, and also to identify the people in the department who cooperated with him to assess the extent to which this matter poses a threat to national security.”

Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad (Great Britain, Oneworld Publications, 2018), 3.

This tone of authority underscores the thematics of biopolitical interplay between authority, control, and the bodies of state and settled subjects. We foray into the chaotic world of Baghdad with a bomb blast. The text is vivid in its descriptions of the various objects and other-than-human entanglements that populate the scene’s environment. The explosion reduces human beings to mere “blood and hair:”

“The slaughter had ended several hours ago, but some of the destruction was still clearly visible. It might have been the neighbourhood’s biggest explosion. The old deacon was depressed, he didn’t say a word to Elishva as he parked his car next to the electricity pole. The was blood and hair on the pole, mere inches from his nose and this thick white moustache. He felt a tremor of fear.”

Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad (Great Britain, Oneworld Publications, 2018), 8.

The ubiquitous violence traumatizes Hadi to the point of Gothicized madness.

Fig. 3. Wadi Al-Salaam: the largest cemetery in the world. Najaf, Iraq. 2007. Public Domain. Wikicommons.

The circumstances surrounding the death of his friend Nahim that result in the birth of Shesma are more-than-human. The suicide bomb which claims Nahim’s life renders his body a more-than-human being from the moment of death: his flesh becomes infused with that of another – “it had been hard to separate Nahim’s flesh from that of the horse.”7 This explosive event enmeshes human to animal tissues, reducing their clear identity as human in socially-stigmatized ways, and so, transforms Hadi. His mental equilibrium is instantly disturbed, triggering his assemblage of Nahim’s bod in hopes of restoring both to order.

In Purity and Danger (1966), anthropologist Mary Douglas lends weight to the study of wasted objects (and human bodies). Douglas discusses the idea of purity, pollution, order and disorder, providing insight as to how our subjectivities are shaped by the dis/ordering ability of things to come to be considered sacred or profane – a thematic binary which the Gothic also engages to form its human characters. This is particularly significant to our conversation around waste and excess in Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad. To name the monster as Hadi does underscores the “humanity” of waste – as well as wasted humanity. Elsewhere in the novel, mourning mother Elishva becomes certain that Shesma is the resurrection of her son Daniel, and gives Whatsitsname yet another name. Shesma can be read as sacred and profane.

Fig. 4. A teddy bear lies amidst rubble in Gori during the Russian occupation of the Georgian city. 25 August 2008. Detail of original image. Public Domain. Wikimedia.

As the title of her book The Right to Maim suggests, Jasbir Puar highlights the power of colonizing forces to dictate the terms and conditions of existence among common citizens through an “assemblage of capacity and debility.”8 Puar draws parallels between the Israeli siege of Gaza and the killing of Michael Brown (an unarmed Black teenager shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014) to define power in terms of its relation to the biological field: that is, how power dictates life by controlling the bodies of its subjects. Particularly, Puar analyses how Israel, through the sheer use of its defence forces to control and dictate the lives of Palestinians in occupied territory, encounter a paradox: Israel’s “right to kill,” she explains, does not necessarily include death. Rather, when, in the attempt to kill, Israel troops do not render Palestinians “dead,” they are instead wounded or left “permanently disabled.” Puar so explains the resulting, perpetually-destructive power dynamics at play upon the bodies of colonised (and racialised) subjects: rendering them dead would mean no one to exercise authority and control over.

Puar’s analysis of Israeli military power is particularly relevant to this reading of Frankenstein in Baghdad; a similar politics plays out between the settler colonial power that is the Unites States and occupied Iraq. Here, Puar’s concept of the “right to maim” can be read as an extension of Foucault’s “the right to make live and let die” – except that, in Puar’s case, the slow death forms a vicious cycle of debility and disability, enabling the exertion of continuous power over land and people. Indeed, maiming, not killing, allows state or settler colonial powers to maintain a supply of people: a form of slow death takes the form of a vicious cycle of debility and disability alongside absolute death. Maiming, and not killing, allows the State or the settler groups to maintain a supply of people as a “source of value extraction from populations that would otherwise be disposable.”9 The biopolitics of extractivism so underlie the pronouncement of settler colonial subjects and their bodies as waste or worth.

