Iraq + 100 edited by Hassan Blasim
Comma Press, 2016; 182 pp
Reviewed by Jordan Williams
In his foreword to the short story collection, the lead editor of Iraq + 100 makes clear that the book represents an important cultural project. Hassan Blasim wants Iraqi authors to write fiction set in the nation’s distant future (100 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, to be exact) not only because it will encourage readers to imagine the long-term consequences of war and occupation, but also because he feels the Iraqi literary world has grown perilously narrow. On this point, Blasim is very direct: “Inflexible religious discourse has stifled the Arab imagination, and pride in the Arab poetic tradition has weakened the force and freedom of narration, while invaders and occupiers have shattered the peace that provided a home for the imagination.” This audacious statement is all the more interesting because it complicates the themes of Blasim’s own contribution to the collection, “The Gardens of Babylon.”
Blasim’s protagonist is a government-employed author of virtual reality “story-games.” He lives in an economically advanced future version of Babylon where creativity and imagination are explicitly subsidized. In fact, this futuristic setting comes across as very nearly utopian. Nonetheless, boredom and the “need to relax too much” have sapped the protagonist of his creative urges. Feeling depressed and uninspired when his first official assignment involves merely adapting the work of a late 20th century Iraqi author, the protagonist agrees to take a synthetic hallucinogen that transports him back into the author’s tragic life. Compared to the bloody horrors of that earlier time period, the protagonist lives in paradise. However, it is the violence and despair of that bygone era that finally sparks his creativity and helps him understand his place in the world.
Taking Blasim’s foreword and his story together, I’m reminded of Lloyd Kiva New’s “Credo for American Indian Literature,” which called for “an educational process in which Indian artists are created who can then make their own statements” based on Indian traditions. Blasim similarly encourages Iraqi writers to look back to ancient Sumerian and Assyrian stories for inspiration when writing fiction set in the future. Many of the authors in this collection are publishing futuristic fiction for the first time and it appears that, at least in some cases, the editing process involved some deliberate grooming in order to grow the genre.
When considering this collection’s place in the global literary tradition, I think we can also look to writers like Chinweizu, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, and Chinua Achebe, who debated the parameters within which they thought postcolonial African literature ought to develop. Those writers were concerned primarily with purging colonial influences from the writing emerging from their continent. Blasim has a similar objective, but he also implores Iraqi writers to use futuristic settings to escape from “the walls of repression and censorship that confine Arab creativity,” a phrase he borrows from journalist Mustafa Najjar.
When it comes to the apparent lack of genre diversity in Arab literature, Blasim doesn’t lay the blame solely at the feet of invaders like Bush and Blair or the Mongols. He also posits that “Arabs today are subservient to form and to narrow-minded thinking because we have been dominated by religious discourse and by repressive practices over long periods.” In that context, it’s probably no accident that the collection opens with “Kahramana,” a story written by a London-based author identified only as Anoud, who remains anonymous in an effort to avoid repercussions for her family living in Iraq.
That story, which alludes to an underappreciated character from the tale of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” is an intensely cynical look into Iraq’s future. It centers on the plight of a child bride who escapes from the clutches of Amir Mullah Hashish (who is as conflicted a character as his name implies), only to face the hypocrisy of a Nations Union League that screens professed rape victims with virginity tests and an NGO that is more interested in the marketing value of her story than in saving her life. It’s easy to understand why the author would feel the need for anonymity.
Given its salacious depiction of Amir Mullah Hashish, Anoud’s story is likely to infuriate the kind of violent and humorless fundamentalists who associate themselves with the Islamic State in Iraq. Some humanitarian workers and immigration enforcement agents may also feel burned by the satirization of their professions. However, Anoud’s account of her own confrontation with a hostile immigration officer reveals how lived experience is at the root of her cynicism.
Some common threads run through several of these stories, like the lasting impact of water scarcity on society, the consequences of profound Chinese influence in the region, and the spectre of entrenched Islamic State-like entities that persist for decades. But the futures imagined in these stories don’t necessarily cohere ideologically. This makes Iraq + 100 an especially electrifying read. One gets the sense of being present at the birth of a literary movement, with all the freedom and experimentation that entails.