Iraqi author Hassan Blasim: “We need to express the disaster of our lives”

On storytelling in Iraq, literary Arabic and exile.

One year after the invasion of Iraq by US-led troops, Iraqi author and film maker Hassan Blasim fled the country and took up residence in Finland. There he produced short films and documentaries for Finnish television, published a book of poetry and took up the editorship of an Arabic literary website, “Iraq Story”. In 2009 his first collection of short stories, The Madman of Freedom Square, was published in the UK to great acclaim. “The news machine has shifted its attention to Afghanistan,” Alice Fordham wrote for Intelligent Life, “and Iraqis are being left to fend for themselves. Blasim’s collection reminds us that anything could still happen there. Iraq’s story must be told, and we need Iraqi’s voices like Blasim’s to tell it.”

Four years later, on the tenth anniversary of the invasion, Blasim is about to publish a new collection, The Iraqi Christ, again with the short story specialists Comma Press. In attempting to deal with the trauma of war, violence and displacement, his work has taken a Borgesian turn. His characters attempt to preserve their memories, often by rendering them in magical terms. Early last year a heavily edited Arabic edition of Madman appeared in the Middle East, but was immediately banned in Jordan. This perhaps explains the new collection’s move towards abstraction, though while progressing through the collection, which moves further and further from the streets of Baghdad, where it begins, the historical reality of the war is never far off.

While Hassan was in London to launch the book, I asked him what part storytelling has traditionally played in Iraqi culture?

People in Iraq tell their stories day and night, but nobody wants to listen to them. The task of the oral storyteller (the “hakawati”) has changed in Iraq: from recounting the adventures of Sinbad, Aladdin and the One Thousand and One Nights to recounting the adventures of Mr Bush, terrorism, America and corruption.

The world your characters inhabit is mysterious and unfathomable. Do war and instability create this perception of things, or is this just how life is?

In one of my works I wrote: “We have put dinosaur bones and cracked stone water jars in museums, but we haven’t put hatred or fear in a glass case for people to look at and take pictures.”

In a story from the new collection, a character named Saro insists the narrator’s real name is Hassan Blasim. The narrator, in reply, quotes Rumi: “The truth was once a mirror in the hands of God. Then it fell and broke into a thousand pieces. Everybody has a small piece of it, but each one believes he has the whole truth.” Is this particularly true for your characters, or perhaps fiction writers more generally?

Every work of art or literature is like a piece of Rumi’s broken mirror. Absolute truth is impossible. Instead there is moral relativism.

The titular story, “The Iraqi Christ”, is told from the next world, yet deals with an extreme historical reality – that of suicide bombing. How does surreal- or magical-realism help us to understand history?

Is it possible, for example, for dreams and nightmares to help us understand history? I don’t know. And is history a sterile of realism, safe from nightmares?

You’ve said previously that you’re not interested in preserving the beauty of Arabic language. What did you mean?

There's a continuing debate in the Arab world about the problems of the Arabic language, which has not kept up with the times because of censorship and the lack of strong and serious institutions working to breathe new life into it. Classical Arabic needs a revolution against its rules, its grammar and its “sacred” status. For example, for hundreds of years we haven't used fusha (standard literary Arabic) in the Arab world, other than in writing and publishing. We haven’t used it in our everyday lives. In the Arab world we use many local dialects, and this great disconnect between the language we write in and the language we speak has led to one aspect of the widespread ignorance in the Arab world, which already suffers greatly in the field of education (the education system uses fusha in books while the teacher speaks in colloquial Arabic).

By my comments I meant that the secret to breathing new life into Arabic lies not just in using the colloquial, but also in standing up to the tedious and nauseating refrain about the beauty and sanctity of the Arabic language because it is the language of the Quran and of the great tradition of Arabic poetry. Very well, put the language of the Quran and of old poetry in the museum. But we need to express the disaster of our lives in the Arab world in a language that is bold, up-to-date and not afraid of grammar or of Arabic's sanctity.

Linguistic daring in the Arab world is associated with filth and pollution, while the constrains of the linguistic heritage are associated with beauty and sanctity.

Is it difficult being an Iraqi writer in exile?