Fig. 5. Original title page of original first volume of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1818).

Where Frankenstein’s monster was abhorred because it failed to conform to an ordered human symmetry (to speak nothing of its origin from a cemetery), in Saadawi’s work, we witness monstrosity unfold in multiple, environmentally-tangled ways. As an assemblage of settler-colonial wartime discard and the body parts of its victims, Shesma becomes symbolic of the subversive power of the precarious population. He begins to see himself as a saviour and decides to put an end to injustice by taking matters in his own hands. Yet, composed of a multitude of decaying body parts and discard, Shesma must necessarily sustain his existence by killing to obtain new ones as needed. The logic of seeking revenge by killing implicates biopolitical interplay: the flesh used for his sustained existence prompts his realisation that he is a “super criminal.”10 Shesma falls into the very traps he sought to escape: by surveillance and oppression; by the stat’s dictum over who lives and who dies; and by the waste-monster’s unquenchable desire for revenge.

State control over the biological, the body (from classical antiquity to contemporary times), allows it to exercise its power by choosing to bestow life or death on its subjects, but indeed bestows both with a new right as well: the “right to make live and let die.”11 The implication of such a right situates the subject’s body as an object within environment – one within the vectors of ability and debility as defined by the state. Abjection and disgust are the underside of the excesses that we categorise as waste: in their afterlives as such, objects are yet not deprived of meaning but rather come to occupy meaning when examined from a certain vantage point. In their afterlives as waste, people function as ends to means for state or settler groups: particularly, as ancillaries in fulfilling settler-colonial quests for power (as long as they hold certain value).

Fig. 6. Illustration from Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body) (1543) [Detail]. Public Domain via Wikimedia.

The Gothic is not dead. Through Shesma, the idea of the Gothic is itself reconstituted for contemporary times. Frankenstein in Baghdad is reconstructed from a whole – indeed, from the corpus of Mary Shelley’s work, Frankenstein and the thematic shadows which are present today. Shesma is a reminder of historical and contemporary struggles against settler colonial bodies and their debilitating forces from gaining the dual position of Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster. It is overwhelming to think that such waste was human once, that lives of the common citizens are considered no more than dregs in events of wars and bombings, and this is what Saadawi asks readers to confront: lives lived under the constant and threatening spectre of disability, death, and debility haunting the common people who are left to reassemble and reform livelihoods again and again in nothing short of a protracted, painful death. Tradition relates that knowledge is knowing Frankenstein is not the monster, wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein is the monster. 

In the novel’s final pages, Hadi looks at his face in the mirror. He realises that he is closer in appearance to Shesma; Whatsitsname; the monster he birthed than he is to himself. Like Shelley, Saadawi hints at one of the centremost horrors of being human: of being disposable and of disposing others.

1 Beatriz Gonzalez Moreno, “Gothic Excess and Aesthetic Ambiguity in Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya,Women’s Writing 14, no. 3 (2007): 419-434, https://doi.org/10.1080109699080701644931.
2 Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad (Great Britain, Oneworld Publications, 2018), 37-38.
3 Susan Morrison, The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter (United Kingdom, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 8. 
4 Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad, 6.
5 Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others (United Kingdom, Picador, 2011), 238.
6 Chris Schilling, The Body: A Very Short Introduction (United Kingdom, Oxford University Press, 2016), 64. 
7 Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad, 2018, 23.
8 Jasbir K. Puar, The Right to Maim (North Carolina, Duke University Press, 2017), x.
9 Ibid, xviii.
10 Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad, 151.
11 Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, 241.

Feature image: Composite image created from two layers. The top layer, image of a “[m]anuscript page from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley,” 1816, Public Domain via Wikicommons, has been increased in opacity and superimposed over the base layer, image title “Iraqi Sandstorm,” 2003, Public Domain, via Wikicommons.
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Sonakshi Srivastava

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