An Excerpt from Memoirs of an Iraqi Dog
By Abdul Hadi Sadoun
Translated by Andrew Leber
Reviewed and Edited by Elisabeth Jacquette
[Memoirs of an Iraqi Dog, a novel by Madrid-based Iraqi author Abdul Hadi Sadoun, comes after more than ten collections of short stories and poetry, a novella, and dozens of Arabic- and Spanish-language essays and translations by the same author. The story is told by an Iraqi dog named “Leader,” harkening back to traditions of storytelling from the perspectives of animals. Yet the book retains the form of a modern narrator, while its style approximates that of a picaresque novel as it follows the life of one person from birth until the end of his days. Likewise, there is an intertextual relationship with the novels of Spanish writer Miguel Cervantes, particularly those which examine the affairs of humans through the watchful eyes of animals. The difference here is that the animal (here a dog) has become the principle focus and indeed the main character of a set of personal memoirs.
Over the course of 28 chapters, the protagonist tells of the strange and wonderful events of his life. He begins with his birth on the banks of the Tigris, to an Iraqi Seluki-hound father and a Spanish Sabueso Scenthound mother, and the companionship of his master, a teacher politically opposed to conditions under Ba‘athist rule, who teaches the dog how to read and write. He recounts the many hunting trips he took part in, including one with the President’s son – a trip which would try him against the political circumstances of the time, leaving him homeless, imprisoned, separated from his owner.
He experiences the loss of his family, the forced migration of his brothers, and the death of his teacher, felled by an unknown hand after suffering in the prisons of the previous dictatorial regime. At the same time, he explores the conditions of his country after the fall of the tyrant and sees the impact of an international military intervention that has swept through the country. His many peregrinations from one location to the next, bring him into contact with many other dogs: gangs of dogs, siblings scattered to the winds, friends and dire enemies, love deferred and permanent loss. He wanders until his final flight from the country, whereupon he takes up residence in another land (“I’d rather not say the name”, he says), and from there lives from moment to moment, concentrating his energies on writing down his canine memoirs, that he might leave behind some trace for those who wish to follow in his pawsteps.
The protagonist is a wise dog, fluent in more than one language thanks to his owner, the teacher, who loves to read and observe humans. He is a skilled hunter who comes to hate killing, eventually becoming a vegetarian after he starts to loath the taste of blood. He realizes after the course of his life, in all its vicissitudes, that each of us plots his own course, a course that we must follow despite all the setbacks and changes we are bound to face in our short lives.]
Preface to the Memoirs
In a country whose name I would rather not mention, I sit here today and so shall remain until my dying bark, setting down these recollections of my life. As you know, dogs of my species do not live longer than twelve human years, or about ninety of our dog years, though I certainly do not aspire to reach such an advanced age.
I sit now in the corner of a dilapidated old house, thanking God that I have found shelter from the scorching sun and the driving rain, on a stone bench near the storeroom where I can spend my final days in relative comfort. I am sure you have realized that I was forced to leave my home country, Iraq. Since I have witnessed nothing of note in the year and a half since I arrived in this country (whose name, as noted, I would rather not mention), you will not hear a thing in these accounts about my current residence.
The canine species is known for being quite physically active, so you may be surprised to find me quietly devoting my remaining days to writing these memoirs, one bark after another (as the critics would have it). Let me repeat that, dear reader – this account contains no empty bragging, nor is it an elaborate joke at your expense. No, the aches and pains of old age, along with hunger and poverty (not to mention the open wound of leaving my homeland, Iraq), weigh on me too heavily these days- too heavily for me (or you, for that matter) to joke about what I will come to describe.
You must know that I am not the first of my kind to put my recollections in writing. Still, I may be the first to write them while in exile, as I have not had the pleasure of reading the memoirs of a dog far away from his home. I have heard of cats, goats, and cows who have described long days of travel or adventures abroad in their writings - but a dog? I might be the first, then.
I must admit, though, that I have benefited greatly from the animals who preceded me in chronicling their unusual experiences. As you know, none of us ever writes something completely new – it is all so much repetition and plagiarism, with a little corrective addition here, or a few digressions there, with some omissions or embellishments to round it out. I cannot say my own experience has been all that different, aside from the fact that these barks are my own and no other’s.
I do not exaggerate in saying that my main inspiration has been the novel Colloquy of the Dogs, by Cervantes. I had no idea who Cervantes was before my first master, a teacher, mentioned him. He was always reading Cervantes, telling me bits and pieces of the man’s long and difficult life, but I did not bother to learn more about him at the time (and certainly will not bother now!). Yet as soon as my master mentioned this “exemplary novel” of Cervantes, I barked and barked for more; from that day on I never tired of hearing the story, and had soon learned all of its details by heart.
Still, dear reader, know that there is no deception here - I relied on that novel solely as a vivid example of what I might be able to write, and not once did I copy it outright. Everything I write of truly happened to me, and (aside from their mention here) bears no relation whatsoever to those two tailless dogs invented by a one-armed man.
I recall hearing that someone, I know not who (forgive me – my memory fails me more and more these days) advised writers in my position to recount their memoirs in the first person, for two reasons. First of all, these are private, personal recollections. Second, and more importantly, I should make these lines cling to everyone who encounters them, close as the eyelid to the eye (as the Iraqi folk song goes), as gripping as if they were the reader’s own personal experiences. I do so in the hopes that this can be an example for dogs of the future, should they wish to write out the chapters of their own lives.
I have nothing else to add, save the following: I say simply that I am called “Leader,” that I am writing these memoirs of my own free will, and that my sole intention is to review the details of my life, running them through my mind like a cassette tape, to relive both their bitterness and their sweetness. Our lives may amount to no more than scribbles such as this, stamped with an unknown seal, as the Bohemians put it – yet the writings we ourselves find unworthy of attention might, for others, prove more than mere testimony of having survived life’s vicissitudes.
I have not seen you since the teacher gave me to a friend of his. He thought I was done for, no longer good for anything. Yet the truth was that my shattered paw and the fact that I was lame left me ready for anything. The man into whose care I now fell, he could see that. He would leave me alone, starve me of food or water for long stretches of time, then present me with easy prey, and I would tear it apart in minutes. In the beginning he offered me chickens and other kinds of birds, and from there moved on to sheep, rabbits, goats – even wild boar, from who knows where. Clearly, he was training me to fight. Days of starvation, then the thrill of combat. Fight after fight, until that decisive moment when you saw me face-to-face with a stray dog. He barely lasted a minute with me. The wretch died between my fangs before he could even put up a fight.
After a long period of training, and many bouts with dogs of all shapes and sizes, my new master drove me to a place far outside of the city. There, in a remote farm that belonged to some important state officials, I took part in my very first official fight. It would lead to many more like it, there and in other places much like it. As my fame grew, so did my brutality, and with it my victories. I watched my beaming master lead me from one arena to another, with nothing for me to do but add to the list of dogs wasted beneath my feet, their blood staining my mouth and body. They called me “The Killer Cripple,” all of them wishing their own dogs had my agility and my fierce drive as I circled my victims. My fame grew, and not a week went by that I didn’t find myself in a fighting arena, facing a new challenger. So many broken bodies and snapped necks have passed between my teeth that I have lost track of how many dogs I faced in those rounds. I cannot even remember their faces, stretched out at my feet.
Still, all that begins soon comes to an end!
In those last few days, my master brought me to fighting rings at the mansions of important people - even the mansion of the president himself. People from all levels of society were there. I noticed the President’s son at the front of the pack - I was to fight his dog in one of my bouts. I could knock him down as easily as I had the other fierce dogs, I thought - though I felt a strange current moving through the crowd around me, one that my master was soon a part of.
He and several others took me to a side room, where they tied me to a column and beat my left paw fiercely, crippling me further. They thrashed my neck and back until I heard the bones crack, then stuck a tube in my rear and blew into it. They spread a strange paste on my teeth, then left me. After a quarter of an hour, my master came and untied me, dragging me towards the arena to face the largest dog I had ever set eyes on. I was broken in every sense of the word: drugged, barely able to move or even stand. As I faced that beast, I knew he belonged to the President’s son, and I saw the man puffing out clouds of cigar smoke as he eagerly waited for his dog to pulverize me. I understood then what they had done to me, drugging and beating me, all so that I couldn’t defeat his precious dog.
That beast of a dog didn’t even let me catch my breath before he was upon me, slamming his body into me and hurling me against the chain-link fence surrounding the ring. I had no chance to get out of this alive - everyone there had already decided that I would be the sacrificial offering. Yet something within me refused to play along. I remained calm, despite his bites and kicks raining down, and when he relaxed his neck, thinking that I was all but dead, I found my opening, my one chance. I spun around, freeing up my body as much as I could, and made that lame jump known to anybody who had seen my previous fights. A jump so nimble it surprised the dog in front of me, just as it had surprised so many other dogs who had died between my teeth. It was a movement so precise, the other dog did not know where I had gone until he felt my sharp fangs sinking into his throat. My paws clung fast to his fearsome body, locking him in place, and from then no power on earth could save him from me.
Without relaxing my muscles, I watched the son’s dog sputter and cough. Around me, the scattered crowd was screaming all manner of words, but nobody would cheer me on before the son’s crazed gaze, as he watched his dog die between my teeth. In the moments before I released the dog, his spirit gone, I noticed the son signaling to several others. And then I saw that I was suddenly facing three massive dogs, each as big as the corpse that lay drowning in its own blood before me. I felt the sting of defeat. I could not see anybody objecting, and I myself was not about to, though I did not for a second believe that I could win out against three dogs at once, dogs trained like me to fight and kill. I tried with all my might to get up, but I failed. I was being bitten, bloodied and tossed around by the three, who savored tearing at my limbs and licking up my blood until I lost consciousness entirely. I was thrown to the earth near the body of the beast, and I thought I was finished. Dead. I closed my eyes and fell into a deep sleep, departing this world forever.
I must have been unconscious for hours, before I felt my body tossed onto the garbage heaps outside the city.
It was hard to move. Open wounds still oozed blood all over my body, my neck half-crushed, my paws broken. Yet I was still alive, there atop a garbage pile as tall as a large building. I figured my master or somebody had driven my bloody corpse out here. Maybe they knew I was still alive (though clearly no good for anything), but still tossed me here without a second thought, leaving fate to determine whether I lived or died. To this day, I don’t know why they didn’t finish me off with a single bullet. Could anything have been easier?
What followed was a months-long journey of pain and recovery.
Hidden from sight, I slowly regained my strength, and began to see things in a new light. My primary concern was treating all my wounds, and I barely went out save to obtain what I needed to stay alive, like a mouse in a hole. I hid from sight as much as possible; No power of heaven or earth could force me to make an appearance – my only concern was staying alive.
During those months of recovery, I began to understand life differently. Life wasn’t simply a dog-fighting ring, but so much more. Yet on the other hand, if life itself decreed a certain path for you to take, who were you to think otherwise? I began to march to the beat of a different drummer during those months, as I slowly began to recover from my wounds of the body and the mind. I started to think that life might have something new in store for me, yet the fates had new confrontations in mind.
And now you see me leading a gang of canine bandits. Yes, bandits – for what else could we be amidst such insecurity and lawlessness? My options were to let the gang tear me to pieces – resistance would have been impossible – or, within a few moments, dig up everything I had tried so hard to forget during those long months of recovery. I chose the latte
In an instant, I regained my sense of killing and fighting, and brought the group under my control. It all happened without a bloody confrontation to speak of. It was as if they had been waiting for me, in need of my leadership, and I was happy to take control of the gang. From then on, I led them under the title of “General,” a delusion my gang would defend unto death.
Today, owing to the recent events, I rule a large fiefdom near the border - none of my flock rejects an order from me, or dares oppose me. I act alone, more convinced with each day that I am a true general to my troops, destined to achieve a great victory or die a cruel death. But let me tell you, my brother, I am convinced that my last day will come from one of my aides, or one of the stronger gangs that multiply around us, competing for profit. All that I have done before, and all that I do today, will mean nothing. Yet fighting is the only thing I have known since I was a whelp, the only thing I have been taught - I have no choice but to stick with it until the very end. No choice but to put the best face forward (or the worst face… who knows?) and carry on until the end. The final round.
[From Mudhakkirat Kalb Iraqi (Memoirs of an Iraqi Dog (Thaqafa lil-Nashr wal-Tawzi`, 2012)]