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Reviews for Baghdad Central by Elliott Colla
‘One rarely finds Iraqis in American fiction except as Orientalist stereotypes or objects of political desires and fantasies. Baghdad Central is unique in this respect. Its Iraqis are subjects with agency and humanity. Colla knows the cultural and political topography very well. The chaos and cacophony of the American occupation are captured vividly. The narrative is smart and smooth. This is an intense and well-written novel. A pleasure to read.' - Sinan Antoon, author of Baghdad Blues and of The Corpse Washer
‘Just when you think that nothing in the overcrowded crime field can surprise you any more, along comes a writer like Elliott Colla who takes the genre by the throat and shakes it vigorously. Baghdad Central is a rich and allusive piece of writing, informed by the writer's experience in both the Middle East and Washington. Its authenticity is matched by a masterly command of the mechanics of suspense.' - Crime Time
‘This is a mystery wrapped in a history lesson. It is probably the first one to come out of occupied Iraq. The chaos of American occupation as all the acronyms of power vie for territorial supremacy makes the “Mission Accomplished” slogan all the more ludicrous. Most of us paid scant attention when the US disbanded Iraq's police and army in 2003. To this day, the country has not recovered from that act. This story revolves around a former Iraqi cop in Baghdad who is scooped up by the Americans and forced – at penalty of incarceration in Abu Ghraib – to work for them. He is to identify those former cops who can be trusted to rebuild the Iraqi Police Services. Inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji agrees only when he realizes what benefit he can enjoy for his ailing daughter. Amid the challenges that life in Baghdad is in 2003, the only thing that Khafaji can cling to the poetry he shares with his daughter. It provides the one solace against his living hell. Soon, his assignment includes the bizarre disappearance of women translators working for the US Army. He traces the clues all the way back to the “Green Zone” in Baghdad. In this part of our history lesson, we see the very sordid side of occupying forces. It's not a pretty picture or one that Americans at home would appreciate. Elliott Colla is an American writer, professor of Arabic literature at Georgetown University and translator of Arabic local fiction. This is his first novel and I hope not his last as it just gets more and more engaging the further you read.' - Arab Spring News
In 2003 post-invasion Baghdad, the American-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority have disbanded the military and civil institutions associated with Saddam's Ba'ath party. Life is difficult and dangerous, and subject to the exercise of arbitrary power by the American military and various Islamic militias. Muhsin al-Khafaji, formerly a mid-level policemen, is picked up by the Americans by mistake, but having come to their attention is pressed into service to select a core for a new police force. Khafaji sees no future in this, but becomes interested in the disappearance of young Iraqi girls working as translators, particularly when he realises his niece is one of those involved. The answers to this gradually become clear, but Khafaji's life becomes no less difficult, and even his beloved poetry fails to show him a safe way forward. The book is told in the present tense and relates Khafaji's travails throughout, unvarnished or sometimes augmented by internal dialogue. Colla presents a convincing picture of Iraqi society immediately following the invasion, with daily news that the locals discuss ‘as if it were about fantastical stories from a distant planet.' There is a ludicrous side: a briefing carried out to selected locals in CPA management-speak is hilariously mangled by the translator. But the predominant reaction can only be sympathy for the people caught in a showdown between irreconcilable philosophies. Much has been said about the lack of Coalition planning for when the war was won; Baghdad Central suggests that planned or not, the speedy transformation of Iraq into anything resembling a typical Western democracy was clearly a pipe dream. Khafaji himself is a sympathetic protagonist, sufficiently practiced in dissimulation under the old regime to adapt, keep out of trouble where he can, and stay alert to opportunities when offered. This is no mean feat given the disorientating circumstances, and when the chance arises, Khafaji proves to have both initiative and bravery. The offer to work for the CPA cannot be refused, but at least ensures the medical treatment that his daughter badly needs. Unfortunately, association with the Americans is unlikely to offer good long-term prospects. A component rarely seen in a crime novel, if Baghdad Central can be so described, is the frequent reference to poetry which the protagonist uses to illuminate his experience and as a haven from reality. The author explains that in Iraq poetry is ‘part of living memory', and in the book gives a taste of the poets whose works are widely spoken and appreciated. This is just one facet of Colla's familiarity with Iraq: he talks with authority and integrates his knowledge into a compelling story. It is rare to find a first book of such high quality, and which gives such a penetrating and realistic insight into the impact of a forceful external shock to an ancient and singular culture.' - Crime Review
