Baghdad Noir is the most recent release in the phenomenal Akashic Noir Series of short story anthologies with a noir sensibility. The genius feature is that each edition is edited and written by locals, people intimately knowledgeable of the people and the place that is the focus of each edition in the series. Samuel Shimon, the author of “An Iraqi in Paris” and founder of “Banipal” a respected Arabic literary magazine seems a perfect choice to edit the Baghdad edition.
Baghdad Noir has fourteen stories in four sections called ‘Murder in the Family’, ‘Where is the Trust?’, ‘Wake Me Up,’ and ‘Blood on My Hands.’ It encompasses the time before and during Saddam, during and after the American invasion and includes men and women who currently live in Iraq and others in exile as well as a story by an American soldier. In his introduction, Shimon points out that noir is not a common genre in Arabic literature and he had to explain the concept of commissioning a story and of noir itself, it’s clear he had a hard row to hoe.
There were a few stories I liked. My favorite, to my chagrin, was the one written by the former American soldier, “The Homecoming.” It is the story that most felt like a noir story. There was menace throughout and it was unrelentingly grim. “Post-Traumatic Stress Reality in Qadisiya” and several others struck me more like magical realism. Mainly though what I found off-putting about the stories was the propensity for final paragraph “surprise” revelations. Not that they all surprised, but there was this O’Henry or Guy de Maupassant quality to the stories. I have rows and rows and rows of Akashic Noir books so I dug out the “Queens Noir” book to reread “Alice Fantastic” by Maggie Estep, the story Shimon used as an example for writers who didn’t know noir. It does have a surprise twist, but it works because it’s part of the story’s natural progress. If you look at “The Apartment”, the surprise at the end is motivated by people who were not in the story. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.
This is the first time I have felt disappointed by a book in the Akashic Noir Series and considering the dozens they have published, that pretty amazing. I have read stories from many other cultures with pleasure, so I don’t think my disappointment is rooted in parochialism, particularly since what I find most disappointing is the twist ending from old classic short story writers of the West. Still, it is a useful book to read, not just because we know too little and understand too little about Iraq, some first-person story-telling can only help us all.
I received an e-galley of Baghdad Noir from the publisher through Edelweiss.
- Baghdad Noir at Akashic Books
- Akashic Noir Series
- Samuel Shimon bio in “Banipal”, a magazine he co-founded with Margaret Obank.