Baghdad Central by Elliott Colla #BookReview #BlogTour


Baghdad, November 2003. The occupation forces have disbanded the army and there is no police on the streets of Iraq. Inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji is a mid-level Iraqi cop who deserted his post back in April. Captured by the Americans and imprisoned in Abu Ghraib, Khafaji is offered one way out, helping the authorities rebuild the Iraqi Police Services. But it's only after US forces take his daughter Mrouj that he figures out a way to make his surrender palatable, and even rewarding. Soon, he is investigating the disappearance of young translators working for the US Army.

Khafaji finds himself a collaborator living in a volatile world of shifting alliances and new warlords. Luckily for him, the old consolations of whiskey and love poetry can sometimes still work their magic in the new “liberated” Iraq.

It's such a pleasure to be closing the blog tour for Baghdad Central today. Many thanks to Elliott Colla, Bitter Lemon Press and Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me and for my copy of the novel.

Baghdad Central was dramatised by Channel 4 at the start of this year, however,  I've not yet watched it so came to this book with fresh eyes. I've read a few novels set in Iraq but Baghdad Central is the first I've read featuring an Iraqi main protagonist. It's probably fair to describe Muhsin al-Khafaji as somewhat of an anti-hero - this noir thriller excels at exploring the ambiguity of life in the country in 2003 and Khafaji himself isn't exempt from that.
He is initially captured by American forces and tortured but it quickly transpires that he has been confused with another man who bears his name. It's not the first time he has experienced this misunderstanding but while a previous occasion merely provided him with an amusing, if rather expensive, anecdote, Khafaji's previous role as a mid-level police officer means the occupying forces quickly seize upon him as a tool to help rebuild the Iraqi Police Service. He doesn't exactly welcome his new role but uses the opportunity to insist upon medical care for his daughter, Mrouj who is one of many Iraqi citizens whose health has suffered due to the years of US-led sanctions inflicted on the country.
If Khafaji's past as a man who learned how to successfully dissimulate his true feelings during his years working under the Ba'ath regime suggests his decisions come less from principles than from a desire to protect himself and his family - particularly his daughter - the scenes between him and Mrouj and his memories of his wife do ensure he is a sympathetic character throughout the book. His family ties also become significant when he is asked to investigate the possible disappearance of young interpreters and discovers a link with his missing niece. However, although this mystery leads to some disturbing revelations, it's not the most memorable aspect of this meandering thriller.
It's the sense of place which perhaps has the biggest immediate impact, with the brutality and uncertainty of daily life rendered with a vividness which is almost too unpalatable. Khafaji contends with power cuts and struggles to walk through streets strewn with rubbish but it's the prison scenes which are the most distressing and which serve as a powerful reminder that for all the rhetoric around freeing Iraq from a barbaric regime, the occupying forces were also capable of acts of cruelty. It comes as little surprise that having demonised much of the population of the country, violent interrogations borne from anger and fear should have been commonplace but it's the more insidious acts which are just as notable - the imperialistic renaming of street names being perhaps the most striking example.
Yet despite the ever-present threat of violence and the overwhelming impression of the callous fragility of life here, Baghdad Central is also a bittersweet reminder that this is a country whose identity is framed by poetry and the frequent references to poems is both a fascinating acknowledgment of the almost universal appreciation of this important body of work and an unusual and compelling way of allowing Khafaji to attempt to make sense of his experiences. 
Baghdad Central is a powerfully honest, uncompromising thriller which never shirks from examining the morally opaque realities of re-shaping the country after the war but which never allows readers to forget its rich cultural heritage. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Baghdad Central is published by Bitter Lemon Press, purchasing links can be found here.

Don't forget to check out what my fellow bloggers had to say about the book. Details are below.

About the Author

Elliott Colla divides his time between Washington DC and the Middle East. This is his first novel. He teaches Arabic literature at Georgetown University. He has translated much contemporary Arabic literature, including: Ibrahim Aslan’s novel, The Heron, Idris Ali's Poor, Ibrahim al-Koni's Gold Dust, and Rabai al-Madhoun's The Lady from Tel Aviv.


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