Iraq’s Present and Future-Past in its Contemporary Literature
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Body parts are an essential component in Iraqi contemporary fiction. The President’s Garden, by Muhsin Al-Ramli, opens with the mysterious appearance of nine severed heads, each in its own banana crate, on the streets of an Iraqi village. In Iraq + 100 a collection of sci-fi short stories about the country in a hundred years time, edited by Hassan Blasim, humans are butchered with gourmet finesse in playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak’s futuristic tale about Iraq’s new occupiers, aliens.
Blasim emerged as his country’s best young voice in exile with The Iraqi Christ and The Corpse Exhibition. In the book’s forward, he reveals his own uneasiness with the brief for + 100, a collection commissioned by his publishers, Comma Press. He found it awkward convincing Iraqi writers to envision a future “when they were already so busy writing about the cruelty, horror and shock of the present, or trying to delve into the past to reread Iraq’s former nightmares and glories.” He might as well have been describing older generation Iraqi writer, poet and translator living in Spain, Al-Ramli, who was in London last month and described himself as “a historian.” The President's Garden is dedicated to his relations massacred on the third day of Ramadan, 2006, the same day when the crates of heads are discovered in the novel.
The story centers on three childhood friends whose lives and military service mirror the pivotal events of Iraq. Abdullah Kafka, the intellectual, suffered as an Iraqi POW in Iran during the ill-fated Iran-Iraq War and spends his day chain-smoking. The peasant Ibrahim the Fated lost a foot during George Bush Sr’s bombing of the Iraqi army retreat in the desert from Kuwait. While Tariq the Befuddled avoids conscription because of his family’s religious and business contacts and rises socially and economically in the lead up to the 2003 American invasion.
Through Tariq’s connections, Ibrahim starts a new job as a gardener in a lavish garden belonging to the president who is unnamed through the novel. There, he encounters the president at close quarters. The president loves his gardens not for the flowers, trees and flocks of goats and sheep lovingly tended by shepherds but for the sylvan vistas that camouflage the murder and the burial of his adversaries.
Ibrahim, eventually promoted to gravedigger, starts a detailed archive of the killed and missing: evidence of their violent deaths and clues to their identities, the recording a distinguishing mark or even keeping a bit of nail or skin. His archive, written in code and smelling of rotten flesh, is kept secret in his bedroom until the Iraqi officer and husband of his daughter Qisma, goes missing. Ibrahim had also buried his son-in-law’s body but not before noting the flaying of his skin except on the arm with a presidential tattoo. He was buried in a mass grave, alongside other officers involved in a failed coup against the president. Surely the experience of Al-Ramli’s brother Hassan Mutlak, the Iraqi poet and writer hung in 1990 for an attempted coup d’état, provided some impetus for the story.
With levels of violence like this in the imagined creative space, where do Iraqis go to dream? Science fiction, a genre that has had a popular following among Middle Eastern kids and teenage boys, was elevated by the 2013 publication in Arabic, of Baghdad Frankenstein, by Ahmed Saadawi, now available in English. The movement of sci-fi into the Arabic literary fiction is part of the breakdown between high and low culture that has been taking place in the region since the 2011 Arab Awakening or so–called Spring.
Blasim who has been described by the critic Boyd Tonkin as the Iraqi Irvine Welsh readily admits in + 100 that he is an outsider, “on the margins of the Iraqi literary scene” which “is populated by ‘official writers’ who belong to the Writers’ Union … It is a literary scene that depends … on corruption in the press and in the Ministry of Culture. Literary and other culture projects in Iraq usually come about through personal relations that are not entirely innocent.” Not only is sci-fi missing in modern Iraqi and Arabic canons. He believes there is a dearth of diverse genre writing in Middle Eastern fiction.
He explains the reasons for this: “We, by which I mean Arabs today, are subservient to form and to narrow-minded thinking because we have been dominated by religious discourse and by repressive practices over long periods, often by dictators who served the capitalist West well …” Despite this, he cites early examples of sci-fi and fantasy in A Thousand and One Nights and the Sumerians’ The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Some stories in + 100 turn on a neat conceit. Ali Bader’s one-eared Corporal Sobhan, killed by an African-American sniper’s bullet, made a deal in heaven and is sent back to Iraq. However the country he returns to no longer needs religion, which places him under suspicion at home as a terrorist and abroad as the anti-Christ – once news of his appearance reaches an ultra religious America that’s “become like Afghanistan was 100 years ago … ruled by the Taliban.”
Statutes too walk and talk in + 100. “The Worker” by Diaa Jubaili reveals an Iraq ruled by a governor who cites massacres, famines and natural disasters from history to show that his country isn’t so bad, despite the corpses in the streets.
While in “Baghdad Syndrome” by Zhraa Alhaboby, an architect starts hallucinating and having nightmares – in his dreams a dismembered statue of Scheherazade yearns for her partner in stone Shahryar. It is the final stages of a mental condition, which will leave him blind. The story is as much about a memory of a city as it’s a well-crafted detective who-done-it.
In one hundred years time, politics doesn’t improve much. In “Operation Daniel” by Khalid Kaki, a Chinese warlord takes over oil-rich Kirkuk, outlaws the old languages and songs and arrests the innocent. Iraq’s future still includes women seeking protection from religious freaks in “Kahramana” by Anoud. It also provides the setting for memorable characters like Abdulrazzak’s Kuszib, a tentacled hermaphrodite who offers aphrodisiac wine made from wild humans, killed the moment before they orgasm, as a cure for rekindling a failing alien love affair. In other stories the sci-fi feels disjointed; for some writers it remains a not altogether realized form.
In the masterful The President’s Garden Al-Ramli makes great use of the Iraqi tradition of Scheherazade’s stories within stories. The near-repetition of the first chapter much later in the book has an unexpected poetic effect as the narrative shifts. Stories that have the same beginnings can come to radically different conclusions. By the end, the tale is no longer Ibrahim’s but that of his ill-fated daughter. Qisma always considered her father a failure until he emerges as a hero to the thousands of distraught families looking for their missing relations, as he and his archive become better known. In The President’s Gardens, the dead have already suffered enough; it is the living who do not come away unscathed.
At a launch for Banipal 57 at Waterstone’s Piccadilly in London, a twenty-something woman in the audience asked Al-Ramli a question about legitimacy and post-truth. Can his version of history be trusted? Fiction is a kind of truth, muttered both the author and audience. In today’s climate of “alternative” facts that are lies where does the truth of dictatorship and war as harsh as Iraq’s or Syria for that matter, lie? Somehow moral informed choices must be made.
For an author as compelling and important as Al-Ramli, the great heroes of Iraq are not intellectuals or sheikhs – nor are they alien hermaphrodites or the ghostly corporals of + 100. He leaves us with the severed head of a humble man of conscience in a region controlled by killers, religious extremists and crazy American presidents. We’re lucky to get that.