•In a city constantly under siege the only way to survive may be, quite simply, the secret to eternal life.
Welcome to Baghdad in the immediate aftermath of the US invasion. A desperate American military with no discernible understanding of the complex cultural differences in Iraq has created a power vacuum that needs to be filled. Religious fanatics, mercenaries, occultists, and American soldiers are all vying for power. So how do regular folks just get by in one of the least hospitable places on the planet?
If you're Dagr and Kinza, a former economics professor and a streetwise hoodlum, you turn to dealing in the black market. But everything is about to change, because Dagr and Kinza have just inherited a very important prisoner: the former star torturer of Saddam's recently collapsed Ba'athist regime, Captain Hamid, who promises them untold riches if they smuggle him out of Baghdad.
With the heat on and not much reason left to stay in Baghdad, they enlist the help of Private Hoffman, their partner in crime and a U.S. Marine, who undertakes to help them escape the authorities. In the chaos of a city without rule, getting out of Baghdad is no easy task and when they become embroiled in a mystery surrounding an ancient watch that doesn't tell time, nothing will ever be the same. With a satiric eye firmly cast on the absurdity of human violence, Escape from Baghdad! features more than a few shades of Heller's Catch-22 and David O'Russell's Three Kings while doing something all-together shocking: the story gives voice, ribald humor, and some serious firepower to people most often referred to as "collateral damage."
I adore this novel, the debut from Bangladeshi author Saad Z. Hossain. It's a hilarious, fantastical, Iraq War novel like no other, like Catch-22 mixed in with the secret histories of Tim Powers, and splashed onto a wide screen. I've been raving about this ever since it was published. – Lavie Tidhar
•"Saad Hossain's perplexingly weird debut novel, ESCAPE FROM BAGHDAD!, captures the pure insanity of the Iraq War. At the same time, it's not a war novel. Instead, it's a skillfully constructed literary IED that brings together the sharpest aspects from multiple genres. It's a Tarantino-esque HEART OF DARKNESS set in war-torn Iraq, filled with absurdism and dark humor, a mash-up of satirical Joseph Heller-style comedy and sci-fi fantasy with a gratuitous mixture of good old-fashioned ultra-violence."– Colby Buzzell, VICE
•"ESCAPE FROM BAGHDAD! is a virtuoso performance, both utterly heartbreaking and riotously, laugh-out-loud funny... I wanted to stand up and applaud when it was finished, but I didn't want it to finish. I could not recommend it enough."– Lavie Tidhar, World Fantasy Award winning author of OSAMA
•"Saad Hossain has given us a hilarious and searing indictment of the project we euphemistically call 'nation-building.' With nods to CATCH-22, FRANKENSTEIN, THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU and the Golem myth, ESCAPE FROM BAGHDAD! weaves fantasy, absurdity and adventure into a moving counter-narrative to the myth of the just war."– Daniel José Older, NPR
Chapter 1: South Ghazaliya
"We should kill him," Kinza said. "But nothing too orthodox."
Silence then. A kind of scathing, derisive, stifling silence expanding to fill the room, crowding out the detritus of previous conversations, leaving two black-marketeers drinking in a darkened space, in the back of a battered house, with nothing much to say. The room was dark because they had used foil paper to blacken the windows. The lights were off because outside, the JAM militia, known as the Mahdi Army, had just torn through 13th street, which was rare, because 13th street in Ghazaliya was a dead end nothing suburban thoroughfare.
"Out of principle alone, it should be done." Kinza sipped his Jack Daniels, which he had bartered from the US Marine Ted Hoffman for a piece of Chemical Ali's skull. "Not because I hate this man. It is nothing personal for me. I am merely an agent of fate, like the Count of Monte Cristo."
Dagr stared at his partner. He had once been a professor of economics, but as it turned out, the wartime shift in profession had been ridiculously easy for him.
