Text idea: Frankenstein in Baghdad
Oneworld Publications, 2018, by Ahmed Saadawi, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright
This is a beautiful novel and adaptation by Ahmed Saadawi of one of my favourite’s: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I love reading Shelley’s text with students in November, the time when the ‘monster’ is created (“It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.”). We often do so as part of a unit on ‘beauty’ or ‘ethics’. You’ll see below how this original and its Iraq-based adaptation could be used in conceptual focus units like these.
The novel —
The story is complex about war in Iraq, less about sides and politics and more about the way people are affected - families, individual soldiers, journalists - by the ongoing threat of terror. The Guardian calls the book “strange, violent and wickedly funny.” Saadawi questions religion and god in general, a discourse on the disgust of the splay of bodies, and an unnaturalness to the loss of sons and loved ones in this way. The ‘monster’ is similar to Shelley’s in that it, the unnamed, helps us understand the problems and shortcomings of humanity and society through his naivety and new look at those around him by whom he is mistreated. Yes, he is a monster - killing and terrorising those around him - but can we blame him? Or is this who we all are at essence?
The outlook is bleak, but there is humour here, too, and moment of pure humanity that make us consider our own place on this earth and the reason that a war zone (arguably void of culture and society) brings out the worst in people. Let’s look at the top five reasons to teach this text.
Of course, adaptations of the book itself are plentiful. I love, for example, the Kenneth Branagh and Robert De Niro version (1994) that includes some subtle but well thought out changes to the plot. Less successful, in my opinion, is the more recent version (2015) featuring Daniel Radcliffe as Igor (cinema’s version of Shelley’s Henry Clerval) that takes a lot of liberties but doesn’t get creative enough to be an interesting parody like Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie (2012). There are loads of different versions; IMDB lists 47 entires under “Frankenstein Adaptations” that go back to 1910.
However, we can use this text with an adaptation unit, including film, perhaps not just specifically of Frankenstein but also films like Edward Scissorhands that question man’s response to unknown creatures as well as human’s desire to make something in an unnatural way, for selfish reasons. We can extend this to the genetic engineering and designer baby debate by looking at news articles on the topic, or films like The Island or those that connect it to AI, of which there are many but I prefer Ex Machina.
You can have students do their own pastiche of the original Frankenstein to illustrate a global issue or help us understand the allegorical connection of Shelley’s story to the new context.
2. Intertextuality (the dialogue of literature)
Intertextuality is different in that we look at texts in dialogue together to understand new meanings. You would consider the relationship between Shelley’s classic text and this modern adaptation. But, you would also likely consider texts like Paradise Lost, which is alluded to in Shelley, or other works of literature that use similar themes. Additionally, you can use inquiry into the context of this story to better understand its themes. You may choose to hand select several journalistic pieces, for example, that discuss ongoing conflicts in Iraq and the involvement of foreign military (especially from the US).
There are many ethical questions in this text (as well as that of Shelley). If you are at an IB school, this might be taught in conjunction with TOK, or at least by using the ethical lenses your students will learn.
You can again look at ‘designer babies’ and genetic engineering, at the manifestation of grief, at the struggles of war. Is war ever ethical? How can one create one’s own moral and ethical perspectives within a war zone?
You might also consider the monstrous elements in humans and human elements in the monster. Is the monster actually human or not? What is the distinction?
We see different perspectives of war and conflict in Iraq. None come out as winners or as righteous; in fact, all seem to lose, to struggle. Consider the connections among perspective, empathy, and ethics.
Look at a world issue from the perspective of the monster. Use at least four media articles from different sources and perspectives on the issue to conduct your research. Use at least one WOK explicitly in your understanding of the issue. Deliver your perspective in one of these forms: Op-Ed, interview (written transcript or performed), series of Tweets, speech, political advertising campaign, or another appropriate method you clear with your teacher beforehand.
5. World Literature & Translation
This novel is translated from Arabic. Why is this important? What audiences does the text reach in Arabic and English, respectively? How is Arabic both a unifier and a separator as a language, when we look at different dialects as well as the diaspora?
Depending on where you live and teach, you might not be familiar with much literature from the Arab world. I came to these rich discoveries late. My exposure before had been the Arab world through the eyes of others, like Albert Camus. Perhaps you look at several examples, like the poetry or memoirs of Darwish, novels of Mahfouz, and poetry of Fadwa Tuqan. Of course, there are many others. If you have any students with Arabic as a mother tongue, they might have examples to suggest. And if not, they might be excited to read something originally in their home language.
So, these are just a few ideas of how to use this text. Consider adding it as a central work to study or as an extension or book circle text. Further, any Language A Arabic teachers might use this as a core text in the original language of course. My next post will refer back to the idea of the unnamed monster. Thanks for reading and do let me know how it goes if you end up teaching this.
London, November 2019