As Iraq faces a new crisis, the novel Baghdad Central explores the freighted “moment of ambiguity” a decade earlier.
“In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” So says the beguiling Harry Lime in the classic film noir The Third Man.
It’s no accident, then, that a similarly mixed-up American in an occupied foreign city is named Hank Citrone in Elliott Colla’s debut novel, Baghdad Central. In keeping with the noir genre, no detail is overlooked—but in a deliberate inversion of recent Iraq war literature, the book follows not the American upstart but the quiet Iraqi, Muhsin al-Khafaji.
Set in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the book takes its title from the Baghdad Central police station at which Khafaji was previously a mid-level policeman. Like most of his colleagues, he deserted his post when the regime fell, and in the chaos between invasion and occupation, he is imprisoned. Khafaji is offered a way out of jail if he helps coalition authorities rebuild the Iraqi Police Service, but is worried about the ramifications of collaborating with the occupying power. Given the promise of medical treatment for his ailing daughter, he agrees. As he gains access to the Green Zone, with his cherished poetry and knack for meter as a guide, he begins to unearth the disappearances of young Iraqi translators who may be caught within the seedy underworld of the occupation.
Elliott Colla is an associate professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, and his academic research ranges from the colonial roots of modern Egyptology to the chants of the Arab uprisings and literature that emerges from revolution. Colla has also made several translations, including perhaps the only novel by a Gazan author translated into English, and he credits translation work as his version of an MFA program. “If I have learned how to write fiction,” he explains in the interview that follows, “it’s by working with great writers and getting them to explain their craft to me so that I can do it in English.”
Colla’s interest in the literature of Iraq extends well beyond Al-Mutanabbi Street, and Baghdad Central is laced with Iraqi poetry, which has thrived through years of tumult—a creative fertility in step with Harry Lime’s famous pronouncement. Colla says Iraq may have done more to promote poetry than any other country in the world, with monuments to poets commonplace on city streets and verses part of the public vernacular. As Iraq faces a new crisis in the violence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Baghdad Central explores the freighted “moment of ambiguity” a decade earlier, one that continues to reverberate on Capitol Hill and in the psyche of the American public.
Colla and I met in his office at Georgetown, and then, later, at his home, where we shared the Scotch that lights up his detective protagonist and discussed American narcissism, why noir fiction and Iraq are well suited to each other, and how academia is flattening political discourse.
—Henry Peck for Guernica
Guernica: Baghdad Central is unusual first of all for its Iraqi protagonist. What was the genesis of the book?
Elliott Colla: I saw The Hurt Locker in August 2009. I thought it was a great film but it also really disappointed and infuriated me. Here was another great work about American war in the Middle East, and yet again there are no non-American characters. Iraqis in that film are either victims or perpetrators and Americans get to be heroes. I was with a friend, and we talked about how we should just flip that on its head. What would it be like to have a movie where all the heroes were Iraqi and all the Americans are on the periphery? I sat down and wrote, and when I woke up the next morning I had this character, Khafaji, in my mind. Then there was the work of imagination and research. I was going to take the American bogeyman, the villain—the Baathist war criminal—and see what it would be like to make this kind of person into a hero. What would it take to make a reader like him, or become interested in his story before they learn that he’s a war criminal?
Guernica: How knowledgeable of Iraq were you at the time?
Elliott Colla: Recently I heard Barbara Ehrenreich talk about her writing process, and in response to a question on whether to write what you know, she said, “Listen, I write what I want to know.” I couldn’t put it any better. At that same event I heard Justin Torres speaking about the same idea, and he said an equally interesting thing: “Imagination is a form of knowledge.” So as an academic I could research this, and like many academics who work on the Middle East, I have shelves full of books on modern Iraq. I was reading these for my own edification, but I’m not a scholar of Iraq, so I’m not going to write scholarship on Iraq. But nonetheless I had a bunch of stories in my mind.