Baghdad Central is another of these deeply political novels which deals with controversial recent history. In one sense, it's easier for an author to be more dispassionate about the book's theme if the genre is switched to near-future science fiction or alternate history or an allegorical fantasy. That way, potentially unpalatable “truths” or inferences can be swept away by readers as fiction or willful mischaracterisation to create irony or satire. But the problems immediately pile up if the author is claiming realism. In part this explains why so few American authors have felt comfortable to write about 9/11. The emotional wounds are still raw. But here we have a book about the American occupation of Baghdad although the British and other allies do put in an appearance towards the end. We begin in April 2003 with the reality of American coalition troops rolling almost unopposed into Baghdad and the decision of Inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji to keep his head down until he can see how the conquest will turn out. He hopes he will be passed over in any process of de-Ba'athification. He was only a mid-level follower in the police force. But life is never simple or straightforward. It seems there is another Muhsin al-Khafaji who was quite senior in the party and, as is required when November arrives, our hero is picked up through the natural misidentification. He endures the pain and humiliation as best he can but, when the Americans finally admit their error, they compound his problems by recruiting him as a figurehead senior police officer in the newly reconstituted force. When he prefers not to be seen as a collaborator, his daughter Mrouj is offered treatment at a hospital inside the Green Zone. This earns his reluctant co-operation with the Coalition Provisional Authority created by L. Paul Bremer. Against this background, the book follows the Inspector's attempts to rescue his brother's family, investigate the murders of interpreters, and avoid being killed by Iraqi patriots as a collaborator or by the Americans for being an infiltrator. By starting with the physical conquest of Baghdad and ending with the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003, the author avoids the need to discuss any of the controversy surrounding the legality of the invasion or the subsequent occupation. It simply confronts the hero with the need to survive the arrival of the Americans. The selection of the capture of Saddam is also a convenient place to stop. This is dealt with in a stoic fashion with the relevant Iraqis already resigned to the shift in political power, and the Americans convincing themselves this will see the end of their immediate problems in controlling the population. This does not in any way mean the book is defanged as a critique of the occupation itself. But it does carefully narrow the focus of the criticism and leaves the tone inferential rather than overt in its denunciation of less than appropriate behaviour both by the occupying forces and those opposing them. Insofar as such a stance is possible, this is an author determined to appear even-handed. In the protagonist, he has an older man who's experienced in navigating difficult political waters. On one side, he must appease the Iraqi militant factions which are determined to harry and strike both at the foreign invaders and those who collaborate with them. But given his daughter's health is now dependent on treatment by the Americans, he must seem to be actively assisting the CPA. This gives us a chance to view both sides through the eyes of a man to whom poetry and his family are everything. In the end, we see the emergence of greater stability in his life. It's not, you understand, that either side thinks him indispensable to their needs, but there's hope he will not be killed for being who he is. In a way, the book is fairly damning of the CPA, its personnel and the corruption it encourages. It's equally scathing of the Red Zone occupation managed by the British who are great at the theory of how the whole process of occupation should be managed, but less than effective when it comes to implementing it in the face of local opposition. In genre terms, this makes Baghdad Central partly a political thriller as our hero navigates the minefield, partly a police procedural as he investigates the murder of the interpreters, and partly historical fiction. Books which deal with such controversial source material are not intended to make the reader comfortable. But they must also have sufficient entertainment value to persuade the readers to go through to the end. I think Elliott Colla has struck the right balance here. There's enough of a mystery to resolve while our protagonist is put in situations where his life is very much at risk for the thrillerish moments. For all those with an interest in what life was like in Baghdad under the CPA, this should be required reading. It comes over as credible and authoritative, making Baghdad Central a book I recommend.' - Opinionator.com
‘This atmospheric and gripping book creates a compelling mystery and predicament for its hero, and memorably evokes a time and place many in the US have all too quickly put out of mind.' - Ursula Lindsey, The Arabist.
