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Iraq in today’s litterature

Saturday 10 June 2017, by siawi3


Photo: Author Hassan Blasim has edited and contributed to a groundbreaking collection of stories envisioning Iraq a century after the US invasion. Courtesy Katja Bohm.

‘This is only the beginning of the crisis’: Iraqi author Hassan Blasim on refugees, war and futurism

Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 5, 2017 Updated: January 5, 2017 10:14 AM

Hassan Blasim is an Iraqi-born writer and filmmaker, now a Finnish citizen. He is the author of the acclaimed story collections The Madman of Freedom Square and The Iraqi Christ (the latter won The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), and the editor and a contributor to the science fiction collection Iraq +100. His play The Digital Hats Game was recently performed in Tampere, Finland.

Because his work is so groundbreaking, it is hard to categorise. It deals with the traumas of repression, war and migration, weaving perspectives and genres with intelligence and a brutal wit.

Why do you write?

To be frank, I would have killed myself without writing.

If you read novels and intellectual works since your childhood, your head is filled with the big questions. Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? You apply this questioning to the mess of the world around you – why is America bombing Iraq, and why are we suffering civil wars? – and you realize the enormous contradiction between your lived reality and the ideal world of knowledge. On the one hand, peace, freedom and our common human destiny, and on the other, borders, capitalism and wars.

Writing for me began as a hobby, or a way of dreaming. And then when I witnessed the disasters that befell Iraq, it became a personal salvation. It wouldn’t be possible to accept this world without writing.

Maybe writing is a psychological treatment or an escapism. It’s certainly a dream. But it’s also to confront the world, and to challenge all the books that have been written before. And it’s a process of discovery. It’s all of these things.

Are you writing a novel? Why have you focused on short stories until now?

Yes, I’m working on a novel. I work very slowly. I wrote The Madman of Freedom Square in four years. I’m not the kind of writer who gets up and writes every day. I spend a very long time thinking, as well as writing articles and working as an activist.

The novel’s taken two years so far. I hope to finish it next year. We’ll see.

The short story, I suppose, is a modest, humble form. The novel seems more arrogant. The short story’s difficulty lies in being able to convince yourself and the reader of a fictional world in just a few words.

I’m always asked why I choose the short story, but I’m not specialised. In Arabic I’ve written a lot of poetry and film criticism, I’ve written for the theatre. I find it easy to jump from one form to another. I see myself as a hakawati, a storyteller, and I can fulfil the task in theatre, cinema, the short story or the novel.

I become bored if I use only one form. And in a more general sense too, I play more than one role. I want to be an artist and an activist at the same time. To an extent I managed this in The Digital Hats Game.

Tell me about the play.

It’s not exactly science fiction but an imagination of current conditions. It’s about the potential power of the internet. I asked how hackers might change all the basic understandings of life. There are hackers who steal and exploit – “black hats” – but also hackers who are activists, who try to help people – “white hats”.

The power of the internet raises many questions concerning the future of societies, their borders and political concepts. I wanted to ask how this power can be used positively. The hackers in the play find themselves in conflict with the state and the secret police, and also with themselves and each other.

So how can a writer be an activist?

At literature festivals they ask me, “How do you write?” I say, “I open my laptop and type. Now let’s talk about refugees.” I think the artist should be an activist too. I don’t mean you should write a novel as if you’re an activist, but that you should do both. You meet many artists in the West who tell you that politics is dirty and empty, that they want nothing to do with it. And now Trump has won.

In this desperate situation, with all the racism and war in the world, artists must play a much greater role. Not in the old communist sense of “engaged art”, which was superficial and propagandistic. Of course, the artist needs independence from political lines.

But still he should demonstrate, speak out and help others. The best type of activism in Europe at the moment, for instance, is helping to move refugees across borders, even if it’s illegal.

You were a refugee yourself. How does your own experience of ‘illegal’ migration inform your view of what Europe sees as a refugee crisis today?

It took me four years to get from Baghdad to Finland. In that period I crossed the borders of Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary and so on. It took me so long because I didn’t have any money. I had to work in Istanbul, for example, until I saved the money to pay the traffickers. Of course, the first attempt falls through, so you return to Istanbul to work again, you work on the black market so sometimes you don’t get paid. I worked in a restaurant for three weeks – like a donkey, as we say in Arabic – and I wasn’t paid. And I lost some fingers in a machine in Sofia.