Noir is where the clarity of moral divisions break down, the black and whites turn into grays.
Guernica: Your novel has many elements of noir fiction—we follow a melancholy sleuth of sorts who comes up against the law, doesn’t always remember how he got home, and may be seduced by a beguiling woman. This plays out against the backdrop of the first months of US occupation in Iraq, in the second half of 2003. Why did you choose this genre of storytelling to depict this moment in Iraq?
Elliott Colla: The novel is really interested in a moment of ambiguity. Setting it in the fall of 2003 is not an accident; this is a moment that is important for us to return to, and this is what the book is asking us to do. To go back to the moment where the clarity of war, and the sharp divisions between us and them, good and evil, lovers of freedom and Baath Party, break down. And they break down precisely because the US has gotten itself into a situation of military occupation where in order to rule and to occupy it has to deal with the people it has just spent all this effort to demonize.
This is why it’s so suitable for the book to be in the noir genre—it has to do with the actual murkiness of a situation. Noir is where the clarity of moral divisions break down, the black and whites turn into grays. So as I was thinking about this particular moment of compromise on the part of the US, where it was learning how to make alliances with all sorts of Shiite groups in order to occupy, and creating all sorts of new divisions that didn’t exist before. Just as certain Cold War binaries were collapsing, new binaries of Sunni versus Shia or Arab versus Kurd were being created by the new occupation force. It’s the corruption of that moment that I am really interested in.
Guernica: You’re a scholar of literature, and this is your first novel. Did writing the novel allow you to express ideas that academic writing does not?
Elliott Colla: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Academic writing you have to get right. Fiction you have to get plausible. And there’s a world of difference. In a way, if someone says this didn’t feel exactly right, I don’t care. But that is not okay to do in academia—it’s not about feeling. You want to establish a pretty solid case. So did this allow me to express things differently? Absolutely. Another thing I’ve been thinking about as an academic: our writing style is expository, and in fiction, withholding information matters quite a bit. Withholding things in academia—there’s no place for that!
Guernica: What about writing fiction in comparison to translation?
Elliott Colla: Translation is harder, believe it or not. You do have to come up with a story, and actually I’m mystified by that process. I don’t exactly know how the story just comes, but it does. But in writing a story that you’re inventing, versus writing a story that somebody else has made up—there’s a world of difference. In translation you have to get it right, you have to be precise in what you’re doing. You have to attempt what they did in that language—say, in Arabic—and try to accomplish a version of that in English, and you’re constantly serving two masters. When you’re writing your own fiction, you don’t have to ride two horses, or whatever the metaphor is. But as you can tell I’m really interested in translation and it’s not an accident that translation figures throughout the plot line.
If I have learned how to write fiction it’s by working with great writers and getting them to explain their craft to me so that I can do it in English.
I wrote Baghdad Central right after translating a great work by Ibrahim al-Koni, who is sort of a master of Arab fiction. In conversations with him I realized that translations have been my MFA program. If I have learned how to write fiction it’s by working with great writers and getting them to explain their craft to me so that I can do it in English. That’s how I’ve figured it out. And with al-Koni, what I figured out was—and you’ll see this in his novels—if your time is limited, make the unit of the chapters small so that you can finish one a day, at least in the first draft. Once you have the first draft it’s living, and you can coax it to grow and trim it and reshape it and so on. But get that first draft. I think if I’d gone to an MFA program and learned that, it would have been money well spent. But translation has been that for me.
Guernica: The book explores the moment when Baathism, an ideology of Arab nationalism and single-party politics that governed Iraq from 1968 to 2003, is being dismantled. You choose to begin the book with a quotation from the architect of Baathism, Michel Aflaq. Can you talk about your engagement with this figure?