* * *
Now the JAM normally preferred 14th street, as it allowed them access to the northern Shi'a neighborhood of Shulla, but in this excursion they had run into the South Ghazaliya Defense Brigade, sworn to defend South Ghazaliya. The JAM often won these encounters, but recently their firebrand Shi'a patron Moqtada Al-Sadr had cut down their bullet rations, and today the SGD had produced a black-market US army M60 and risen to their youthful promise. All this defense had forced the JAM into Kinza's street, a hail of smoke and diesel and bullets, AK47s popping. Kinza had brokered the sale of the M60 to the SGD in the first place, provided they fought on 14thstreet.
"My friend, we have a moral duty in this situation," Kinza said.
The situation was indeed demanding of their attention, moral or otherwise. Two days ago, Kinza and Dagr, purveyors of medicine, gossip, diesel, and specialty ammunition, had inherited the living person of Captain Hamid, formerly of the 8th 'As Saiqa' Special Forces Division, of the Republican Guard. He had been the chief savant of interrogators, vigilant against traitors to the party, known specially for his signature style and a certain personal flair to the work—an artistic flourish to the branding, undoubtedly the star striker on the torture pitch, the number 10 of all 10s, the 23 of all 23s. Now this Mother Teresa of Black Holes, this living spit of Torquemada, belonged to them.
This inheritance had come to Kinza and Dagr in a circuitous route. Kinza's cousin twice removed, Daoud, had been a second lieutenant in the All Martyrs of Anbar Army, an offshoot of retired Republican Guard types who had agreed to shelter the notorious Captain Hamid. This brave battalion had lasted for all of two weeks, before a combined (but wholly coincidental) US and Shi'a pincer attack had fulfilled their dearest wish of martyrdom. Both wounded, Daoud and the Captain had taken refuge with Kinza. The Captain had survived, Daoud had not.
"Morality is for the Aztecs," Dagr said. "We should sell Hamid to the Americans. We could probably retire on the reward."
"Was he on the deck of cards?"
"He almost made it," Dagr said. "I think he was ranked 56th. There was some talk of putting him in the second round, but I guess he just slipped through the cracks."
"Funny, I thought he would have ranked higher," Kinza said. "Not the face cards, maybe, but in the deck, at least."
"We could just let him go. In Shulla, maybe," Dagr offered quickly. "Let nature sort it out."
Kinza made a face. That was not a solution he favored.
"We could sell him to the Mahdi Army," Dagr scratched his head tiredly. "Sadr might have put him on his deck."
"Sadr has a deck?"
"I think he made one," Dagr said. "But he left out the queens and changed the hearts to little crescents."
"I hate dealing with the Mahdi Army. Last time they made me pray all day and then woke me up at night to pray again," Kinza murmured.
"You're a product of your race. Self loathing defeatist." Dagr scraped back his chair. "You hate everyone. You hate the Sunnis for killing Hassan. You hate the Shi'as for breaking up the Ummah. You hate the Americans for being crass. You hate the Palestinians for being beggars. You hate the Saudis for being cowards. And because of this, you piss on rational self interest."
"Thank you, Professor." Kinza saluted him with an empty glass. "Condescending as usual. You still live in a tower. A shitty tower, but a tower nonetheless. Hatred is a physical thing. It comes from the gut. I physically need to kill Hamid."
"Because he is a torturer."
"Then you become a torturer as well, and therefore you deserve a similar death, by virtue of your own logic."
"Which is why I am hesitating." Kinza refilled his glass. Next to the bottle was a 38 caliber revolver, police issue, now black-market issue, soon to be Shi'a or Sunni or Coalition issue—so many issues it was impossible to decide. These days, every house in Ghazaliya had a confused gun. "Would it fundamentally alter our relationship, Professor, if I tortured and killed Hamid?"
Dagr smiled sourly. "I am a market parasite. I help corrupt soldiers steal medicine from the Thresher, our friendly neighborhood American military base, so I can sell it at huge profits to needy people who were once my friends. I have shot at a 14-year-old boy who was probably related to me, just for jumping out of an alley. I have…"
"Ok." Kinza held up a hand. "I am not speaking of you now. I am speaking of the Professorial you. Would the man who taught economics at the Abu Bakr Memorial have a problem with what I want to do?"