‘Powerful and authentic, Baghdad Central is a perilous journey through the dark maelstrom of wartime Iraq that will make you want to reach for a flak jacket and glance over your shoulder for surveillance, even as you're marvelling at its abiding humanity.' - Dan Fesperman, author of Lie in the Dark
‘A gripping tale of mystery and intrigue in the claustrophobic, morally treacherous world of post-invasion Baghdad, an environment where relationships can detonate as readily as car bombs. This is a compelling noir crime novel told from inside Iraqi society that lays bare the easy slide from personal to political treachery, where every crime is also a national wound. A great read!‘ - Jenny White, author of The Winter Thief, A Kamil Pasha novel
A MURDER MYSTERY SET IN POST-SADDAM BAGHDAD IS AS GOOD AS IT IS DARING; It's an act of literary daring to set a murder mystery amid the hell of post-invasion Iraq. In a city choked by bodies any conventional story would seem a cosy piece of trivia. But Colla, who teaches Arabic literature at Georgetown University, has created an utterly convincing character, Inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji , technically a deserter from the Iraqi police who is wrongly identified as a high-ranking official under Saddam's rule. Captured and tortured in Abu Ghraib, Khafaji is offered a way out if he will agree to work for the Americans by training new recruits, since the invaders have discovered that disbanding former security forces has resulted in utter chaos and they must re-create a form of law enforcement. The newly promoted policeman is sent to Kurdistan to train new recruits, an episode of sharply noted dark humour: witness the speeches where it makes no difference what the interpreter says, since the message is always that things are going to get better. Khafaji has an agenda of his own. At the top is the urgent need to provide his daughter with medical treatment. She has been suffering from kidney failure, and because of the sanctions imposed on Saddam's Iraq, the hospitals have been deprived of even the most basic supplies, with doctors forced to operate without anaesthetics or antibiotics. He succeeds in making her treatment a condition of his co-operation and in getting access to the Green Zone within which lie all the luxurious privileges accorded to Westerners and to those Iraqis who appear useful to the new rulers. But there is another quest in which Khafaji is engaged, one which puts a narrative of traditional crime fiction into the heart of this novel. His niece, who acted as an interpreter for the foreign troops, has gone missing. This is a common fate in Khafaji's Baghdad, but the Inspector nevertheless sets about the seemingly hopeless task of tracing her, which he describes as "a fool's errand with checkpoints". With no resources except his own wits he discovers that the girl was a member of a group led by the mysterious Zubeida, who provided protection for a band of women. As interpreters, they are viewed by the invading forces as untrustworthy and by the Iraqis as treacherous. But there's a deeper question: are they really translators, or are they being used for some darker purpose involving the "rest and recreation" of American soldiers? The research that went into this book is so detailed that the question of why the author chose a fictitious form inevitably arises. We have heard about the brutality to which British and American forces descended, but fiction can convey it with an intensity no reportage can carry. We may read the horrible facts of water-boarding, but a novel can make us feel what it is actually like to undergo it. Colla does not minimise the cruelty of Saddam, but his replacement by another set of tormentors creates a despairing background, in which there are only two rays of hope. One is Khafaji's determination to get to his goal and the other is the Arab poetry quoted by Khafaji and his daughter giving interludes of imaginative vision. Iraq may be a failed state, but Arabic is a triumphant language. - The Independent
‘Most remember the scene at the big wheel from The Third Man. Those that do can often quote what Harry Lime says about cuckoo clocks, the Borgias and the Renaissance. Before that, though, Harry tells small time writer Holly Martins that, ‘the world doesn't make heroes.' Of course, Harry Lime is only a man with a gift for making money. He is not likely to understand heroism. The sharp and unscrupulous Lime does not realise that heroes are like stuff, they happen. Khafaji, the Iraqi poetry-loving detective in Baghdad Central, understands heroism but then he is different from Harry Lime. He is employed by the Iraq occupation forces to recruit suitable people for the new police force. Like Holly Martins in The Third Man, he agonises about his collaboration with the new authorities. Mostly he thinks of himself as an employee in what will inevitably happen after the invasion but the doubts and self-hatred persist and so Khafaji requires consolation, a sense that something of him and those he loves will be preserved despite everything. Maybe this is why the memory of Harry Lime was so important to Anna, the woman that Lime betrayed to the Russians. It had nothing to do with Harry looking like Orson Welles. We all have something to preserve and the something means the past whatever its flaws. Khafaji does little to help the Americans build their police force despite