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.

Picture: Bridgeman Images
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Herman Melville's mystery: was Billy Budd black?

A newly unearthed photograph identifies the African-American Trafalgar survivor who appears in Melville’s final novel. Could the book’s hero have been black, too?

The photograph below tells a remarkable tale. I discovered it in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle while researching my new book. The image, taken by John Havers, was acquired by Prince Albert in the 1850s and it portrays veterans of Trafalgar at the Royal Navy hospital in Greenwich in 1854. Sitting on a bench overlooking the Thames, these aged faces and bodies were a familiar sight in south London in their 18th-century-style frock coats and cocked hats, earning them the nickname “Greenwich geese”.

One figure in particular stands out. Using the hospital records, I identified the third man from the left as Richard Baker, an African American, born in Baltimore in 1770, who served at Trafalgar on HMS Leviathan; he entered the hospital in 1839. Seventeen men born in Africa fought for the British during the battle; 123 from the West Indies. There is a black man portrayed on the Westminster-facing bronze plaque on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. But the records show only one Trafalgar veteran from Baltimore: Baker, who is likely to have been a freed or even escaped slave.
Richard Baker (third from the left, with a cane) with fellow veterans of the Battle of Trafalgar in Greenwich in 1854. Photo: Royal Collection Trust

This is a powerful story. But this man also has a special literary significance. On his visit to London in 1849, Herman Melville visited Greenwich and met “an old pensioner in a cocked hat” on the river terrace. It was a vivid encounter that he recalled more than 40 years later in his last and most evocative book, Billy Budd, Sailor. This “Baltimore Negro, a Trafalgar man” was almost certainly Richard Baker. He told Melville how many men had been taken from jail to serve in the navy.

Billy Budd is impressed from a merchant ship that is symbolically named the Rights-of-Man. Melville had written with empathy of people of colour in Moby-Dick, including a scene in which the tattooed Pacific Islander Queequeg and his white bed-mate, Ishmael, declare themselves man and wife. In the opening of Billy Budd, Melville introduces the idea of the “Handsome Sailor”, who, flanked by his fellow mariners, is a “superior figure of their own class, moving along with them like Aldebaran among the lesser lights of his constellation”. One “remarkable instance” of this higher breed occurs to him – a black sailor he had seen in the Liverpool docks ten years earlier:

The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest; in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a Scotch Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head. It was a hot noon in July; and his face, lustrous with perspiration, beamed with barbaric good humour. In jovial sallies right and left, his white teeth flashing into view, he rollicked along, the centre of a company of his shipmates.

Was Billy Budd, the Handsome Sailor at the heart of the book, black? Scholars such as John Bryant believe that there is internal evidence in the manuscript of the book – found in a bread tin after Melville’s death in 1891 and not published until 1924 – that the author had played with the idea of making his hero a man of African heritage. Billy is loved by all the crew and is described as blond and blue-eyed later in the story. Yet the sensuous descriptions of the Liverpool sailor and the Greenwich veteran elide to create a counterfactual version in which Billy becomes a black star at the centre of his constellation of shipmates.

Indeed, some critics – most notably, Cassandra Pybus at the University of Sydney – have suggested that another 19th-century anti-hero was a person of colour. In Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, two years before Melville’s visit, Heathcliff is described as a “regular black”, an orphan found in the Liverpool docks – an intriguing notion explored in Andrea Arnold’s brilliant 2011 film adaptation.

Melville witnessed great changes in the fortunes of black Americans. Moby-Dick is an allegory of the struggle against slavery in the run-up to the American Civil War; the Melville scholar Robert K Wallace believes that the writer heard the fugitive slave-turned-emancipationist Frederick Douglass speak in the 1840s and that they may have even met. Nor is it a coincidence that Captain Ahab goes in pursuit of a white whale. It is both the elusive other and the pallor that might appal: Melville suggests that whiteness does not necessarily represent the pure and the good. It’s also a fable that has since found resonance in George W Bush’s pursuit of Osama Bin Laden and the illusory weapons of mass destruction, and in Donald Trump’s crazed crusades.


Terence Stamp as Billy Budd in Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film. Photo: Alamy

Melville wrote vituperatively about the use of flogging in both the American and the British navies. Billy Budd’s back­story is the 1797 naval mutiny in the Thames Estuary, during which mutineers attempted to blockade London and set up a “Floating Republic”. All of these themes are played out in Melville’s parable. Billy, the Handsome Sailor, is beloved of all the ship’s crew, including the captain. But Claggart, the jealous master of arms, frames him as a potential mutineer. Faced with the charge, Billy instinctively hits out and accidentally kills the officer. The captain has no choice: the state demands the death of the “fated boy”. “Struck dead by an angel of God!” he says. “Yet the Angel must hang!”

Having served on whaling and navy ships, Melville knew intimately the hierarchies at sea and the way they echoed the abuse of imperial power. Many men were stolen twice over: as African slaves, then as impressed sailors. Living in Manhattan, he saw other casualties of a period of revolution and international disruption, the 1840s. In Redburn (1849) written as the Irish famine was creating a new trade in people, he records the impact of mass migration to the US. To those who ask whether “multitudes of foreign poor should be landed on our American shores”, he replies, “If they can get here, they have God’s right to come; though they bring all Ireland and her miseries with them. For the whole world is the patrimony of the whole world.”

Melville’s humanity shines across time and space. In 1953, when detained on Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay, the Trinidadian-born writer C L R James saw Ahab’s tyranny as a precursor of the modern cult of personality and an indictment of McCarthyite accusations. As Melville’s last, elegiac word on the subject – having exiled himself as a customs inspector in the same harbour – Billy Budd spoke out against injustice. In the image of Richard Baker, with his grey hair, cane and Trafalgar medal, we see that sensibility brought back to life. Isolated in the unfeeling city, Melville looked back to his lost past in his poem “John Marr”:

Ye float around me, form and feature;
Tattooings, ear-rings, love-locks curled;
Barbarians of man’s simpler nature,
Unworldly servers of the world.

He knew who the true barbarians were. And as his white whale resurfaced as an allegory for a nuclear age, so his Handsome Sailor became the embodiment of the alien, the beautiful and the wronged. His innocent body was hymned by E M Forster and Eric Crozier in their libretto for Britten’s Cold War opera in 1951. He was bleached blond for Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film starring Terence Stamp – a clip of which appears on the banks of TV screens watched by Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Budd’s sacrifice mirroring that of the character played by the flame-haired David Bowie. Newton, a refugee in time and space, falls to Earth like a comet to warn us of nuclear and environmental destruction – and is imprisoned for his sins. “This is modern America,” the authorities say, “and we’re going to keep it that way.”

If Moby-Dick acquired elements of science fiction (Andrew Delbanco, the author of Melville’s most recent major biography, describes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey as a “very Melvillean film”), then Billy Budd’s ritual continually reinvents itself. In 1999, the French director Claire Denis reset the story in northern Africa in her film Beau Travail – a kind of eroticised ballet of bare male bodies set to Britten’s music (and played out on the same shores from which new refugees now set off for western Europe). Through all these incarnations, the Handsome Sailor persists: from black star and hanged man to alien and avatar.

And at the centre of it all is Richard Baker. His ship, HMS Leviathan, had long since been consigned to the mud of Portsmouth Harbour as a prison hulk for convicts about to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was then known. Baker, also stranded on a foreign shore, looks over the reflecting Thames as it reaches out to the sea – that same mutinous waterway that at the century’s end would lead to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. With his medal pinned proudly to his chest, he looks out of his past into our future, quietly aware of his power.

“RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” by Philip Hoare is published by Fourth Estate

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder