Ahmad Saadawi’s “Dogs”

by zunguzungu

Today I’m teaching Ahmad Saadawi’s (very) short story “Dogs,” which Jadaliyya introduces only by saying

“originally published in al-Aalem (Baghdad) in July 2010 following a campaign to exterminate stray dogs in Baghdad.”

If you’re reading this post, you should click over and read the story; it’s barely 600 words, and when’s the last time you read a story from Iraq?

The first thing to say is that even the New York Times understands that a campaign to kill stray dogs is rife with symbolic meaning:

BAGHDAD — While human beings in Iraq were killing each other in huge numbers, they ignored the dogs, which in turn multiplied at an alarming rate. Now stray dogs are such a menace that municipal workers are hunting them down, slaughtering some 10,000 in Baghdad just since December.

A stray peered out from a pile of corrugated metal in Baghdad, where feral packs have surged. Few Iraqis own dogs as pets. This is not exactly good news, but it does seem a measure of progress that Iraqis have the luxury of worrying about dogs at all.

Certainly the story lightly gestures towards a killing animals/killing humans distinction. But what the Times sees as a “turning the corner” index of progress, I think it’s fair to say that Saadawi is much more concerned with thinking long term, and there’s something distinctly unsettling about way the narrator urges us to be like dogs. Putting aside the fact that a dog is not usually a nice thing for a human to be — especially in this “public safety” framework, where a dog is bare life by reference to the human not-dog — what does it mean to be that kind of accepting? “It’s not good to spend life’s precious time thinking of a death that is impervious to thought.” Note the way the dogs lose their names.

From an interview with Saadawi:

The problem here is that I cannot escape “Iraq”. I mean, this is the place that I know, and it is the one place that primarily matters to me more than any other. I want to create a vision that is honestly constructed about what is going on. I believe that many of us in Iraq – artists, intellectuals, and average people – are still unable to comprehend the dramatic and monstrous events that took place since April 2003, and until this day.

I still believe that reaching the abyss of civil war and cheap daily massacres is the ugliest moment in Iraq’s modern history. Many of us still refuse to morally face this moment. We slaughtered one another in a cold and barbaric manner, now we must apologize from ourselves and from others.

Mario Vargas Llosa begins his Conversation in the Cathedral by mentioning a public health campaign to round up stray dogs, and I feel like I’ve seen that motif many times, though that’s the only example I can think of. But no wonder; such a rich trope: public order and the state’s power to kill, the line separating humans and animals, and of course, domesticity: pets/strays/”mad dog” and the varying levels and modes of sympathy. And there’s always the way the protection of animals — see here, here, and here — becomes a sign of Western benevolence, and, quietly, a sign of non-western savagery.