REVIEW: “Baghdad Syndrome” by Zhraa Alhaboby

Review of Zhraa Alhaboby, Emre Bennett (trans.), “Baghdad Syndrome”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 87-106 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This story has so many layers to it, it’s hard to know where to begin. There’s the “future-day” story of a man suffering from Baghdad Syndrome who dreams of a weeping woman. There’s the “present-day” story, set in our present or near past, of two star-crossed lovers whose story was commemorated in a statue in a central square. There’s the “past-day” story, of Scheherazade at the 1001 nights. These stories weave in and out of each other and the thread that ties them all together is names and naming. Some of the characters are not named at all; they are simply placeholders that could be anyone. The narrator’s name depends on who it is that is addressing him, whether he is “Patient Sudra Sen Sumer” or “Architect Sudra Sen Sumer”. Some characters are named, but their names are “new” names, names that have been consciously divorced from history, because:

Old names and surnames became dangerous things to hold onto, and people were allocated new, neutral names, free from any affiliations to religions or sects of the past. The slogan we read about in history was: ‘Leave behind your names and live!’ (p. 102).

In one poignant moment, Sudra Sen Sumer visits the family of his coworker Utu, and the older members of the family go around one by one saying the names of their grandparents and great-grandparents, their names connecting them to their histories. Names encode our history, and when those names are taken away, so too is our access to our history; the playing out of this theme is central to the story, and it is also in the periphery at every step.

And then there’s the name, “Baghdad Syndrome”. It’s a destructive illness, one of the long-term consequences of chemical warfare. The course of symptoms is well-known, and there is no cure; when there is no cure and you know what your fate will be, what point is there in visiting the doctors who will do nothing more than give a name to what it is that ails you?

But the illness is only superficial. It is not the real Baghdad Syndrome. For:

You see, if you’re a sufferer of Baghdad Syndrome, you know that nothing has ever driven us, or our ancestors, quite as much as the syndrome of loving Bahgdad (p. 106).

There is so much love in this story. So much love and so much heart. I think it’s probably my favorite in the entire anthology.