Art History in "Frankenstein in Baghdad" by Ahmed Saadawi
The Book's Cover
The art historical references in Frankenstein in Baghdad commences with the book cover, which contains a print of fragmented facial features. It took me a while to find these images because Baghdad's credits provided incorrect information. Scanning within the pages, I discovered two of the three fragments in the book, Planches de l'Encyclopédie de Diderot et d'Alembert, volume 2b.
I find it fascinating that artwork created for Enlightenment-era writing now acted as commentary to highlight Baghdad's story of a city (and its citizens) torn apart and put back together by war's destruction.
From the "Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, volume 2b"Click thumbnail to view full-size
Mary Shelley versus Ahmed Saadawi
Taking place in 2005 during the Iraq War, Baghdad is preyed upon by a creation called the Whatsitsname. A being put together with the remains of corpses on a whim by a scavenger named Hadi. A slight contrast to comfortably living scientist who wanted to challenge nature. While Shelley's creature has hate and self-loathing for a world that created and rejected him due to his appearance, Saadawi's Whatsitsname becomes a symbol of defiance for beleaguered Baghdad citizens. Despite the differences in the eras and locations, both Shelley's and Saadawi's creatures enact vengeance against their environments. As Frankenstein in Baghdad ends, the Whatsitsname lives and continues the cycle of violence brought into existence by war. Mary Shelley's
Living in a layered past
Besides the Whatsitsname and Hadi, the character I wish to devote this section to is the pious Christian Elishva, who resides near Hadi. Whenever Elishva does not go to a church that exists in real life, she spends time in her home waiting for a son long dead. A central location in the story, Sadaawi describes Elishva's house containing a blending of local and religious architectural designs. Furthermore, the residence once belonged to members of a local Jewish community. Living in a house full of rich history stitched together not too dissimilar to the creature roaming Baghdad, Elishva adorns this dwelling with her collection of Christian art. Throughout the book, Sadaawi describes Elishva's personal accumulation of saints, the many ages of Jesus from his youth to his final days, and lastly, a portrayal of Saint George and a dragon. This work of art figures a great deal in the book.
Elishva ultimately leaves Baghdad, but not without taking a fragment of that painting of Saint George.
Which painting of Saint George and the Dragon did Sadaawi take inspiration from?Click thumbnail to view full-size
Saint George and the Dragon
As Elishva waits for a son who died a fighter to return home, she looks to a copy of Saint George and the dragon for comfort. As her outside world falls apart, Elishva maintains a sense of serenity with George while longing for a closure that will never come. The painting itself is substantially a character in the novel, but Saadawi never reveals who made the painting. Looking through reproductions of European art history’s long fascination with such a dramatic scene, I found some possibilities, but nothing close to a match. The details led me to the conclusion that whatever painting Sadaawi used as inspiration probably originated from the Renaissance era.
Art mentioned in "Frankenstein in Baghdad"Click thumbnail to view full-size
What ends up preserved and what ends up destroyed
While Saadawi mentions a variety of Christian iconography found in the city, there still exists some Islamic art and architecture. Hadi, the creator of the Whatsitsname, has a reproduction of the Qur'an's Surah Al-Baqarah 2:255 hanging on his wall. While Hadi ends up battered during an invasion, his attackers destroy that reproduction, along with a Virgin Mary statuette, plus a group of photographs of one former Iraqi prime minister and two kings. Research into the background of those three people produced reigns that concluded in violent deaths and even signified a change in Iraq.
This book further mentions other kinds of existing buildings and architecture in Baghdad, some with their history of looting and violence. Additional forms of architectural features such as the mashrabiya received numerous comments, and in the story, a foundation regularly urges Baghdad to keep these windows intact while in wartime. The same preservation lobby makes sure that Baghdad's intellectual past remained covered up after a battle revealed that era's architectural grandeur. As the Whatsitsname discovers itself held together by layers of ghosts driving him to take revenge as a response to war, Iraq itself has layers of history held together by activists determined to keep these eras preserved in their original state. While the story finishes, the Whatsitsname's revenge is not over, and Saadawi infers that Iraq's destruction (along with evidence of its past) will not die.
An unrelated observation used to end this essay.
Saadawi uses the color pink as a symbol of divine and government authority. For example, Iraqi government workers don pink shirts. The Virgin Mary is also associated with the color pink.
© 2020 Catherine