Running Away From Home

Iraqi novelist Mahmoud Saeed’s Long Road to Creative Freedom

By Sridhar Pappu

Mahmoud Saeed would like nothing more than to sit at a desk in the early morning, lost in sentences. The author of seven novels and two books of short stories–all in Arabic and untranslated–Saeed says he needs time to work on his fiction, untroubled by outside events.

His work has been published in six Middle Eastern countries, but last year, at the age of 59, he realized he could no longer stay in the Arabic-speaking world. In July Saeed, an Iraqi, applied for political asylum in the United States, hiring an immigration lawyer who took $500 with the promise of another $1,000 once Saeed found work. The process was supposed to take only two months; it dragged into eight. Saeed’s application was approved several weeks ago. Now he’s penniless, living with the brother of a friend in Albany Park.

“I used to write every day–two, three hours,” says Saeed, walking north on Kimball near Foster. In his right hand is a plastic bag containing paperback copies of his books and clippings from his magazine writing. “At this time I can’t write because I have no computer. The place where I’m staying is very small. You see, there is no place–only in the kitchen there is one big table. I put my books on it and my bags.”

Saeed was born in 1939 in the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. He was the fifth of eight children. His father was a merchant, selling socks and brooms and bags made of palm leaves.

He loved stories early on; he wasn’t picky. He read all sorts of novels–romances, histories, and detective yarns. Some of these were originally written in English and came to Iraq from Egypt or Lebanon after being translated into Arabic. At 17 he won a short-story competition in a local newspaper; his prize was a year’s subscription. He recalls the winning story while sitting in a coffee shop, amid the clamor of girls from Von Steuben High.

“This is about what happens between sister and brother, and he kills her,” he says. “You see, in our tradition in Iraq if the girl do anything with a foreign man, he has to kill her and he killed her.”

In 1957, just before Iraq briefly declared itself a republic, Saeed published his first book of short stories. It earned him 15 dinars, then the equivalent of “five new suits.” He was teaching Arabic when he joined the Iraqi writers’ guild, founded after King Faisal II was deposed in July 1958. The guild, Saeed explains, raised money to publish members’ books and to help market their work to newspapers and magazines. If you were without a house, he says, the guild could goad the government into building one for you. In return, the guild exerted control over its members, but back then, Saeed says, its main considerations were aesthetic–when his first attempt at a novel was deemed too ambitious, he simply wrote another.

That book, An Old Case, followed the plight of poor people from Mosul seeking a better life in Baghdad. Though the novel, like all his work, was critical of Iraqi society, it was accepted by the guild and printed in February 1963. That same month the military staged a coup and burned all copies of Saeed’s book, along with many others. Iraq continued to suffer through a string of military coups. In the summer 1999 issue of Al Jadid, a Los Angeles-based Arab-community magazine, writer Dunya Mikhail said Saeed’s setback came to characterize his career, reflecting “the woeful cultural situation of the Arab world in general. Unfortunately, many good manuscripts are destined for obscurity, thanks to the censors.”

At the time of the coup, Saeed was on a holiday in Baghdad. He says he learned a warrant had been issued for his arrest, so he became a fugitive, sleeping first at a friend’s house, then in a garage, finally settling in the woods. His friends talked of crossing the desert into Saudi Arabia, but after one night in the woods Saeed and a companion went looking for blankets. He was spotted by the national guard and sentenced to prison.

Little remained for him when he emerged in 1964. His teaching job was gone. Gone too was his belief that he could be a writer in Iraq. For six months he stayed with a niece in Baghdad. Then he heard the Moroccan government was looking for teachers of Arabic.

Saeed speaks with a lilt when the topic turns to Morocco. He was young and free, and even today wishes he could have stayed there. He wistfully recalls trips to Spain, where he lived well on $100 a month. In Al Jadid, Saeed singled out “the freedom enjoyed by the Moroccans.” Morocco was the place he discovered love.

“In Iraq,” he says, “you couldn’t make any relation with any woman. Only if you marry her. If you don’t marry her, they will kill you. In Morocco, like here, you can make relation with any woman you like. If she likes you, you go to her and she will come with you.”

One day in the streets of Mohammedia, Saeed met Ruqaya, an enigmatic girl whose voice, appearance, and charm rattled his heart. They were together for two years. Saeed asked her to marry him, but she refused. She told him she didn’t want to get married because she wouldn’t be able to date anyone else. Instead of making Ruqaya his wife, Saeed made her the heroine of a novel.

Bin Baraka Alley was written in 1970, several years after they broke up, but the book wasn’t published until 1993. The first edition came out in Jordan, and three years later a second edition was released in Lebanon. “I changed the events,” Saeed says. “But I kept just the sounds and her beauty. And I kept her name: Ruqaya.”

Some critics have viewed the character of Ruqaya as a sensualist, but Saeed says in real life she was courageous for expressing her feelings and overcoming the barrier of gender. He’d even started to agree with her, believing marriage was a sucker’s bet, part of the old ways of a country he had left behind.

Saeed left Morocco in 1967 after receiving a letter from his mother, calling him back to Mosul. She pleaded to see him before she died. When he arrived, he found her in good health, missing her son enough to lie to him. He planned to return to Morocco, but the six-day Arab-Israeli war broke out. Iraqi officials closed the border. A cholera outbreak followed, Saeed says, and no one was allowed to leave. He was later enlisted to teach in the Iraqi city of Basra.

There is a matter-of-factness to Saeed’s depiction of the years that followed. First, he asked his family to arrange a marriage. Then he had two children, a son in 1968 and a daughter in 1970. He also wrote two books–The Sound and the Rhythm and Bin Baraka Alley. When Bin Baraka Alley was finally published 23 years later, it was banned in Kuwait, Morocco, Iraq, and even Jordan, where it first appeared. He says he started another novel during the beginning stages of the Iran-Iraq war, but it was either lost or stolen–he can’t be sure. On four occasions, his family was forced to flee for safety.

By 1980, he had settled into the unassuming life of a high school literature teacher and repressed novelist. Iraq’s president, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, had just been replaced by Saddam Hussein. That’s when the police came for Saeed again. When he didn’t return from school one evening, his wife spent two days searching police stations and hospitals. A family friend found out he’d been arrested. This time he was in prison for six months. He says five years earlier he was photographed in a casino, standing in a crowd watching people play poker. The man next to him was a Kurdish leader from Basra, he says, and authorities mistakenly linked the two. Saeed says he didn’t know the man. Aside from being cruel, totalitarian regimes can be terribly random.

When he was released, Iran and Iraq were at war. His son, Anmir, was 12 years old, and Saeed feared for his future–he had to to get the boy out of the country. He says he switched to school administration so he could take an early retirement, and in 1984 he bribed his way to a passport and a place in the United Arab Emirates.

Saeed found work as a buyer of foreign goods for Iraqi merchants, and by 1987 he’d earned enough to send his son to school in Germany, where he still lives. His wife, Kowother, remained in Iraq with their daughter, Aseel. They were finally able to join him in Dubai in 1995.

Once in exile, Saeed saw a rush of his books come into print. The Sound and the Rhythm was published in Syria in 1995. A work written following his 1980 detention, I Am Who Was Seen, was also published in 1995 in Syria under the pseudonym Mustafa Ali Noman while his family was still in Iraq. The End of Daylight, written in 1996, was published in Lebanon, and a collection of short stories, The Birds of Love and War, was released in Egypt and Syria in 1997. Six months ago, his latest novel, The Beautiful Death, was published in Damascus.

His relative good fortune came as other Iraqi intellectuals suffered. He says most scholars in Iraq earn “three to four dollars a month,” and their situation continues to worsen. Saeed’s friend, the short story writer Abed al-Malek Nouri, died alone, destitute and nearly blind. Another friend, Moussa Kreidieh, died at age 50 just after Saeed helped him sell two newspaper articles for $100.

Saeed had his own problems. Needing a sponsor to stay in the United Arab Emirates, he befriended the owner of a large construction company who was an aspiring poet. Saeed would edit his manuscripts in exchange for help in renewing his residency. As the UAE sought closer relations with Iraq, Saeed and his sponsor began to feel endangered. Saeed says he was called in for questioning and berated by government officials for his critical views on Saddam Hussein. His sponsor asked him to stop writing newspaper editorials, and after the construction company’s contracts with the government were threatened, his sponsor told him it would be best for everyone if he left.

Nine months ago Saeed landed in Detroit, where there’s a large Iraqi community. “I came here,” Saeed says, “because of the freedom, the opportunity. You see they show us all this, ‘the leader of freedom in the world.'” He had $6,000 to help him settle in the United States, and he expected to get support from his countrymen. He located a wealthy friend of a friend who advised him first to stay in a hotel for $65 a night, then to buy a used Pontiac for $1,300. The Pontiac didn’t run after $700 in repairs, and Saeed sold it for $300. Hearing the political asylum process might move more swiftly in Chicago, he moved here in October.

When recognized by the patrons and staff in Abunaws, an Iraqi restaurant in Albany Park, Saeed was offered a couch in an apartment on Montrose for $200 a month. Now that he’s won asylum, he hopes his situation will change. With a job, he’d be able to pay off the $4,000 he owes to friends and bring his wife to this country. He’s enrolled in English classes at the Albany Park Community Center; he takes long walks in the evenings, listening to language tapes. And he’s started to summon the beginnings of a new novel.

“I saw in Detroit many Iraqi people, Christians and Muslims. I saw many things: how money spoils the people and how the Iraqis use the Iraqis, how the Iraqi cheats the Iraqi, and how the Iraqis destroy one another. These are many things that if I put them into a novel they change their idea of America and their praise of America.

“But I saw some people, Americans. They behave like saints. Very noble and compassionate and helping others. I saw something good, something bad–something very, very good and very, very bad. And until now, I don’t think any writer has written about it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Machnik.