Before the advent of the internet and other methods of communication, being a writer in exile may have been more difficult, more cruel and more alienating. There’s nothing special about my circumstances. I’m like the other five million Iraqis who are outside Iraq. We dream of a safe country where human dignity is not violated, either directly through violence or through rigorous physical and intellectual control.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing…

Hassan Blasim’s new book The Iraqi Christ is published on 28 February (Comma Press, £9.99). Hassan will be in the UK in March as part of the Reel Iraq festival, a celebration of Iraqi film, literature and music, taking place at venues across the country.

Arabic to English translation by Jonathan Wright.

Iraqi author Hassan Blasim. Photo: Thomas Whitehouse.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Sienna Miller and Charlie Hunnam. Getty
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Rumbles in the jungle: highlights from the Berlin Film Festival

Upcoming releases include drama about a trans woman and an adventure in south America.

It was blisteringly cold for the first few days of the Berlin Film Festival but there was plenty of heat coming off the cinema screens, not least from Call Me by Your Name. This rapturous, intensely sensual and high-spirited love story is set in northern Italy in the early 1980s. The perky and precocious 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is drawn to Oliver (Armie Hammer), an older, American doctoral student who’s arrived for the summer to assist the boy’s father, an esteemed professor (Michael Stuhlbarg). Their friendship passes through stages sceptical, fraternal, flirtatious and hostile before arriving at the erotic.

Movies which insist that life was never the same again after that summer are a pet peeve of mine but this one is as ripe and juicy as the peach Elio snatches from a tree and puts to a most unusual and intimate use. (Think American Pie with fruit.) Luca Guadagnino has form as a chronicler of the holidaying rich, but his best-known films (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) discovered trouble in paradise. In Call Me by Your Name, it’s all pleasure. A distant sense of sadness is signalled by the use of a few plaintive songs by Sufjan Stevens but what defines the picture is its vitality, personified in a star-making performance by Chalamet which combines petulance, balletic physicality and a new kind of goofball naturalism.

The clammy heat of the jungle, with all its danger and mystery, are strongly evoked in The Lost City of Z, a stirring adventure based on fact, which catapults its writer-director, James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night), out of his usual sooty cityscapes and into uncharted South America in the early 20th century. Charlie Hunnam plays Percy Fawcett, a colonel who grudgingly agrees to referee the mapping of borders between ­Bolivia and Brazil on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society, only to be seduced by the legend of a city populated by a sophisticated civilisation. The film, which I will review in more detail next month, felt deeply satisfying – even more so than correcting American colleagues on the pronunciation of the title.

There was a less effective expedition movie in the main competition. Joaquim dramatises the journey of Joaquim José da Silva Xavier (aka Tiradentes) from colonialist stooge and hunter of gold smugglers to revolutionary icon. There is an impressive level of detail about 18th-century Brazilian life: rudimentary dentistry, a haircut undertaken with a machete. Joaquim’s severed head provides a posthumous introductory narration, presumably in tribute to the ultimate expedition film, Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, which featured a noggin that continued talking after decapitation. Yet the hero’s conversion to the cause of the exploited Brazilians is confusingly brisk, and the film feels both inordinately long and too short to have sufficient impact.

We remain in scorching heat for Viceroy’s House, in which the director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) chronicles the events leading up to the partition of India in 1947. Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson are Lord and Lady Mountbatten, pottering around being frightfully nice to the locals. Polite, lukewarm and almost entirely without flavour, the film closes with an uplifting romantic reunion that is somewhat eclipsed by the killing of an estimated two million people during Partition.

Away from the on-screen sun, it was still possible to feel warmed by two splendidly humane films. A Fantastic Woman is a stylish, Almodóvar-type drama about a trans woman, Marina (played by the captivating transgender actor Daniela Vega), who is subjected to prejudice and violence by her late partner’s family. Its Chilean director, Sebastián Lelio, made a splash in Berlin four years ago with Gloria, his comedy about a Santiago divorcee, but this new picture puts him in a whole other class.

The Other Side of Hope, from the deadpan Finnish genius Aki Kaurismäki, follows a bright-eyed Syrian refugee (Sherwan Haji) and the poker-faced Helsinki restaurateur (Sakari Kuosmanen) who takes him under his wing. Kaurismäki’s mixture of absurdity and altruism feels even more nourishing in these troubled times. On Saturday the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear, went to On Body and Soul, a Hungarian comedy-drama about two lonely slaughterhouse workers. Still, Kaurismäki was named Best Director, while Lelio and his co-writer, Gonzalo Maza, won the Best Screenplay prize. Not too shabby.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit