I received this book for free from Macmillan, NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Iraq + 100 by Hassan Blasim
on September 12th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Science Fiction, Collections & Anthologies, Alternative History, Cultural Heritage
Format: Electronic ARC
Source: Macmillan, NetGalley
Buy on Amazon
Ten short stories by Iraqi writers envisioning Iraq 100 years after the US-led invasion. I love short speculative fiction, but I was mostly interested in this book because I have a huge blind spot in my knowledge about Iraq. Everything I’ve read about Iraq has been from the perspective of the American military or Western journalists! I had trouble nailing down the central message of some of the stories, but I recognize this book’s importance. These futuristic tales provide insight into Iraq’s present-day situation from a much-needed perspective.
The best science fiction, they say, tells us more about the context it’s written in than the future it’s trying to predict. The future may offer a blank canvas onto which writers can project their concerns, in new and abstract ways, but the concerns themselves are still very much ‘of their time’.
In the introduction, Hassan Blasim explains that it was a challenge to collect stories for this compilation because science-fiction isn’t usually written in Iraq. Religious extremism and constant conflict don’t exactly provide a fertile ground for imaginative expression. This unique assignment allowed the writers to look at Iraq through “the long lens of speculative fiction.” While these stories are set one hundred years in the future, the 2003 invasion is never far from the writers’ minds. In some of the stories, Iraq is still occupied by foreign forces or grappling with the effects of the neverending conflict. In other stories, the war is so far behind them that the younger generation can’t even comprehend it. Each short story is written by a different author, but common threads run through many of them: suspicion of religion and strongman leaders, the selling off of everything, and the loss of history by either governmental decree or as an act of survival. In many of the stories, the United States has succumbed to its own problems with extremism. Futuristic technology is featured, but what interested me most were the humanistic aspects.
My favorite stories are bolded. For the stories that were more opaque to me, I just noted the parts that struck me as most important.
• Kahramana by Anoud – Sixteen-year-old Kahramana bravely escapes an arranged marriage to the head of the Islamic Empire. She flees to the American occupiers for safety, only to be used as propaganda and carelessly tossed aside when she outlives her usefulness.
Violence sculpts you and in this case turns you into half a statue. Violence is the most brutal sculptor mankind has ever produced. A barbaric sculptor: no one wants to learn lessons from the works he has carved.
• The Gardens of Babylon by Hassan Blasim – The narrator designs smart-games based on old stories. He’d prefer to design original smart-games, because he doesn’t see how the past has any relevance to him. With the help of a hallucinogenic drug to cure his creative block, he sees he has an unexpected connection to the past. Through the narrator’s research, we see the constantly shifting alliances and senseless, escalating violence that tore the nation apart.
• The Corporal by Ali Bader – An Iraqi soldier who was optimistic about the U.S. invasion is killed by an American soldier. After one hundred years in limbo, he convinces God to let him return to Iraq in place of a prophet. The world the soldier returns to is a completely different place; the United States is gripped by religious extremism, while Iraq is a secular utopia. The reversal of circumstances puts the resurrected soldier in a dicey situation.
• The Worker by Diaa Jubaili – The religious strongman who now leads Iraq urges the citizens to remain calm and appreciate their circumstances because their suffering could be much worse. As a mysterious figure wanders through the streets collecting corpses, we witness the full extent of suffering.
• The Day by Day Mosque by Mortada Gzar- People have resorted to selling their own snot. This one went completely over my head! I think the important parts are the commodification of everything (including biological waste), the ridiculousness of the urban improvement projects, and the absurdity of George W. Bush’s statement that “day by day, the Iraqi people are closer to freedom.”
You see, if you’re a sufferer of Baghdad Syndrome, you know that nothing has ever driven us, or our ancestors, quite as much as the syndrome of loving Baghdad.