Elliott Colla: In trying to imagine this world, I kept coming back to Michel Aflaq. He’s a Christian Arab, a Syrian, who ends up finding his home in Iraq and is buried there—I was stunned to see his tomb is right smack down in the Green Zone. During this period [fall 2003] the tomb was being used essentially as a latrine. A few years ago, a high-ranking Syrian official in DC laughed when he heard I was reading Aflaq and writing this book. He said, “Let me tell you something. There are no Baathists, no one believes this stuff, this is stuff you read in school because it’s assigned to you. Maybe someone believed it, but no one really believes it.” And I thought that was really interesting to hear, because the ideology of Baathism was presented so often to Americans as the core of what’s wrong. And the more I’ve reflected on that and asked Iraqi friends, the more I realize that the corruption in Iraq has nothing to do with ideas—it has to do with the regime and institutional structures and power. There’s no core to what Michel Aflaq has to say that results in this. That was a key to looking at Michel Aflaq as a sideshow. He’s the intellectual father of an ideology that no one probably ever believed in. At that point I began to appreciate him in a funny way. It is bad poetry wrapped in the guise of utopian politics, or great poetry wrapped in the guise of horrible politics.
Guernica: Baathism was outlawed by the Coalition Provisional Authority—the transitional government that followed the US invasion of Iraq—in May 2003. This single order banned a political ideology and its multitude of voluntary or involuntary members. What did this act, which in policy terms is known as lustration, mean for Iraq?
Elliott Colla: It compromised the majority of the population. It’s important to remember of all the goals that there could have been for this, maybe the only noble goals were to try in a fair and open court of law genocide and crimes against humanity. That was part of the brief presented to the American public and then the world about the American goals in Iraq. And it utterly failed. There were regime figures who were criminal and did what the Americans said they did, but in an early conversation in the novel an American official realizes that the CPA is sort of batting at ghosts.
So anyone associated with the previous regime leaves, and whatever we think of them, those are the people who know how to run the economy or the bureaucracy. This is a moment where we could say Cheney and Rumsfeld take some core noir presumptions about the world, where people are not what they seem, or where good and bad flip, or can be flipped, and they turn it into government policy. Ensuring that moral ambiguity is going to be the rule of the day.
And then there’s a lot of score settling. The Baathist state did two things extremely well. One was create information-gathering intelligence networks and a filing system. There’s actually a lot of information on a lot of people and that is a major achievement of a police state. The second one is the promotion of literature and poetry, and the arts generally. So this is a state that’s producing mass police archives—surveillance—and poetry. And in fact a lot of the archives are about what poets are writing or what they should be writing. In the post-conflict period, those archives were captured by the US and control of them was given to exiles like Ahmed Chalabi [a prominent proponent of the invasion in US policy circles and subsequently a politician in Iraq] and Kanan Makiya [an academic and influential proponent of the war]. One of the most important archives is housed at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. These were captured Baath Party documents—war booty—and now they’re housed in California. The truly astounding thing is the Baathist regime supports poetry like nobody else, probably in the world.
Guernica: And Iraq has monuments to poets all over the country. Was poetry ever co-opted or censored?
Elliott Colla: Yes, of course. There were illegal poets like Muzaffar al-Nawab, who appears briefly in a passage in the book, in the prison where Khafaji is dealing with an exile figure from Mosul. Khafaji starts spouting these kind of nasty words and gets kicked in the head for it. Those words are from Muzaffar al-Nawab, whose poetry was circulated on cassette tapes and very critical of the regime.
Guernica: And the exile from Mosul would still have recognized the verse?
Elliott Colla: Yeah, this is the thing—Muzaffar was widely known and he didn’t really have books. He would deliver these readings on cassette tape. Go on YouTube and listen to him. He’s like a preacher. He’s a really interesting figure in modern Iraqi life. But then you always have regime-friendly poets like Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, whose career basically spans the twentieth century. He’s an anti-imperialist, friendly with the Communists, and somehow survives all that and is shuttling between Baghdad and Damascus depending on which way the winds are blowing with the Baathists and their competition. But he’s not a regime stooge, he’s independent. So you have some people falling prey to the system, some people managing to negotiate independence, and other people becoming outlaws, and being imprisoned and dying. You have all sorts. I don’t know any other society where poetry has such a place. Palestinian society is filled with poetry, but not experimental poetry. The Palestinian poetry that people know is not the modernist experimentations, it’s certain kinds of poetry that lends itself to recitation and song and things like that. In Iraq, it’s that, it’s colloquial, and it’s experimental modernist poetry. And all of that is part of public knowledge.
It does not take much to imagine the humanity of people you don’t know.
Guernica: Did your understanding of Iraqi poetry help you develop these characters?
Elliott Colla: It does not take much to imagine the humanity of people you don’t know. An American author does not need to know a word of Arabic to write a book like the one I wrote. All of this material is there in English. That’s part of the reason why I put the notes at the end; if you want to read the poetry, all the translations are there.
Guernica: However, I definitely read your Arabic voice in here—sometimes in sentence construction, but also in word choice. And you bring up the challenges of language when an interpreter for coalition forces tries to use the literal translation of words like brainstorm or benchmark, prompting all the Iraqis to laugh! I think that’s a shared experience for everyone learning Arabic and other languages that haven’t grown at the rate of English, or with the catchphrases of any language that do not translate well.
Elliott Colla: I heard someone say in a conversation, aa’sifa dhahnia—literally, “brain storm.” And in the context it was obvious what they meant, but it really rubbed me the wrong way. You were asking earlier whether writing fiction allows me to express things in a new way. That’s a great example of something that really bugs me, because what translator would think that they’re serving anyone by cleaving close to the English original and translating brainstorm as “brain storm,” when the language has many other ways to express that idea. So that, as an academic, might be a throwaway complaint in a class, but throwing it in gratuitously in a novel helps push things along in a certain direction.
Guernica: The distinction comes out in your dialogue, too. Dialogue is difficult to get exactly right, to seem so natural you don’t notice it. There are a few passages in which the dialogue stuck out and made me think about what you’re trying to do, where you’re trying to lead the reader.
Elliott Colla: It’s interesting that you put your finger on dialogue. What I wanted in an earlier draft was for Khafaji’s English to be eloquent when he’s speaking Arabic, but broken when he’s speaking English. English is a forgiving language. It’s not like Classical Arabic and it’s not like French. You can speak broken English and be expressive and no one will hold it against you. For Khafaji, I had the idea of a sort of broken English that expresses resentment and the power of relationships, where he’s forced to interact in a language that’s not his own by people who’ve just invaded his country. That seemed to me like a really good choice, but it was really hard to do and not come out comic, or make him look stupid. And part of that has to do with my own failing as a writer. Most of the time when he’s speaking, he’s speaking Arabic. So I’m trying to give a sense of that.
In a couple of Ahdaf Soueif’s novels, she gets at the certain kind of English that’s being spoken by Egyptians. It’s a beautiful, expressive English but it is non-standard, “broken” English that happens to be efficient, eloquent, and communicates perfectly well even if it is breaking rules. That would have been the crowning jewel, if I could have nailed that. So that’s a bit of a sore point.
Guernica: It is very challenging.
Elliott Colla: Half the time it came out as if he were a jester.
Guernica: Is there any Iraqi noir?
Elliott Colla: No, Arabs don’t do crime fiction. I read crime fiction and I read Arabic literature, and I wish this was a novel I could have read in Arabic. If that makes any sense. Of course it’s a projection—me projecting what I wish. This speaks to the central question of why Americans or Brits are so fascinated by it, why crime is a dominant genre. We shouldn’t assume it’s universal. Why is thinking about crime or imagining crime so goddamn central to pop culture? It doesn’t matter whether it’s American TV or British TV. And there’s entire sections of bookstores devoted to crime.
Guernica: When I worked in a bookstore as a teenager, one of our largest and most popular sections was the True Crime section.
Elliott Colla: Yes, of course. I don’t have an explanation, all I’m saying is rather than assume them as universal, we should figure out why it is we’re willing to read things in the crime genre. Certain readers will read my book not because they are interested in Iraq, but because they read crime fiction. I did want to get beyond just speaking to other Middle East scholars, so I’m happy about that. But this was, nonetheless, a novel I wish I got to read in Arabic and translate.
Guernica: I was intrigued by an episode in the book in which American soldiers are driving Khafaji through Baghdad and the streets he knows so well, but his attempts to weigh in on directions are not understood because the Americans have renamed the streets.
Elliott Colla: There was this very deliberate move to just overlay an American reality in Iraq. I’ve never actually seen the map, but apparently Americans thought the names of places were just too complicated so they got decent maps of Baghdad and just renamed everything with familiar names. This neighborhood would be Hollywood, that neighborhood would be Manhattan, and that one’s Madison, you’re going to drive down Oak and take a left on Main Street. That’s all fine if everyone was reading off the same map. But then they would have to deal with the translators, and the translators at first were not allowed to see the map because the maps were classified. So the Americans would say, “Right now we’re going to ‘Dallas,’ what’s the best way to get to Dallas from here? Should we take Main Street or Roosevelt Avenue?” And the translators would look at them bewildered!
So finally the translators are brought into the system and they learn how to use the names—they won’t say Khark, they’ll say Manhattan. That’s so they can talk to the Americans. But then the translators are at a checkpoint, and they’re told to explain to pedestrians: “You need to do a U-turn, turn left, and head over to Dallas.” The Americans would be yelling this at pedestrians and then insisting that the translators had to translate. So there are literally two maps these guys would have to deal with and they would have to learn and translate between these maps. That for me is a great metaphor for the kind of project that we’re talking about. In the Green Zone you have your radio, you have your food, you have your own electricity, your own toilets. Everything is a sealed American reality overlaid on top of an infrastructure that is crumbling.
Guernica: The uprisings in the Arab world have prompted a slew of academic conferences, and I know that you are often on panels at such conferences as one of the few representatives of the humanities in a sea of political scientists. In discussing these popular movements, why is the humanities voice so often a token?
Elliott Colla: I think it reflects the way power legitimates itself. There are certainly times in history where power associates itself closely with fields that we would call the humanities, like rulers surrounding themselves with philosophers and poets, or playwrights. We do not live in that moment, and the best way to gauge the proximity of an academic field to power is by salary. The closer to power that field is, the higher the salaries are going to be. That doesn’t explain what you’re asking, but it does explain status and stature, and how explanations of the world happen.
But a second reason is that we also live in a time where politics is understood to belong to the discipline of political science. Even though political science has for a long time not been interested in social movements, or maybe, more accurately, has not been interested in revolutions. Now anything political happens, you look on the talk shows, and the person talking is going to be a political scientist, maybe if you’re lucky a sociologist, and if you’re extremely lucky an anthropologist. And they may invoke expressive culture, even literature or the arts, at times, and that’s fine, but that’s seen as fluff stuff—the reality has to do with numbers and institutions. I’m not going to come out and say that politics isn’t about, say, political economy and GDP or institutions and histories and players and forces that exist—those are absolutely real. But we should ask whether or not politics belongs to one academic discipline. Each discipline has the capacity to be interested in politics, and each would ask different questions of what politics is, what constitutes power, how power is maintained, how it circulates, how relationships are formed, how institutions are built, how they fall. Every discipline would answer those questions in different ways.
We like to look out on the world and see ourselves, so we have many, many novels, memoirs, and short stories in Iraq that are largely about Americans in Iraq, doing what Americans do.
Insofar as anyone having to do with song is brought into the conversation, it’s actual singers or poets or writers and not analysts. I don’t think it’s becoming to say, “I want to be in every discussion.” But there is an asymmetry when explanations are being offered. I’ve been at conferences where there are, say, ten political scientists, and then at dinner they’ll invite a rapper from the Arab world to come perform for the academics. They’ll have the analysis of politics performed by a series of Western or Arab political scientists, and then a nod, usually peripheral and offered as ornament to the real-meat political science analysis in its quantitative American form. Not the British form, but the American version. And then, as fluff at the end or reward for doing all that hard work with numbers, you’ll get a performance, essentially a minstrel show. To complete the metaphor, culture is invited to the table usually only as raw material that needs no analysis. This other material needs to be digested heavily. There’s an imbalance there.
For analysis of politics you’ll get real differences between academics and NPR and Democracy Now!, real divergences and methods about how a revolution happens. But when it comes to talking about culture and culture of revolution, there’s a pretty widespread consensus, and that is, there’s been a huge amount of attention given to cultural forms that seem like they’re us. And maybe that we can say are American in origin. So, hip-hop. The novel and this relate to one another in that there’s this deep American narcissism. We like to look out on the world and see ourselves, so we have many, many novels, memoirs, and short stories in Iraq that are largely about Americans in Iraq, doing what Americans do. And here, in thinking about the uprisings of 2011 to the present, when we do go looking for Arab artists we tend to look for Arab artists who sound like us or do graffiti like we would. But are people talking about the novels of the revolution? No. Are they talking about the memoirs of the revolution? No. Not even much attention to the poetry. Song, same. It’s those arts that seem to need no translation.
Guernica: But isn’t the idea that the event host can help an audience relate to a perhaps little-known country or region with a compelling and known medium? To help distill a message that is relatable?
Elliott Colla: That’s the generous reading. And I don’t think that’s wrong, but it’s generous. That’s one way to report and to look at the world, to look for connections. But that generosity is also flattening. It’s always looking for the same, or the mirrors that exist out there that will give us a reflection of ourselves. I do call it narcissism.
The stories that confirm that bigger story are brought in and easily digested. But there’s another set of stories that are always there, which do not confirm, but which complicate and contradict what we think we already know. And I’m always attracted to that. There doesn’t seem to be much of a market for it. Translated books rarely get reviewed in the press. Books or poems or works of art that don’t seem to have a corresponding style or figure or theme, obviously they’re hard to digest.
Guernica: In multilingual India, contemporary Anglo-Indian fiction does better than contemporary translation. The most successful books are those written in English, not books translated from, say, Tamil, a South Indian language with dozens of words for “sea,” and nearly 70 million speakers. The Man Booker Prize does not accept submissions in translation, for instance, but writing in a non-native tongue may cost a text the quality of its setting.
Elliott Colla: Right. It’s not about authenticity or inauthenticity, because these are all equally authentic ways to express oneself and to tell stories. It has to do with audiences, and it has to do with one’s attitude to, say, metropolitan audiences. I am interested in American or British readers, so do these stories move these readers out of what they thought they knew, or do they merely confirm a pre-existing world view? And that’s where if we just simply go back a hundred years to modernism, there are some pretty important breakthroughs in dealing with the truly alien artistic forms. Take Ezra Pound’s translations of poetry from Chinese. He doesn’t really know Chinese, and the very strange results that he comes up with aren’t all successful, but as a whole it’s incredibly successful, moving us away from familiar forms and indicating other forms we might think in or express in.
In translation studies we talk about domestication—translation styles that make something familiar—or estrangement—translation styles that make something radically different. I use a lot of both in my translation, and modernism does both. For instance, if you look at the way Joyce presents Ulysses, is that domesticating a classic? Think of it as an experiment in relation to a well-known text in another language—it’s taking a familiar text and making it strange, making it Dublin. But it’s also making the reality of present-day Dublin familiar in the mirror of the Odyssey. So, is it inauthentic if you’re writing for a British audience? No, that doesn’t negate the validity of the gesture of writing. It has to do with foreign and domestic relations, and confirming or complicating or muddling peoples’ worldviews, and what they think is possible in terms of art.
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