The Story of The Severed Head

Charles Freund re-examines Mohammed Berrada’s surrealistic The Story of the Severed Head in light of recent developments in Iraq. In Berrada’s work, a head is severed from its corpse, delivers a speech, and is judged by a ghost.

Of course, the most obvious source of the story’s renewed timeliness is the severed head itself. Originally a device intended by Barrada to evoke antique horrors for his modern Arab readers, it may now evoke instead the disgust of daily reality. Beheadings or threats of beheadings are in the news almost every day, thanks to murderers who are acting in the name of Islamist political fantasies. Headless bodies are found floating in the Tigris River, and bodiless heads are discovered in Saudi refrigerators. Videotaped beheadings may be watched at any time on the internet, their appalling images overwhelming Barrada’s or anyone else’s attempts to capture their savagery in words. Barrada’s quarter-century-old political horror story is now our daily reality.

Freund places Berrada’s work firmly in the tradition of fantastic and surrealistic works that appeared in the Arab world in the 1960s, probably in response to Nasserism. Berrada’s story dealt with the circularity of nationalist thought.

What happens when someone – or something – attempts to break this cycle? In Barrada’s tale, the people react to the head’s attempt to make them “call things by their name and embrace realities” in this way: They hurl abuse at the head. They speculate as to whether the head is a tool of a foreign power. They answer, “We don’t have to put up with someone who insults us and reviles us.” The final judgment of the head is delivered at its state trial: Return the head to the corpse, orders a ghostly judge who has risen from the past, “and cut off the tongue.”

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