Book Review - Baghdad’s Morgue: Tales from beyond

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Friday 25 Sep 2020

Burhan Shawi, in his novel centred on a guard at a morgue, give us a glimpse into interconnected fate and victimhood in contemporary Iraq

Baghdad’s Morgue book cover
Baghdad’s Morgue book cover

Mashrahet Baghdad (Baghdad’s Morgue) by Burhan Shawi, (Cairo: Al-Nokhba Publishing House), 2018.

The job of morgue guard is one suited for horror movies. Like in many low level jobs, the operative does not usually have any particular pride in performing it, and the person who does it is not really a source of interest for readers, or in real life. Yet Burhan Shawi was able to transfer “Adam the Guard” to the centre of his novel, “Baghdad’s Morgue.”

The writer gives us in the beginning a psychological analysis of the guard. The fears that he suffers due the nature of the job, plus developing a taste for horror movies; both turn the guard into a curious person regarding the human body. Lengthy free time makes of him a reader, particularly on the issue of death.

He does not see surface features, or beauty, anymore. He sees internal organs, fat, blood and all that is physical in the body that we tend to ignore. He witnesses how medical examiners dissect bodies, and the impact on them. He is affected, too. There is no way to deal with humans normally after seeing the dead dissected. The corpse becomes his world.

Each corpse tells the story of a human life. They almost talk to the reader on how they lived and why they died. The guard eavesdrops in after midnight meetings. The stories are the embodiment of the misery, betrayal, injustice, oppression and murderous atmosphere in Iraq — the hypocrisy of the religious oligarchy and the corruption Iraq has suffered, whether under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, during the US invasion and occupation that followed, or after the supposed withdrawal of American forces under an even worse system in power.

Working in the morgue opens up philosophical questions about death and its nature, life and its meaning, and the lines that separate both states. The writer eventually reveals some of the differences; the dead do not lie, they tell the truth about what they did and what has been done to them. The fresh corpse arriving to the morgue is eager to tell its stories.

Using the flashback technique, to make their history come back to life, the writer pieces together a puzzle, suggesting all are connected. What one person did or witnessed led to the murder of another in a different context. What a cheating wife did, lighting a lamp for her lover to signal that her husband is home, led to his arrest and then his murder by the security services.

The husband arrives among the corpses and learns from a dead woman how he was trapped. The same pattern repeats itself in one form or another for the rest of the corpses. What all have in common is that they were victims. The perpetrators, meanwhile, remain alive. Death gave the victim a degree of freedom and clarity that real life deprived from them.

Shawi gave all the male characters in his novel the name Adam; Adam the Iraqi, Adam the baker, and so on. The women are all Eve. The symbolism is clear. Adam and Eve are reincarnated in each and every human on Earth.

The novel is a mix of several novels and horror movies. The writer’s originality is in observing and documenting the political and social history of Iraq in dire times.  

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