• Baghdad Syndrome by Zhraa Alhaboby – Architect Sudra Sen Sumer is diagnosed with Baghdad Syndrome, a disease that renders its victims blind. The specter of blindness makes him passionate about his latest commission to design a city square, because it might be the last project he’s able to see. Haunted by a vivid dream of a woman’s desperate plea to find her lover, he sets out to find the statue of Scheherazade that was looted from the square many decades ago and return it to its rightful home. Just as the woman was forcibly separated from her lover and the statue removed from the square, Iraqis were forced to flee their homes and deny their family history to survive. I think the title is a play on Stockholm Syndrome. Despite the horrors the Iraqi people have endured, they can’t abandon their beloved homeland.
‘History is a hostage, but it will bite through the gag you tie around its mouth, bite through and still be heard.’
• Operation Daniel by Khalid Kaki – All audio recordings of forbidden languages are banned “to protect the state’s present from the threat of the past.” Anyone possessing forbidden material is ground down into diamonds to adorn the Venerable Benefactor’s accessories. But can the past truly be erased?
To compose himself, Ur reminded himself of how pathetically humans had failed to work out the basics of intergalactic space flight, driving back his momentary fascination with the book and restoring his old feelings of revulsion towards these creatures. It was only when this feeling of superiority had a physical manifestation—a shudder of revulsion—that balance to his psyche was restored.
• Kuszib by Hassan Abdulrazzak – The extraterrestrial occupiers of Iraq are farming humans. The alien invaders easily rationalize their cruelty to the “uncivilized” humans. Ona realizes that some of the criticisms of humans could apply to her own species, but her superiors assure her that the humans are much worse. Ona feels sympathy for the poor humans, but she determines her own desires supersede the humans’ autonomy. This story is really strange (tentacles!), but the message is clear. It shows an invader deciding they know what’s best for the occupied territories and how they exert their will over those they deem beneath them.
“We call it the world whether it is our own world or that which we no longer know, the way it was before the year 2021. As if nothing changed.”
• The Here and Now Prison by Jalal Hasan – Everything from the past, including the dead, is relegated to the Old City, a place that can only be accessed by scholars. A young man suffering from a disease sneaks into the area to visit his dead mother. His girlfriend follows him and discovers the past is more vibrant than their present “where everything you touched became obsolete because you touched it, everything you said became a lie because you said it.” This story deals with the limitations of language in describing the state of things and how that makes us grow accustomed to bad circumstances without even realizing it.
• Najufa by Ibrahim Al-Marashi – A man takes a pilgrimage to Iraq with his grandfather Isa. Isa has never visited his ancestral homeland because of his own father’s experiences, so his grandson hopes to convince him there’s more to Najufa than bad memories. As Isa shares his memories with his grandson, we learn of the sectarian conflicts that consumed people after the 2003 invasion and the unbreakable spiritual connection one has to their homeland. There’s a passing reference to the Christian Assembly of Kansas and Arkansas (CAKA), a domestic terrorist group in the futuristic U.S. that rivals ISIS.
‘We’ve changed so much,’ Samir mused, as if asking himself a question.
‘The world changes and all we can do is try to keep up,’ Helen offered.
‘But have we changed for the better?’ Samir asked. (The Here and Now Prison)
This was a challenging read for me, but it was well worth my time. What I saw most in these stories is a yearning for a peaceful future. I didn’t fully understand every story, but that might be because of lack of knowledge about the region. Many of the stories came into sharper focus as I read more nonfiction about modern-day Iraq. Some of the strange little details were born from reality, such as the invaders disorienting the natives by renaming all the streets in “Kuszib.” These fictional stories also made my nonfiction reading even more impactful. After the compilation of these stories, the future of Iraq grew even more uncertain. Blasim reminds us in the “Afterword” that many of the stories were written before June 2014 when Iraq’s second largest city Mosul fell to IS. The Iraqi army recaptured Mosul in July 2017, but there’s still a long road ahead. (Washington Post: ISIS is near defeat in Iraq. Now comes the hard part)
If you are looking for more books by authors from the region, you might be interested in Ayub Nuri’s memoir Being Kurdish in a Hostile World. A Disappearance in Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War was also very educational. It’s written by a Canadian journalist and is set in Syria, but it focuses on Iraqi refugees and familiarized me with some of Iraq’s history.