The journey is very difficult. Of course it’s worse for women and children. For a woman on the road, other people become wolves. As for the refugee crisis, all the rich countries bear responsibility for the tragedy in Syria, but it’s always the poorer countries that host the most refugees. The European states are an essential part of the crisis. Whenever there’s a terrorist act, politicians talk about “European values”, but these values apparently mean closing borders and arresting people. You celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, then build a thousand border walls. Instead of crying over pictures of drowned children, why don’t you give these people visas? The movement of people across the borders is this century’s largest political demonstration. It’s a greater challenge to capitalism than communism or Islamism. Come sleep in the banks! Come sleep in the institutions! This doesn’t only concern Europe. Gulf countries too should take more Syrian refugees.

In any case, this is only the beginning of the crisis. In the future there’ll be refugees from desertification and flooding. The world should be preparing for this. Walls and right-wing parties are not a serious response.

You have complained about lack of diversity in Arab writing. Why is this the case, and what is the solution?

Our societies have been bred for decades in the farms of dictatorship. All the tragedy in Syria and Iraq is a result of long years of oppression, during which we never criticised essential things like politics, religion or sex. And the problem is social as much as it’s political. We didn’t criticise the oppression of women, which is our biggest crisis. You know the old proverb “woman is half the society”? Well, we are incomplete when half of us are imprisoned. The answer is education. As writers and artists we should be addressing these issues.

In some respects our Arab culture is based on a lack of diversity and dialogue. Politically and religiously, it opposes diversity. We idolise our leaders and demonise our opponents. This is despite our ancient roots in diversity.

Diversity appears when there is freedom. A different form is a different way of thinking. We lack genres like crime writing, fantasy, surrealism – and the Arab world is the best place for experiment[ation], because it’s so full of variety. We have great literary heritage: The 1,001 Nights, for example, contains so many forms, from magical realism to science fiction.

Are you optimistic?

I hope Iraqi society learns from the experience of violence. Today’s Iraqi writing is certainly much better and braver than the timid writing under Baathism. This isn’t surprising – look at the cultural achievements in Europe following the world wars.

Bad things have happened in my life, and worse things in others’ lives, but I must be optimistic, I must hope, simply because I love to live, I love my son and my friends. Love is hope. It might sound romantic but it’s true.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is a critic, novelist and the co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.



Through the lens of science fiction, Iraq’s distant future is reimagined

Yasmin Khan

October 28, 2016 Updated: October 28, 2016 06:07 PM

More than a thousand and one nightmares have plagued the people of Iraq since the American and British-led invasion in 2003. Thirteen years on from that devastating event, few can comprehend the scale of the challenge: not merely rebuilding the infrastructure of a country like Iraq, but constructing a long-term aspirational vision of what Iraq could become.

Two weeks ago in London, one such attempt surfaced. As part of this year’s London Literature Festival at the South Bank Centre, the Iraqi author Hassan Blasim, award-winning author of The Iraqi Christ, announced the publication of Iraq+100, a groundbreaking anthology of speculative short stories. In the book, edited by Blasim, a collective of 10 Iraqi writers tackle the challenging mission of crafting visionary responses to a key question: what might your homeland look like in the year 2103 – a century on from the catastrophic invasion?

Futurism, which underpins Blasim’s collection, is geared to the artistic imagination of new possibilities. In the best hands, it is a conceptual tool for expanding the mind, liberating the consciousness from material constraints.

Such speculative thinking has become a common trope in mainstream science fiction, but has not yet surfaced as a core element in Arabic literature – until now.

At root, Iraq+100 tackles a central question: how might ordinary Iraqi citizens cerebrally transcend the chaotic effects of that one intervention? The result is a potent cocktail of fantastical scenarios that postulate fresh prospects for its politics, economy and society. Each vignette in the anthology embraces those classic cornerstone elements of sci-fi, freeing our minds to wonder: “What if?” or “Just suppose?”

Through ring-fencing a safe space for new thought experiments to percolate, could Iraq+100 become a genuine turning point for incubating a new aesthetic for Arab science fiction? In truth, the anthology is not a manifesto of hard sci-fi, it is an eclectic blend of unconventional fantasy, magic realism and technological twists that parody Iraq’s present situation in futuristic settings.