this being his actual job. He sits at his desk and avoids making decisions because he knows that the invasion has ensured that knowing who can be trusted is impossible. In The Third Man Anna is pleased to receive gifts like whisky and tea. They help her survive, and, in Baghdad Central, Khafaji endures the day with his prized cigarettes and sweet tea. The Americans are like the British in Vienna, unable to understand the people around them - their language and their circumstances. Americans offer coffee and fast food without realising that the world they wish to replace is a complicated civilisation that has the measured comfort of sweet tea, the decadence of nicotine and intellectual curiosity, the poetry loved by Khafaji. All help identity persist but a hero requires more than mere comfort. Khafaji becomes involved in an investigation into the disappearance of translators employed by the Americans. Progress is made and some lives are saved but others are lost and Khafaji discovers identities as secret and opaque as those of the candidates for the well-paid police jobs being offered by the Americans. The criticism of the Americans in Baghdad Central is restrained. The occupiers are naïve and heavy footed rather than the sinister idiots that exist in the non-fiction classic, Imperial Life In The Emerald City. But, apart from an intriguing plot, the reader will recognise the neo-conservative nightmare with its contempt for the past that was the liberation of Iraq. If we want a clue as to why Anna walks past Holly after the funeral of Lime, Baghdad City is a good place to begin.' - Crime Chronicles
‘Colla's intriguing first novel works better as a portrait of Baghdad under American occupation than as a mystery. In November 2003, Insp. Muhsin Khadr al-Khafaji, an unemployed Iraqi cop, agrees to look for his brother-in-law's grown daughter, Sawsan, after she fails to return from work one day. Muhsin's search for Sawsan doesn't get very far before he's arrested and imprisoned in Abu Ghraib, in a clear case of mistaken identity. The Coalition Provisional Authority releases Muhsin on condition that he take on the task of rebuilding the Iraqi police service and investigate the disappearance of Army translators. As part of the deal, Muhsin's ailing daughter, Mrouj, will receive hospital care. Like many Iraqis, Muhsin sees the world through poetry, despite all he endured under Saddam's paranoid reign and the hardships brought about by international sanctions. A sketchy resolution to the various plot lines may disappoint some, but Colla writes of a beleaguered secular Arab culture with deep empathy.' - Publishers Weekly
‘Those who recall the “personality identification playing cards” handed out to U.S. soldiers during the Iraq war may briefly find themselves one step ahead of the protagonist in Elliott Colla's first novel “Baghdad Central.” The deck of cards, each printed with the photograph, name and job description of one of Iraq's “55 Most Wanted” officials, aimed to sear these details into the troops' minds. Colla's protagonist, an ex-policeman named Muhsin Khadr al-Khafaji, is snatched from his Baghdad apartment by soldiers in the dead of night. He wakes to the sound of the triumphant words: “Confirmed. Three of diamonds!” It transpires that the unfortunate man shares the name of the former Baath Party chairman for the Qadisiyah Governorate, No. 48 on the U.S. most wanted list. This is not the only occasion in which fact meets fiction in “Baghdad Central.” Colla's debut novel is a genre-defying blend of thriller, police procedural and historically informed fiction. The extensive research he clearly did betrays Colla's day job as associate professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. The book opens in November 2003, eight months after the Anglo- U.S. invasion of Iraq. Khafaji's brother-in-law begs the former policeman to find his daughter Sawsan, who has disappeared while working for a professor at her university. Despite Khafaji's protests that he had merely been a paper pusher, never a detective, he agrees to search for Sawsan, who is the spitting image of his dead wife. The missing person is a staple of detective fiction, but Colla's tale is much more complex than its premise. A lover of poetry, in particular the work of free verse pioneer Nazik al-Malaika, Khafaji is no action hero. He does have a weakness, though, in his love for his daughter Mrouj, who suffers kidney problems. After Khafaji's mistaken arrest, he finds himself in Abu Ghraib. A harrowing description of waterboarding follows. Khafaji's true identity eventually becomes clear, but reluctant to simply free him, Khafaji's captors blackmail him. In exchange for his release and top-notch medical treatment for his daughter, Khafaji agrees to work in the city's U.S.-held Green Zone, helping to rebuild the country's decimated police force. From this point on, Colla's protagonist is engaged in a delicate balancing act. Should U.S. troops suspect him of being an infiltrator or his Iraqi neighbors discover he is a collaborator, his life is forfeit. Intensifying the suspense is Khafaji's want of clear aim or plan of action, aside from ensuring his daughter's safety. Unlike the typical action hero, working to achieve his own ends, Khafaji is caught up in events beyond his control, buffeted this way and that in his struggle to stay alive. In this respect, the tale also becomes a personal journey as he wrestles to regain control of his own destiny. Khafaji's passion for poetry allows Colla to embellish the text with lines from some of Iraq's best-loved poets, contrasting the country's rich heritage with the brutality and ruin wrought by the invasion and its aftermath. Poetry also generates one of the few scenes in the novel in which Khafaji displays the sort of devil-may-care spirit associated with hard-boiled heroes like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. During his interrogation – conducted by a high-profile ex-Baathist and an unknown American – the protagonist makes his contempt for his captors known by quoting banned Iraqi poet Muzzafar al-Nawwab. “They say that the Minister of Oil has a tail that he keeps hidden in an American pocket,” he recites, earning himself a vicious beating from his Iraqi interrogator. Aside from the beauty of the writing, the strength of Colla's work lies in its ambiguity. Unlike many thrillers, there are no “good guys” here, save perhaps Khafaji's daughter. There are few definitively “bad guys,” either. Colla paints a nuanced landscape of a country at war, where each character is driven by a complex tangle of personal and nationalistic aims. The novel's action takes place over the course of a few weeks. Colla punctuates Khafaji's tale with first-person passages detailing the suffering of a mother whose son has vanished, then switches to the protagonist's flashbacks – first as a child rebelling against the state, later as a regime policeman. The structure is confusing at first, requiring readers to pay close attention to the dates heading each chapter, but ultimately it adds to the novel's scope and complexity. By beginning the story post-invasion and ending it just after U.S. forces capture Saddam Hussein, Colla avoids having to comment on the legitimacy of the war or its legacy. Instead, he focuses on its ramifications for Iraqi civilians and low-ranking U.S. troops. Colla decides not to tie all his loose ends into a neat bundle, and the novel's rather abrupt ending may disappoint some readers. In fact, by refusing to bring the tale to a clockwork resolution, Colla only increases the story's realism. For Khafaji – as for us all – life goes on. Death provides the only true ending. In this regard, “Baghdad Central” is more effective as a historically informed look at life under U.S. occupation than as a mystery, but the story's fictional element allows Colla the freedom to communicate the experiences of Khafaji – a sort of Iraqi everyman – with an immediacy lacking in most historical accounts. In one of the novel's flashbacks, Khafaji recalls a schoolteacher's comment on Ibn al-Rumi's account of the destruction of Basra during the Zanj Revolution. “There is a tension between the beautiful imagery of the lines and the ugliness of the subject matter – which is death and destruction,” she says. The description applies equally well to “Baghdad Central.” - Daily Star Beirut
‘In November 2003, the Iraqi Coalition Provisional Authority shut down the army, the police and the Ba'athists. Former Inspector Muhsin Khadr al-Khafaji deserted his post before the disbanding of the cops by the occupying forces. His concerned brother-in-law asks unemployed Muhsin to search for his missing adult daughter Sawsan who did not come home from work. However, Muhsin's inquiry abruptly ends almost before it began when the Americans incarcerate him as a high ranking Hussein official in Abu Ghraib. Realizing they made an identification error but not before they torture him, they free Muhsin and assign him to train a new police force and investigate the numerous missing Army translators. In return they give his daughter Mrouj quality medical treatment for her kidney ailment, which the sanctions previously prevented. Baghdad Central is a strong Iraqi police procedural that captures the essence of surviving as a secularist in a Muslim nation ran by a vicious dictator while already under sanctions from the West made worse by the occupation. Poetry and family keeps the protagonist going as Elliot Colla condemns the superegos of the CPA and their impact on people after the harsh effect in Iraqi citizenry by the sanctions. The insightful look at a subculture ignored by the American media obsessive focus on blood and gore supersedes the investigations in this profound look at Iraqi life during the occupation.' - MBR Bookwatch
‘This compelling novel opens in the streets of Baghdad during April 2003 as American and coalition forces begin their occupation. Inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji wants only to avoid conflict, stay out of sight, enjoy poetry and take care of his family including his ailing daughter, Mrouj. Toward that end, Muhsin abandons his post only to be misidentified and imprisoned as the wrong Muhsin al-Khafaji by the Americans who fail to immediately rectify the mistake. Once they do owe up to jailing the wrong man, the Americans “recruit” Muhsin to head up the struggling new police force with the offer of proper medical treatment for Mrouj. Understandably, Muhsin is reluctant to be seen collaborating with the Americans and the Coalition Provisional Authority but he will do most anything for his daughter. While attempting to balance his most basic beliefs with the demands of a constantly shifting political climate, Muhsin is also trying to rescue his brother's family and investigating a