Robert J. Farley


Qālū lī: Inta lista bi-mu'awwaq, al-insānu la yahtāju hādhayni l-isba'ayni fī-l-'ādah. Wa-lākinnanī ahtājuhumā…ahtājuhumā.
[They said to me, 'You're not handicapped. People do not normally need those fingers.' But I need them…I need them.] ("I used to Count my Friends on my Fingers" 123)1

What limbs count as ones we "need" and ones we don't? Who decides? An Arabic short story takes up this question in the context of combat amputation, when a man who lost his ring and pinkie fingers in battle comes to the capital for compensation. "I used to Count my Friends on my Fingers" by Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi, centers the psychological trauma of losing a part of the body that the state considers to be trivial.

The body is central to much of Saadawi's work, as the site where violence that has become ordinary in Iraq and much of the region plays out. His widely-acclaimed novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, which won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and has been translated into a number of languages,2 features a reanimated body known as "shisma" (colloquial Iraqi Arabic for ‘what's its name') made up of an assembly of parts amputated from victims of random bombs, fires, massacres, and other violence by Iraqi and American military forces, paramilitary and other various militia groups. Shisma roams the streets of Baghdad avenging their victims, with each causing them to shed the victim's body part and acquire a new one in a perpetual cycle of killing, reanimation, and transformation. In the case of this fantastical novel, Saadawi mobilizes countless, nameless and forgotten victims and assembles them into a single body. While many differences separate Saadawi's novel and his short story, both centralize the body as a site of trauma and loss that go unrepresented in dominant discourses, usually falling under the rubric of "collateral damage."

In his short story, Saadawi takes up the individual's perspective by foregrounding the psychology of an amputee and personifying his lost limbs. Published in 2014 in English, "I used to Count my Friends on my Fingers," portrays an unnamed former soldier who comes to Baghdad in hopes of compensation after having lost two fingers in an explosion when he served in the First Persian Gulf War between Iraq and Iran (1980-88).3 Having to spend days navigating the bureaucratic pension office, he stays in a rundown motel room, candle-lit because of regular power outages, drinking gin with his two friends who are often analogized to his two missing fingers. The room resembles a stage where nearly all of the action takes place, continuously haunted by the flickering shadow of his hand on the wall, but with all five fingers in tact. Now and then on the stairs appears the motel attendant, Abdou, with his cat who is rumored to have had the ability to speak until an accident took it away. The two friends are foils to each other, in that the first (the ring) takes on a talkative commanding presence and brags about his sexual conquests, while the second (the pinkie) smokes in relative silence, suicidal, and lamenting the loss of his childhood love interest. On the final night, after the ring gets back from pleasuring a strange man in the shared toilet, the two friends bicker so much that the main character throws them out. We also find out that the Retirement Bureau rejects his compensation case. The story concludes the next morning, when Abdou's cat tells him what happened to his friends: that they argued until the pinkie threw himself into the sewer.

At the heart of this story lies a question about the contours of the body. What constitutes a bodily loss? What losses count as national sacrifice, while others are discarded as "collateral damage", and how does that affect a person's psychology and self-image? Scholars of Queer and Middle East Studies, Maya Mikdashi and Jasbir Puar, reflect on the limits of queer theorizing the body outside of the U.S. context, to consider bodies formed by the various experiences of "permanent war," such as military destruction and toxic contamination of the environment in Iraq and Yemen, as well as Israeli practices of calorie counting of Palestinians. They urge us to rethink what constitutes a gendered injury, to consider including the "multiple and diffuse" corporeal differences of maimed and crippled bodies, even if they "neither present a challenge to the normative nor signal a transgressive nonnormativity but undo this very binary opposition through their endemic presence?"4 I argue that Saadawi's story undoes the binary by depicting a body betwixt and between categories of ability. In dramatizing an existential crisis of someone whose trauma and loss is enough to maim but not enough to be considered worthy of compensation, the story asks us to consider what kinds of injury and trauma get erased and unaccounted for in official narratives. In doing so, it questions prescriptive ideas of a normative range of corporeal difference.

The story's motif of the representation of the protagonist's hand captures this tension between the injury and discursive erasure of it. The story begins and ends with the image of a three-fingered handprint staining the wall in the blood of a slaughtered lamb. This permanence of his injured hand runs counter to the full five-fingered shadow that flits along the room's walls in the main of the story.

Between the chatter of his first friend who had gone to the toilet and the silence of his second, he was observing the shadow of his hand on the wall. It was quite bizarre. The pinkie and the ring finger were there. He moved them, and the shadow moved. Were they missing from the other hand? There, there was the other hand. They were there, too. (121)

Saadawi projects the phantom limbs on the motel room walls as though a constant reminder of a haunting image of the normative body, the body he does not have, yet represents him under the law. The analogy between his fingers and his friends comes together in the final scene, when, as the argument between the ring and pinkie comes to a climax, the shadow hand spasms violently on the wall while the shadows of the corresponding fingers slam against each other.

With these psychic images in constant circulation, the motel room resembles a kind of absurdist theater: the Hotel Dunya (meaning "world"), the phantom hand projected on the wall, and the fantastical conflation of his lost fingers with his found friends (specifically not chosen as he states at the start of the story, 116). In a kind of existential style of Sartre's No Exit, the protagonist in this confined setting must constantly reckon with having to see himself through others, be they his friends or his nation. In this way, the dynamism of the body's representation means his trauma does not end, but repeats in slightly different forms.

Even if physical amputation was enough to warrant restitution, the psychic effects of their loss, Saadawi shows us, go much further beyond the realm of intelligibility. Saadawi thus inflects his short story with the absurdist theatrical. The main character can only attempt in vein to construct an identity around his loss, as his maimed body is insufficient evidence in itself to be recognized by the state. While Saadawi's story calls attention to the state's role in defining a normative (able) body and erasing certain corporeal differences, it also highlights the often-unarticulated psychological crisis of not just the physical loss, but the inability to make it meaningful, or "count," in official discourse.


1. Ahmed Saadawi, "I used to Count my Friends on my Fingers," trans. Robert J. Farley, Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab Literature 49 (Summer 2014): 116-24.
2. The English translation by eminent Arabic-English literary translator, Jonathan Wright, was released by Penguin Books last year in 2018.
3. Conscription in Iraq was and remains mandatory according to the constitution and was especially prevalent during in the eighties war.
4. Maya Mikdashi and Jasbir K. Puar. "Queer Theory and Permanent War." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 22.2 (Jan. 2016): 220.


Robert James Farley is a Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature at UCLA, where he works on his dissertation: an Arabic queer literary history of print and digital zines by grassroots organizations across Southwest Asia and North Africa. He also translates and gives talks on modern Arabic literature, consults in research and instructional technology with UCLA's Humanities Technology and Digital Humanities, and promotes accessible design as web editor and board member of his residents' association.