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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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

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