series of murders targeting female translators who were employed by the United States Army. When Muhsin could be seen from either side as aiding the enemy, nothing is simple or straightforward yet a love of poetry could provide a safe haven. Firmly entrenched in politics, this thriller exposes the double-edged sword of relying too much on local intelligence as well as the difficulties faced by residents of an occupied city who simply want to survive. Although this is a fiction, Colla does an excellent job of portraying the muddled of state and personal agendas within the corrupt CPA and the part collaborators play in war where they are viewed as dispensable resources or betrayers. With all his flaws and problems, Muhsin's character rings true to life as does much of the story which is packed with unexpected twists. This is an outstanding read on several levels so turn off the phone and enjoy.' - Monstersandcritics
‘(Center-staging the calamities of collaboration, Elliott Colla's noir thriller exposes the moral and strategic failures of military occupation.) Without networks of collaborators conscripted from among the ranks of the insurgency, sustained military occupations are unthinkable. Yet, no one likes to talk about collaborators—it is an unpleasant subject because collaborators are about as loved by their handlers as they are by the communities they betray. To be sure, collaborators under military occupation consider themselves as a beneficial screen, ameliorating the worst that might happen, and at times they even embrace the new order and think of themselves as brave emissaries of the future. But from the handler's viewpoint, they are instruments of war and counterinsurgency only to be expunged like a checkpoint or watchtower once the fray is over. And from the point of view of the majority of their own society, they are, at best, individuals who at a time of collective strife put their own egotistical interests before the interests of their community, and, at worst, they are unforgivable traitors. Collaboration, in other words, is a thorny issue whereby the ethical questions it introduces are easier to repress than to address. This is why I was so surprised to come across Elliott Colla's Baghdad Centralwhich provide a cautionary tale about the moral and strategic failures of military occupation while center-staging the calamities of collaboration. And although the noir thriller focuses on the US occupation of Iraq, the theme could have just as easily been lifted straight from Afghanistan, the West Bank, or Gaza. Baghdad Central is probably the only work—whether fiction or non-fiction—that tries to tell the story of the American invasion from the point of view of an Iraqi nationalist. In fact, Muhsin Khadr al-Khafaji, Baghdad Central's hero is the epitome of Dick Cheney's bogeyman—he is a Baathist cop with a background full of war crimes. (Apparently named after an actual high-ranking Baathist official, the Three of Diamonds, captured by the Americans in early 2004). Typical of many noir thrillers, Baghdad Central's storyline is messy and winds its way from Red Zone to Green Zone and back again. The plot follows Khafaji as he is arrested and thrown into Abu Ghraib prison, and then agrees to be a collaborator with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq (CPA). He is ordered to search for missing Iraqi women, who may have been working as translators for the CPA, or prostitutes providing services to American soldiers, or even perhaps operatives of a cell within the resistance. True to the noir genre, the more Khafaji investigates, the more people start to die. There is a dodgy dame, car chases, IEDs and some double-crossing. There is a disappearing CIA handler, a talkative communist taxi driver, a Pakistani teawalla, and some mukhabarat thugs. And there is Khafaji's bed-ridden daughter, Mrouj. I am not in a position to judge whether the descriptions are authentic, but despite the occasional excess, the reader is drawn in. In works of Orientalist imagination—and this is certainly one—Baghdad is supposed to be written this way. Yet, Elliott Colla also takes his cue from the Arab canon. In one scene, Khafaji is on his way to meet his handlers in the Green Zone when he happens upon a bomb scare at the gate. The bomb squad searches a parked water truck, but they do not find anything at first. Indeed, in a scene taken — I suspect —from Ghassan Kanafani's “Men in the Sun,” a soldier ultimately climbs on top of the truck and opens the seals on the tank. He looks for a long time, then yells something into the hole. Finally, he shouts, “Sergeant, you better come up here and look at this. There are men down in there. It's an oven. You better get the medics.” As it turns out, twenty Jihadists have died on their way to infiltrate the Green Zone. Not surprisingly, in this novel the Iraqi resistance does not pose the major threat to American occupation. Colla's thriller begins by suggesting that the chaotic breakup of the Baathist regime planted seeds of defeat within the ranks of the American victors. And who can argue with this thesis, even if it is presented in the form of fiction written by an Arabist professor of comparative literature. But while this may be enough to hook the book clubs in the barracks or the students of Middle East politics, actually it is only the beginning of the story. This noir novel is ultimately an in-depth exploration of the psyche of the collaborator, and his or her key role in military occupation. Notwithstanding the massive scale of the NSA covert intelligence gathering and Obama's drone wars, Colla's book underscores the fact that the military still relies on human intelligence. It is extremely unlikely that those drone attacks in remote Pakistan or Yemen depend solely on high-tech—there is always a collaborator on the ground working with and for the Americans. Occupations, one could even argue, are as strong as their networks of collaborators. Baghdad Central not only suggests that the US occupation was weak because of its lack of networks—it also suggests that this reliance on collaboration is a double-edged sword. It is well known that the collaboration strategy of military occupation is both dangerous and corrosive—and this truism is at the heart of Baghdad Central. Detective Khafaji may have been recruited into collaboration, but that does not mean he serves only the Americans. In fact, his story is that of an individual struggling to maintain his selfhood and values even as he loses them. Some of this is as funny as it is tragic, such as when Khafaji finally puts on his US military uniform only to have a twenty-something American playfully joke, ‘Hey, everybody! Tell Bremer I'm the one who found Tariq Aziz, and he was working right here! I want my million dollars now!' The soldier slaps Khafaji on the back, and the Iraqi collaborator has no choice but to go along with the jibe, at least for the time being. But the more Khafaji works for the Americans, the more he understands that he can also work for himself and for those whom he loves. By following the twisting and twisted trail of money and sex in the novel, the reader begins to understand that neither the collaborator nor the culture of collaboration is something that can be readily controlled. On the one hand, there is nothing radical, or radically new about this. It is not just postcolonial critics who insist that native informants maintain at least some of their agency. Intelligence officers also know this well, and handlers are trained to recognize and minimize the ways in which their positions can be undercut by their operatives. On the other hand, however, the novel exposes something else, perhaps even more profound. While people tend to think that information gathering lies at the heart of the collaboration strategy, occupation regimes benefit just as much if not more from the culture of deception that it engenders and the way this culture corrodes the occupied society. Neighbors learn to distrust one another precisely because they know that anyone could be an informant. Activist and militant networks break down once the poison of collaboration has been injected into their body. I know this, having heard endless stories from Palestinian friends in the Occupied Territories. The resulting social disintegration is the kind favored by occupation forces—a divided society is one that has trouble resisting. But, at the same time, a fragmented society can also be an unruly one. Baghdad Central describes this breakdown in detail, as it does the rise of competing networks, such as those of the Shiite militias. More than this though, because it uses the noir genre to explore how the culture of deception is one that necessarily infects everyone, it is difficult to put the book down. Khafaji's handlers lie to him, and he returns the favor. Neighbors and strangers lie to one another. But the lie is not something that is deployed solely outside the confines of the Green Zone. Once the deception starts, the lies proliferate and fold back on one another. There is no antidote. It is in this aspect of intelligence work in military occupation—its complete reliance on deception and its completely corrosive effects on the occupied as well as the occupier —that Baghdad Central shows its fangs, since it underscores an unspoken shortcoming of General David Petraeus's counterinsurgency doctrine. Petraeus is commonly accredited with introducing a shift in the strategy of military rule in Iraq. Instead of squashing the enemy directly, he maintained that counterinsurgency needs to integrate humanitarian means into warfare, which includes working with the local population. Colleen Bell from the University of Saskatchewan describes this as a form of hybrid warfare that simultaneously enacts targeted killing while making the population ‘‘live.'' She shows how, according to the Petraeus school, insurgency is characterized as “a virus or bacteria that plagues the social body, whose immune system is already compromised.” Accordingly, counterinsurgency needs to heal the disease through targeted violence, while working to coopt the rest of the body; i.e., the population. Both the violence and the pacification depend on collaborators. While critics of different stripes have commented on the shortcomings of Petraeus's approach, to the best of my knowledge no one has discussed what this strategy has done to the US military as an occupying force. Wittingly or unwittingly, Colla's novel begins to reveal how this form of counterinsurgency can rebound. Yes, the corpses belong mostly to the occupied Iraqis. Yes, Iraqis were the victims of this prolonged invasion and counterinsurgency tactics. But in the end, the deceptive and corrosive nature of military occupation also makes the US military vulnerable. To put it simply, the goal was to produce a network of collaborators. This network was created mostly by inexperienced agents who bought—using different means—the services of Iraqis. Colla shows that when the official policy is one of corrupting and there is no robust firewall to prevent it from recoiling, the agents may end up paying operatives, who end up betraying and killing Americans. To use the same medical metaphor Petraeus's cronies deployed when describing the fight against insurgents, collaboration is like a contagious virus that ends up also infecting the occupier. The handlers become the handled. Precisely because Colla's book reveals very dark sides of occupation, not only readers interested in political thrillers will be attracted to what Baghdad Central has to say – government officials and secret agents will also be unable to put these books down. Even though Colla provides a relentless critique, he also offers a fascinating and intimate look at the inner workings of military occupation.' - LA Review of Books and Palestine Chronicle
‘This fine début novel is set in Baghdad in 2003 in the calamitous days of the post-invasion ‘Coalition Provisional Authority'. Having disbanded the army and police force, the US occupation forces are faced with escalating violence and lawlessness. In an attempt to reconstitute some semblance of the Iraqi Police Service they forcibly recruit Inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji to trawl through the police files and identify those individuals sufficiently ‘untainted' by the Saddam regime to be re-employed. Khafaji was imprisoned and tortured in Abu Ghraib by the Americans and he is a most reluctant collaborator, agreeing to work for the occupiers of his country only because they are providing otherwise unobtainable medical treatment for his seriously ill daughter. What begins as an administrative exercise for Khafaji morphs into active police work as he is drawn into the investigation of the abduction and murder of young Iraqi translators working for the US forces. What he uncovers leads him to some disturbing conclusions about his shattered country and his own morally ambiguous and deeply conflicted place within it. Colla writes with power and authority, drawing on his extensive experience of the Middle East. Inspector Khafaji is a sympathetic and convincing creation; anguished but finding solace in good whisky and classical Iraqi love poetry. Baghdad Central is politically astute, beautifully-constructed and a rattling good read.' - New Internationalist Magazine
‘Baghdad Central by Elliott Colla is a very brave book which looks at the chaotic situation immediately after the invasion of Iraq and the establishment of the Coalition Provisional Authority. We're invited to see both sides of the coin through the eyes of Inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji. When the Americans arrive, he tries to keep a low profile, but he gets caught up in a sweep and is persuaded to continue working as a police officer for the CPA. Not surprisingly, this makes him a collaborator in the eyes of patriots who are fighting the occupying forces. When asked to investigate the murder of some Iraqi women who were working as interpreters, al-Khafaji's life becomes significantly more complicated because there are plots and counterplots in motion. As the first of the suicide bombings and attacks on the coalition forces get underway, our hero comes into possession of material that would be embarrassing to both sides. Whether he can find the right balance and survive is left uncertain, although his prospects seem to be slightly improving at the end of the book. This is a book for anyone interested in the invasion of Iraq. It's reasonably evenhanded in its criticism of both sides.' - San Francisco Book Review
‘How do you like your roman noir? Is your preference for crime, with the central protagonist a policeman? Check. Do you like it action packed, moving from venue to venue? Check. A complicated plot, where not everything is as it seems? Check. Stir into that the moral ambiguities and uncertainties of occupied Baghdad in 2003. Compare and contrast the actions of the local militia and those of the American and British upholders of the Coalition Provisional Authority Order. Festoon with multiple strands of Iraqi poetry. The end result is as remarkable a book as I have read this year.Muhsin Khadr al-Khafaji is a former Iraqi cop who deserted his post. Agreeing to search for his missing niece, and ever motivated by having to care for his ill daughter, he stumbles into working for the Americans to help re-establish an Iraqi police force. His route into this involves being mistaken for one of the “deck of cards” most wanted. Grim reading. His path thereafter zigzags between the Iraqi and American zones of Baghdad. Colla's description of this journey evokes the social conditions in Baghdad far more lucidly and graphically than even John Simpson or Jeremy Bowen could ever have done. The whodunit part of the plot is clever and well structured. Khafaji is a credible and sympathetic character. For all its grim sections, there is a lightness of touch throughout, and Colla's expertise – he is an American scholar, specialising in Arabic literature and culture – makes the whole novel seem entirely believable. Very different: very much worth the reading.' - The Journal of the Law Society of Scotland
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