Iraq + 100 is unlike any other collection I’ve read. Perhaps, this is partly to do with how aware I was of the context of its production. Hassan Blasim writes in his Foreword: ‘I told [the authors] that writing about the future would give them space to breathe outside the narrow confines of today’s reality’ (p.x). Not much Sci-Fi or Fantasy literature comes out of Iraq, or the Middle East in general, and is it any wonder what with the terror and desolation wreaked on their land over the last 100 years? How can you look to the future when the present is so immediately full of danger and uncertainty?
What emerges, however, from this concerted effort to write a Science Fiction collection, is both a hopeful vision of a possible future in 100 years time – one in which the idea of war is vanquished – and a reflection on the past 100 years of conflict in Iraq. The stories in this collection are exceedingly diverse, but unified in terms of their exploration of a singular culture and landscape. Some lean more towards Fantasy than Science Fiction, featuring a sentient statue (‘The Worker’) or an officer in the Iraqi militia returning to life to tell his story 100 years after his death (‘The Corporal’). Others stories are more what might be called Cyberpunk, including a narrative revolving around hallucinogenic drugs imbibed via an insect (‘The Gardens of Babylon’), or Hard Sci-Fi, such as a narrative in which the human species has been subjugated by alien invaders (‘Kuszib’).
The stories are all told with an economy of style that is familiar from the literary tradition of Iraq; while in the case of some stories the translation has rendered them more prosaic than in their original form, on the whole the prose is compelling. ’The Gardens of Babylon’ (Hassan Blasim) is a particularly masterful piece in which an ambitious narrative developer, responsible for re-rendering classic stories in modern form, is looking to find a way to make his next interactive game-narrative exciting. He ends up taking a bad trip on some hallucinogens his colleague provides, stumbling into Iraq’s troubled past, but also his own. The hypnogogic, visionary nature of the prose combines the mythic and the technological seamlessly whilst also offering an intriguing perspective on the everyday life of those living in modern day Iraq.
‘Baghdad Syndrome’ (Zhraa Alhaboby) is another incredible piece of storytelling, paralleling 1001 Nights in its subversive retelling of the classic story. Through the eyes of an architect looking to ascertain the location of two missing statues of Scheherazade and Shahryar, we get a fragmentary kaleidoscope of modern day Iraq and the literary tradition of Arabic culture. It captures the tragedy and damage of warfare, the distant lens of the past in the story reflecting the distance of the modern day Westerner from the horror and reality of what is happening. But it also offers hope, both of the determination of narrator who is slowly succumbing to Baghdad Syndrome, which renders you blind (read into that whatever metaphor you will), and in the fortitude and spirit of those who surround the narrator, who have not forgotten the heritage of their people, despite appearing to conform to modernity.
‘Kuszib’ (Hassan Abdulrazzak) was perhaps my favourite story in the collection, a wild subversive tale that has several incredible twists. Generally, in Western fiction, twist endings for short stories are discouraged by publishers and magazines, but the writers of Iraq + 100 have no such qualms, and the twists they bring to the table (many of the stories hold surprises for you) are satisfying, cohesive and, often, genuinely surprising. ‘Kuszib’ is at once a narrative about a failing marriage, an alien invasion (and think, for a moment, what the aggressive, technologically dominant aliens might represent), sexual repression, vegetarianism and much more. A godlike, mysterious hermaphrodite of Dionysian inclinations (the eponymous ‘Kuszib’) is central to the narrative here, but can be read and interpreted in a number of ways: do they represent Western hedonism or something more universal? Perhaps Kuszib is symbolic of internal repressed desires which faith has long suppressed in Iraq? Best of all, the story explores the mechanics of empathy, both in terms of us as readers engaging with fiction, and us as people engaging with our fellow humanity. This is intelligent speculative fiction in its highest form.
Not every story resonated with me to the extent of ‘Kuszib’. I found the first story ‘Kahramana’ (Anoud) quite clunky and dissatisfying – but perhaps that is because the act of horrifying indifference at the end was too close to the bone of reality? This collection is refreshingly outspoken in this respect. Hassan Blasim refers to Blair and Bush as ‘killers’ in the Foreword, and yes, that’s exactly what they are. They are, in fact, mass murderers responsible for hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths. It’s easy to forget this when the media bombards us with cultch day in and day out. No doubt some readers will find this confrontational political statement difficult to swallow, but we must be honest with ourselves and recognize when our political leaders are in the wrong.
What’s beautiful about Iraq + 100 is that it shows the triumph of everyday people: writers, wives, children, teachers, pilgrims, against the egomaniacal machinations of politicians and the constrictive imprisonment of systems and regulations. In reading this, I felt the hunger of our fellow writers in Iraq for emancipation, and though we are chasms – worlds – apart, I felt for a brief moment, a kindred spirit. I will never touch their unimaginable pain, of course, but we are all human, and can empathise with the human desire for liberation. I hope that this collection achieved the goal of allowing the writers ‘space’ from the ‘narrow confines’ of reality, and that it is one step on the road to a better future.
Hassan Blasim is an Iraqi writer currently based in Finland. Born in Baghdad in 1973, he studied at the city’s Academy of Cinematic Arts, where two of his films ‘Gardenia’ (screenplay & director) and ‘White Clay’ (screenplay) won the Academy’s Festival Award for Best Work in their respective years. In 1998, after several arrests, he was advised by his tutors to leave Baghdad – the overtly political and critical nature of his films was drawing attention from Saddam’s informants at the Academy. He fled – initially to Sulaymaniya (Iraqi Kurdistan), where he made feature-length drama Wounded Camera, under the Kurdish pseudonym ‘Ouazad Osman’ – and ultimately in 2004, after years of travelling illegally through Europe as a refugee, he settled in Finland.
Hassan’s stories first appeared on the website iraqstory.com, which he co-edited, and then first in print, with the anthology Madinah (commissioned by Comma Press in 2008). His debut collection The Madman of Freedom Square was published by Comma a year later, 2009 (translated by Jonathan Wright) and was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2010. His second collection, The Iraqi Christ (again translated by Jonathan Wright) was published by Comma in April 2013, and won the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize – the first Arabic title and the first short story collection ever to win the award.
Hassan’s work has been translated (or is in the process of being translated) into over 20 languages. A heavily censored Arabic edition of Madman was finally published in 2012 and was immediately banned in Jordan, and an Arabic edition of The Iraqi Christ was published in 2015. A selection of stories from both of his two collections were published in the US in 2014, by Penguin USA, under the title ‘The Corpse Exhibition’, which was later picked as one of Publishers Weekly‘s Top Ten Books of 2014.
Iraq +100 was published by Comma Press on 17th November 2016.
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Review by Joseph Sale
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