Iraqi novelist Mortada Gzar — contributor to the recent collection Iraq + 100, participant in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and author of the acclaimed Mr. Azger Akbar (2013) — writes, in his latest novel, about a man who supervised the animals belonging to a son of Saddam Hussein:
By Dr. Waleed Al-Bazoon
Basra writer Mortada Gzar’s My Beautiful Sect (Al-Jamal Publications, 2016) is a novel that occupies the reader’s mind long after the final page, as it leaves us with shocking trauma and perplexing, unanswered questions. In the novel, Gzar explores, in minute detail, the aftermaths and circumstances of two destructive wars upon his own country: The Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988) and the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the U.S. and Britain.
The novel focuses on Aktham Ra’ad Kulafa, a veterinarian who used to supervise the animals that belonged to the son of Saddam Hussein. Akhtham tells strange stories of his life both at the time of the despotic Saddam and also after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The story opens with Aktham’s arrest and brutal beating by the government’s special forces, as if he were a criminal, after which he is ordered to remove a small dog from a statue of the president. Aktham restores the dignity of the statue after removing the dog. But this dog is intriguing for Aktham, and for his friend Jameel, as the dog likes to have sex only with other male dogs. Jameel decides to keep the dog with him, and they call the dog Khaki. Later, Aktham writes an implicitly critical letter to the American president, asking him to give asylum to Khaki the dog to ensure he will get his animal rights. He begs for mercy for the dog and wishes he could accompany Khaki to take care of him.
This is not the end of the story of the statue: The special forces officers throw a dirty and blind man from their car when leaving the place. This man, Hakam, is the sculptor of the statue. There is more gender-crossing in the novel, as Jameel is married to Zughlaa, who was enlisted in the Iraqi army after the government mistakenly changed her name to Zughl. But Zughl adapts to her new male identity, and she was captured and taken as a captive by the Iranians and lived there for years as a man.
A sect of bees
We leap forward in time from the Iran-Iraq War to 2003. After the fall of Saddam, Aktham decides to make his own beehive. This hive is a kind of protection for him, from the bitter reality around him, and he considers the bees’ hive as his own sect. Aktham turns from the human world to the animal world as a resort and refuge, and the animal world serves as a model for living and community support far different from the human one, where Aktham doesn’t feel safe, secure and satisfied.
Throughout My Beautiful Sect, Gzar uses the strange to shed light on the continuous sufferings of the Iraqi people, portrayed in the novel as part of the nature of Iraqi life after the occupation. He tries to show the radicalism of sectarianism and also to satirise the hated sectarian mobilisation. This is contrasted sharply with the animal world, which is more supportive and peaceful. Ultimately, Aktham accepts the animals as more intimate substitutes for humans, his own beautiful sect.
It is the surrealism of human violence and ruthlessness that push Aktham to create a sect out of animals, leaving the human sects to their chaos of sectarianism and violence. Aktham makes fun of and criticises the general atmosphere in which he lives, even though it brings him persecution, suffering, and disrespect. Sometimes he makes fun of himself, as he finds himself controlled and guided by the political and social dominions.
The greatest horror coming from the reality that Gzar depicts in his novel is images of hope that come through the union of the dentist Rajiha and the blind sculptor Hakam, two different versions of the deformed Iraqi reality.
Hakam, who goes to the explosion sites in Baghdad to touch the cracks made by the power of explosions, as if he listens and reads the meaning of the new Iraqi reality. He rushes to every explosion site and rubs his hands on the destroyed walls, as if scanning them and reading the essence of such a disaster. Meanwhile Rajiha, the dentist, lost her son who drowned in the Tigris, and from that time, she comes to the brink of the river to sit and talk with herself and hope he will come back.
These two people exemplify two images of people who try to live life as it is, yet both are ridiculed and belittled by other people. Their unity mixes reality and unreality, and the ordinary with the strange. Their pains and also their remoteness from other people are what bring them together. In their union, there is a moving sense of our shared humanity. They share the pleasures of sex, eating together, and warmth unnoticed by anyone except Aktham.
Gzar uses sharp criticism, irony and sarcasm to bring to the fore the devastating influence of the long war between Iraq and Iran that affected even minute details of life in Iraq. His characters and setting present the side-effects of the destructive war with Iran and the 2003 occupation.
The author has said that irony “through its fantasy and broad vision is a style to understand reality.” The reader is free to compare between what is real and what is imagined, and to see which one provides a better world.
Dr. Waleed Al-Bazoon completed his PhD in English Literature at the University of Chichester in 2013. He is from Basra, Iraq, and until 2003, was a lecturer in literature at the University of Basra. He now lives in the UK and is undertaking a post-doctorate research in the field of contemporary Iraqi fiction. You can contact Dr. Al Bazoon’s at W.Albazoon@chi.ac.uk.