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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle