Short summary - Ulysses from Baghdad - Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt

French literature summaries - 2021

Short summary - Ulysses from Baghdad
Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt

VERY BRIEF: The story of an Iraqi refugee trying to hide from the war that has been going on for many years in his homeland. On the way to Europe, he overcomes numerous difficulties, meets both friends and enemies. His adventures are a real modern "odyssey".

Illustration from Distribooks Inc

The protagonist Saad explains that his name means "hope" in Persian and "sad" in English. He is horrified by his own status as an illegal migrant, a stranger everywhere, who will not be able to prolong his family so as not to breed illegal immigrants.


Baghdad during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The hero lives in a happy large family of a librarian. Seeing the arbitrariness and lawlessness happening in the country, 11-year-old Saad vows to fight against the bloody dictator.

To save his son from suspicion of the special services, his father, a well-educated intellectual, introduces him to reading the world classics, prohibited by the regime. Thus, the hero avoids the brainwashing common for the country's youth. Over time, his older sisters get married and have children.

In 1990, restrictive UN sanctions were imposed on Iraq for unleashing a war against Bahrain. This provokes hunger, epidemics, poverty, inflation, the flight of the intelligentsia from the country. Saad's sisters become widows, their children die of disease. The family is in great need, the hero is trying to earn as much as he can. He is thinking about emigration.


Saad is attending university and joins an opposition underground organization that aims to assassinate Hussein. After September 11, 2001, President Bush has pledged revenge on the Islamists, and the Iraqis fear a US invasion of the country.

Unlike his revolutionary friends who hate the United States (which is cultivated by the regime), Saad looks forward to war, considering it a liberation for his homeland. He hides his expectations from friends, criticizes himself for defeatism, but he cannot hide anything from Leila, a girl with whom he is secretly in love. A future lawyer, she is also from an intelligent large family.

Students consider the dictatorship destructive, there is a lot of debate about the post-war future.

After an unsuccessful search by UN experts in the country for nuclear weapons, in 2003 the US army attacks Iraq. Saad and Leila confess their love to each other. Their sentiment flourishes in besieged Baghdad. After a short siege, the occupying American troops enter the city, the people rejoice and destroy the statues of the despot. In the euphoria of freedom, the hero visits his beloved and discovers that her house was bombed by enemy aircraft. Neighbors claim that the girl died.


Saad has been depressed for a long time, oblivious to the outbreak of civil war in the country. The Shiite minority, once oppressed by the Sunnis led by Hussein, seeks power with the support of the occupying administration. The country is gripped by fear of terrorist threats that plague civilians.

Soon after the war, the hero's last two sons-in-law are killed by a suicide bomber, and his beloved father is killed by a stray American bullet right before his eyes. The young man is severely disappointed in the winners, only unfortunate women and children remain in his family. Saada begins to visit his father's ghost.

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guy drops out and works, trying to feed his mother, sisters and nephews. He becomes attached to his six-year-old niece Salma. Carrying food for him to work, the girl is injured and falls ill with blood poisoning. Saad carries her to an American hospital, but help is late; Salma dies in his arms. The mother and sisters persuade the hero to emigrate - from abroad he will be able to help them with money.


The ghost of his father tells the hero that you can leave the country by selling yourself. First, Saad finds a terrorist recruiter in the mosque and tries to join them. But the ghost of his father explains that he advised him to become a smuggler, not a suicide bomber.

A distant acquaintance introduces Saad to speculation in antiques, of which there are many in post-war Iraq, since all museums have been looted with the connivance of the Americans. Before leaving, the mother gives her son a veil.


With two partners, the hero sneaks into Egypt to sell stolen antiques. The ghost of the father invariably accompanies his son, giving valuable advice. He mentions the Odyssey and Ulysses as a symbol of the future wanderer son.

On the way, it turns out that along with antiques, the team also transports drugs. The drug couriers who crossed the Red Sea end up in Egypt. There Saad enjoys the peace of peaceful Cairo, spends his last money. At the UN Refugee Office, the hero meets a young black man named Buba and learns that he will have to wait six months to be admitted. A new acquaintance arranges an overnight stay and illegal work for Saad.


Saad works as a gigolo in a dance hall, and Booba works as a pimp. During the day, he listens to the revelations of middle-aged female clients, and in the evenings - the stories of illegal Africans about the unbearable life in their homeland, from which they are fleeing.

Before being admitted to the UN Commissariat, Bouba advises the hero to lie and pretend to be a victim of political repression, since economic migrants are not given refugee status and are not allowed into Europe. The naive Saad plans to tell the truth, as his father taught him.


Finally, he is received by a UN official. According to her, the hero will be denied refugee status because there is no more war or dictatorship in Iraq; The United States has freed the people and is helping them build a democratic state.

Saad offers Booba to illegally travel to England. It seems to the hero that he hates the Arab world and his Arab origin. He does not yet know that for the Europeans he will forever remain only an Arab and will never become one of his own.


Buba decides to join the staff of the touring Swedish punk band Sirens and with their help get to Europe. With the artists, the fugitives enter Libya, where they plan to board a ship to Italy. The heroes see how the Libyan police, on the orders of Gaddafi, do not stand on ceremony with illegal immigrants, not allowing those to the borders of Europe.

On a boat full of refugees, smugglers for huge sums of money Saad and Booba sail to Malta, where the boat is arrested by border guards. The fugitives throw away their documents so that they are not expelled to their homeland.

In Malta, the heroes live in a refugee camp and during interrogations pretend to be amnesia so that the police do not know where they are from. Seeing a prophetic dream, Saad decides to make an escape.


Crossing in a fragile boat to Sicily, the fugitives are caught in a storm; they are thrown into the open sea. Saad keeps Booba afloat for a long time, but the waves throw them away from each other.

The unconscious hero, thrown ashore, is found by a local teacher, the beautiful Vittoria. She organizes a rescue operation, but the Sicilians find only a handful of survivors at sea. Vittoria lodges the unfortunate man. The hero is called Ulysses, hiding his name and past.

On the identification of the drowned refugees, Saad recognizes Booba. Heartbroken, Vittoria consoles him, the heroes draw closer. The girl is also a runaway, she once left her homeland because of the terrorist activities of her parents and became a teacher in order to bring up only good things in children.

Saad again communicates with the ghost of his father, and he explains that he is a tormented soul, unable to leave the earth while his son is in trouble. As long as the son has problems, the father will be there.

From loneliness, the hero falls into despondency, and only Vittoria, who sympathizes with him, supports in him the strength to live. By chance, the guy finds out that the girl is terminally ill and dies. Out of gratitude, Saad stays with her, but his heart is deaf to feelings.


Vittoria fixes the date of the wedding, the boy agrees for the sake of appearance. Taking away the amulet - the mother's veil, which he found on the shore after the storm, the hero secretly leaves the bride, writing her a letter of repentance. In it, he thanks her and confesses his love for another woman who has died. The ghost father criticizes his son for this hasty decision, but the hero is sure that his fate in London - an inexplicable force attracts him there.

In the port, Saad meets African Leopold, a philosopher and womanizer. He is sure that Europeans are two-faced, aggressive, unfair to strangers and deserve illegal migration from third world countries. An African helps the hero secretly get on a ferry to Italy.


Arriving in Naples, Saad looks closely at the situation and realizes that the mafia is engaged in illegal immigrants. To pay the carriers for delivery to the English Channel, the young man gets a job with the bandits - he steals. A few months later, he earns to pay for the road. Hidden in a cramped truck, along with many migrants, he is being taken across European borders. The criminal journey is interrupted by customs officers, who find refugees in the back. The driver is hiding, they are not trying to detain him, but the migrants are arrested.

During interrogation, Saad is called Ulysses, associating himself with the hero of The Odyssey. Sitting in prison, illegal immigrants read fresh newspapers: they portray the capture of migrants as a great achievement of law enforcement agencies, as an act of humanism. No one sympathizes with the unfortunate, fleeing from wars, robbed and deceived by bandits, who almost died on the way due to inhuman conditions. Seized with rage, Saad expresses these considerations to the interrogating customs officer, who, imbued with sympathy, helps him escape.


Lying in a ditch and staring at the sky, Saad talks about the vicissitudes of fate that turned him and his compatriots into nothing and spared indifferent Europeans, although for nothing. In his opinion, prosperous Europeans hate migrants because they show them who they could become under an unenviable set of circumstances.

On the advice of his ghost father under the bottom of the truck, Saad infiltrates France. In the border village, he meets the activists of the association fighting for the rights of refugees. Their leader Max and his wife Odile help the hero. Max takes the young man to the northeast, to Dr. Shelker; for the first time, the hero moves around Europe in comfort. He is fascinated by France and puzzled that, according to the driver, the people are always dissatisfied with something and go on strike.

Once again discussing with his father about the "equality and brotherhood" of all people, the hero declares: "I dream that" we ", which I will one day say, means a community of smart people striving for peace."

Dr. Schelker, who sheltered Saad, is the "mayor of the dead", the caretaker of the cemetery for the victims of the First World War. He talks about wars and borders, destroying and dividing people into their own and enemies, and adds that he does not recognize dividing boundaries and helps the hero out of humanistic considerations.

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doctor delivers the young man to the English Channel, the next activist, Pauline, tells him about the atrocities of the police and the lawlessness of illegal immigrants - the British carefully defend their borders.


Thinking how to get to England, and wandering in desperation along the beach, Saad suddenly sees the ghost of Leila. The father convinces him that this is not a spirit, and the separated lovers finally meet.

Leila tells her sad story of wandering. During the NATO bombing, her family survived and took the opportunity to emigrate. Parents tragically died on the road, and the girl reached France. Here she worked illegally and was awaiting the registration of documents for refugee status. After local elections, in which immigrants were declared the main French evil, she lost her job and slipped into poverty. Now the heroine hopes to somehow get to England.

Leila brings Saad to a refugee camp, and the happy heroes live together as spouses. They are trying to earn extra money in order to survive. They are helped by volunteer Polina, who accuses society of indifference to illegal immigrants:

This is where barbarism begins ... when a person does not want to see his own kind in another, when someone is appointed as subhuman, when people are sorted out by grade and someone is excluded from the list ...

Polina brings Saad to dancer Jorge, who promises to bring the lovers to England. Just before their departure, the camp is smashed by the police, the young man hides, and the girl is arrested. Soon she is sent to Iraq. Polina persuades the inconsolable hero to leave without a bride. Already from her homeland, Leila wrote to Saad, urging him to legalize in England alone and later call her.


Saad lives in London, in Soho, in poverty, moonlights, dreams of studying to be a lawyer and marrying Leila. Despite his ambivalent feelings about the city, he likes it here. He still has philosophical conversations with his father, criticizing him for his bookish, idealistic view of the world:

Writers are charlatans. They want to foist on us the world, passing it off as something that it is not - for a correct, just, honest world. Sheer swindle!

The father, on the other hand, convinces the hero that the real writers, Homer, who invented Ulysses, "... paint the world not as it is, but as people could make it."

Saad is full of optimism about the future: “I ... will build my home outside my homeland, in a foreign land, ... His [Ulysses] odyssey was full of nostalgia, mine is a start filled with the future. ... The purpose of the journey ... is to lower the travel bag and say: I have come. So, I declare ...: I will not go further, I have come. "