The range of writing styles and subgenre forms are reassuringly sophisticated; from a mind-blowing cyberworld, a bizarre alien invasion of cannibal hermaphrodites, right through to dystopian premonitions of parallel futures. Readers encounter a time-travelling soldier, droid police units, implanted holograms, hallucinogenic bot-bugs and other abhorrent tonics.

Each chapter is anchored by unique cityscapes that depict Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Najaf, Suleymania and Ramadi. But these are far from naive, rose-tinted visions of a utopian Iraq; while the concept of the book is inherently uplifting, these stories, laced with dark humour, are smattered by melancholic undertones.

Inadvertently, the anthology doubles up as an exercise in psychoanalysis; in attempting to imagine alternate future realities each writer inevitably reflects the turmoil of the past century that has been so deeply ingrained in their psyche.

The anthology commences with the story of Kahramana, written anonymously by a London writer using the pen name Anoud to circumvent reprisals to her family in Iraq. Her satirical biography chronicles the tribulations of a blue-eyed bride on the run from the “Islamic Empire of Wadi Hashish” who ends up tragically thwarted by the protracted procedures at the American-controlled border.

Anoud’s brutally candid tone provides lashings of comic relief to a surreal fictional situation yet equally acts as a catharsis to the grim realities suffered by men and women alike in the recent past and present; oscillating between the hopes and fears of the nation is part and parcel of the natural healing process.

Likewise, it is impossible not to chuckle at the philosophical musings in The Corporal, expertly written by Ali Bader, translated from Arabic into English by Elisabeth Jaquette.

The protagonist, Corporal Sobhan, is a rather weary and withered member of Saddam’s army who dies after being shot dead in the forehead by an American sniper.

He had foolishly saved a rose in his pocket as an offering of gratitude to the incoming Americans he secretly hoped were coming to make Iraq prosper again.

For this miscalculated deed he is left in limbo (in a “corridor to heaven”) for a period of 100 years before he is granted his plea to return to Earth to check up on his hometown of Kut.

The corporal finds Kut transformed into an urban oasis beyond all recognition and discovers the extent to which the tables have turned in the world as he bumps into a couple who are on their way to donate gifts to American refugee children; America has become an extremist state overrun by religious intolerance, terrorism and hate.

The new secular vanguards of the civilised world fighting against the axis of evil are an industrialised trio of fully-fledged democratic nations: Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In London, Blasim was beamed over from his base in Finland to take to the stage with Jonathan Wright, Blasim’s literary translator, along with Zhraa Alhaboby, a medical researcher and novelist who contributed to the anthology.

While living in the present remains a continuing struggle for many Iraqis, Blasim was asked whether the anthology was symptomatic of Iraqi’s yearning to fast forward into the deep future.

Well not quite – there are unresolved preoccupations that are still pressing the minds of many. To paraphrase Blasim’s bittersweet reflection: “Many of us hope to spend our lives dwelling on those big existential questions like ‘Who are we?’, ‘Why are we here?’, and ‘What’s out there?’ but ordinary Iraqi people have instead been left wrestling with a depressing question like ‘Why are others bombing us?’” The enthralled audience had no trouble catching his drift.

The very act of conceiving this book is itself a creative act of defiance; empowering writers who are legitimate stakeholders in the region to use their own agency to reimagine futuristic narratives in defiant divergence to Iraq’s colonisers – be they commercial, corporate or ideological.

The anthology offers a vital platform for juxtaposing autonomous visions of the future without fear of failure or repercussion. It is a bold initiative that is fundamentally about reclaiming the licence to dream, having the courage to maintain hope in the face of uncertainty, loosening the straitjacket of despair about the past and having the audacity to imagine alternate realities that transcend the stark truth of the present.

While this anthology proves how trauma and a determination to survive despite the odds can spur innovative thinking, these are not the optimal conditions for creativity to thrive. As Blasim astutely acknowledged, what is needed now is stability: “Peace is the laboratory of the imagination.”

Yasmin Khan is a cultural adviser and producer of Sindbad Sci-Fi. Iraq+100 is published in paperback by Comma Press next month