"That fool would have shat his pants."
"Yes, but the problem is, when normalcy returns, then the pant shitters are all back on top, and I would probably have to answer to all of them, for everything I do today to survive. And in that time, my friend, I would hate to have you pointing a great shitty finger at me."
"Today, I would help you kill Hamid," Dagr said finally. "Tomorrow I would hate myself for it. The next day, I would hate you for it as well."
"Then what do you suggest for comrade Hamid?" Kinza asked. "Seriously, I want to know."
"He should have a trial," Dagr said.
"A hanging trial or a firing trial?" Kinza asked.
"A fair trial."
"What the hell is that?"
"I'm not joking." Dagr shrugged. "Give him a trial. Round up a few dozen people from the neighborhood and try him."
"I like it, a kangaroo court."
"A fair trial."
"How do you give a torturer a fair trial?" Kinza asked. "What possible judge would be predisposed to favor him?"
"He followed orders didn't he?" Dagr shrugged. "Everyone followed orders."
"Look, he didn't shoot a bunch of random Kurds," Kinza said. "He killed our own people. Academics, professionals, businessmen. People like you, in fact. What if it were your father he had his cigar into? Wouldn't you like to be the judge then?"
"I agree with you," Dagr said wearily. "It's just that in passing judgment, in executing that judgment, you become tainted yourself."
"So you're saying pass it on to someone else?"
"Precisely," Dagr said. "That is why we have professional judges."
"Difficult to find an impartial judge at this point."
"Unless we find one from the old days," Dagr said.
"They'd probably be friends with him," Kinza said. "Look, let's at least interrogate him a little bit."
A bell at the door then, the Ghazaliya bell, they called it, the knock of rifle butts against splintered wood, the three second grace time before boots and flashlights, lasers and automatic rifle barrels. Better than the Mahdi Army, who didn't bother to knock, and who had never heard of the three-second rule. Dagr surged towards the front of the house, already sweating, thrusting Kinza back. It was his job to face the American door to doors, because he still looked like a professor, soft jawed, harmless, by some chance the exact composite of the innocent Iraqi these farm boys from Minnesota had come to liberate. And Kinza…with his hollow eyed stare, Kinza would never survive these conversations.
He barely got there in time to save the door. Sweaty, palsied fear, as he jerked his head into the sunlight, facing down two of them, and three more in the Humvee behind. They were like big, idiot children in their heavy armor and helmets, capable of kindness or casual violence as the mood took them, unreadable, random, terrifying.
"Door to door, random check sir," a Captain Fowler said.
"Good morning," Dagr said. Panic made his voice a croak. Door to door searches…they would find Kinza, and then Hamid, and it would be a rifle butt to the mouth, burst teeth, no Guantanamo for them, just hands tied behind the waist and a bullet to the head, right here…
"Had some violence down here this morning," Captain Fowler was saying.
"Understand the Mahdi Army came down this road, had a tussle with the boys from the SGD. Know anything about that, sir?"
"I was hiding, lying on the floor here," Dagr said. He looked desperately from face to face, sunglasses, helmets, flashlights, all hard edges. Where the hell was Hoffman? Kind, innocent Hoffman, who shared cigarettes and jokes and tipped off Kinza about door to door searches…
"You sweating, my man." Fowler casually shifted his weight, his foot blocking the door open, his gun angled just so, changing everything.
"It's hot, we have no water," Dagr said. "No water, nothing in the tank, no flushes working, no electricity either. One fan, and the bastards shot it today…"
"Ok, sir, we're rigging the electricity back, we've had reports of this problem." Fowler stared at him for a little while. "Sir, who else lives in this house? Are you alone in there?"
"Alone." Dagr felt his voice give way, "My house. I live here. Do you want it? Take it, take it, just shoot me and take it. No water for three days, toilets blocked up for two months, I have to shit in a bucket, bullet holes in every damn wall…"
"Calm down, sir." Fowler tapped his gun on the door. "We are looking for one man known to be an arms dealer. We believe he has a safe house somewhere in this grid."
Dagr sagged against the door, the sweat pouring out of him, his mind a panicky Babel of voices, eyes swiveling from helmet to helmet, trying to find some weakness, some glimmer of the folksy charm they used when they weren't in the killing mood. Hoffman, where are you for God's sake?
"You seem to be looking for someone, partner," Fowler said. "Looking for Sergeant Hoffman, by any chance?"
"Hoffman? I don't know him. Maybe. He gave me a cigarette once I think. Tall and white? Don't know any Hoffman, there was a nice black man before…"
"Hoffman ran patrols here," Fowler said, "He got busted for fooling around with a very bad man. An arms dealer called Kinza. Don't happen to know him?"
"Kinza? Sounds Japanese. I don't know, I hardly go out, Mahdi Army shooting up the streets every day, I've eaten bread and eggs for the last three days, can't even get out to the store, its three blocks down on 14th, not that they have anything there anyway…"
"Please, so rude of me, please come in," Dagr began to step back, "I have a nice couch, no TV though, got robbed last week, I could hear them from my bedroom, but I just stayed in my blanket. I could make you a cup of tea, no milk or sugar, I'm afraid, but, well…"
Fowler stuck his upper body into the room, swiveling his head around. The flashlight on his helmet cut a tight swathe through the gloom, illuminating the pathetic attempts at normalcy; a faded couch, a table loaded with coffee cups, a radio, a pile of textbooks hugging the floor along one wall. The moment hung on a see saw, Dagr staring at Fowler's foot, willing it to inch back, dreading the one step forward which would signal the end.
"Alright sir." Fowler stepped back. "You be careful now. Give us a call if this Kinza is spotted anywhere. You can ask for Captain Fowler at the Thresher."
"Yes Captain, yes, I will," Dagr said. "Absolutely. I hope you catch him. He sounds like a bastard Sadr sympathizer. You're doing a good job. Long live America!"
They left and he sagged against the door, aghast at how weak his legs felt. And then he stumbled back inside, remembering that he had left Kinza and Hamid alone for far too long, Kinza drunk and brooding, a man capable of anything. They were in the bathroom, the Captain fetal in the cracked bathtub, hands and legs bound, a filthy handkerchief choking his mouth, two inches of tepid water sloshing a pink tinge. Kinza had a screwdriver and pliers, and his bottle in the crook of his arm, humming.
"Kinza, they're gone," Dagr said, out of breath.
"I think he's ready to tell me all sorts of things," Kinza said. He removed the gag.
"Fuck you," Hamid said. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
"Holding back are you?"
"Fuck you, you haven't asked me anything yet."
"Right." Kinza laughed. "I don't believe you. You're lying." He started again with the screwdriver.
"Kinza, stop it," Dagr said. "The Americans are looking for you. They know your name."
"Caught, reprimanded, I don't know," Dagr said. "Busted. We have to run, Kinza. They know about the guns."
Hamid started laughing, a whistling sound because he had recently lost a tooth. "You two are the stupidest fuckers alive."
"No problem." Kinza put away his tools. "I'll shoot him and then we'll go."
"Where, Kinza?" Dagr asked.
"North, to Shulla." Kinza shrugged. "I have a friend. Or maybe head over to Baqouba. Start again."
"Idiots." Hamid spat out blood. "I know where to go."
"Where?" Dagr asked.
"Shut up," said Kinza.
"Take me to Mosul," Hamid said, "and I will show you the secret bunker of Tareq Aziz."
"Like a sight seeing tour?" Dagr asked, momentarily puzzled.
"It's full of gold, you fool! Bullion bars and coins. I am the only living man who knows its location."
"I once served on his personal staff. I'm the only survivor. Everyone else died in peculiar accidents." Hamid seemed particularly proud of that.
"Do you believe this idiot?" Kinza looked at Dagr.
The insectile head of the American soldier haunted him. "Who cares?" Dagr said. "Let's go to Mosul."