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.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.