Iraqi Sci-Fi: Post War Visions of Trauma and Change
In recent years, the presence of science fiction and magic realism have been beginning to take up space in the world of Arabic fiction. While 1001 Nights and Ibn Al-Nafis’ 13th Century Theologus Autodidactus are often the first to be mentioned as the very roots of fantasy and sci-fi the genre has remained somewhat neglected. However, book fairs are holding panels on Arab Sci-fi with storylines from Sufi spacecraft to jinn and human romances. Initially, we can thank Egypt for the modern sci-fi revival in Arabic literature. Mustafa Mahmud’s 1965 novel ‘The Spider’ is said to have paved the way for the genre and incorporation of magic into contemporary literature. Decades later, works such as Ghadah al-Samman’s ‘The Square Moon: Supernatural Tales’ comfortably use fantastical elements and magic realism to explore society, gender and identity. However, it is Iraq’s fiction making the most interesting waves in the genre. Using these literary devices creatively rather than borrowing from Le Guin or Atwood in attempt to emulate a well-trodden genre. The work appears to have emerged from the writers’ imaginations through organic processes by which to translate their surroundings, past and present. The end resulting in hallucinatory horror stories that detail the surreal (and often comical) elements that come hand in hand with such trauma.
Hassan Blassim, an Iraqi writer living in Finland, has published several short story collections including ‘The Iraqi Christ’, ‘The Corpse Exhibition’ and ‘The Madman of Freedom Square’ all translated to english by Jonathan Wright and released by indie publisher Comma Press. His style has drawn comparisons with South American and European metaphorical masters Borges, Bolano and Kafka. Blassim’s stories use the unreal elements of Arabic oral storytelling traditions (hakawati) to tell the tales of war and its horror with humour and sharp intellectual commentary within bizarre situations such as living with the spirit of a car bomb victim. In an interview with the New Statesman Blassim comments on the tradition, “the oral storyteller has often incorporated the fantastical to the assert the horrors of reality or make it memorable or stick.” A device certainly evident in his work. For example, The Hole perhaps the most ‘kafkaesque’ of his works (although I would argue it’s the most Arabian Nights) features a man falling into a hole to find a jinn telling stories from another war. The story ends with the next victim to fall into the hole is from a war in the future, the cruel irony of the repetition of history is told with the help of magical elements. This story is an example of these literary devices at its most powerful, making the mundane into something surreal and symbolic.
Similar in concept to The Hole, Blassim edited Iraq +100, an anthology in which Iraqi authors were asked to imagine Iraq in 2103 (100 years from the 2003 US Iraq invasion). While it would seem almost impossible to envision a future for a country having been through such violence in recent years, it was the intention of the collection to encourage writers to look away from the responsibilities that come with telling the story of the past and present and look to what might be when given full creative license and a nebulous task. The collection succeeds in drawing attention to an imagined future, for bleaker or not, and how the horror lives on in a nation whose ability to tell stories cease to be crushed. However, it shouldn’t be surprising that, such future visions are almost wildly un-cathartic.
In the foreword to the anthology, Blassim makes reference to the genre’s gaps in Iraqi fiction and the wider Arab fictions despite the aforementioned 1001 nights and even Sumerian ‘invention of space aeronautics’. It is the society and literary tradition in its preservation of poetic Arabic language he holds responsible for the lack, “modern science fiction is strongly associated with the scientific-technological revolution and usually focuses on the related issues. On the other hand, science fiction is a literature that is part of a very old tradition that goes back to humanities first ideas about the world.” * He states that religious discourse and political regimes have held back the potential for sooner advancements in literature. If this is accurate, it is not negative. It instead moves the writing away from genre tropes and allows the writing to use the devices to actually explore the idea of the future on a more creative and symbolic level in a globalised world where attachment to language, censorship and cultural exchange play a much bigger part in what could lead authors into abstraction and different means of storytelling. The writing as framed by this discourse is fresh and conjures imagery of the ancient, traditional and mystical elements of the Arab world and present relationships to the afterlife. Not so focused on modern technology or experiments in society but the reinvention of ritual and traditional practices such as storytelling, astrology or perfumery which allows the genre to carve its own identity while critically observing society.
Winner for the 2013 Arab prize for fiction and longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstien in Bahgdad (translated by Jonathan Wright - whom also translates Blassim’s work to English) is a prime example of the growing genre at its satirical best. The title should not be taken as homage to Shelley’s soft sci-fi gothic horror classic and more of a joke about the nature of newspaper headlines. The novel follows a corpse stitched together by a local junk dealer using limbs from various bodies. The monster is animated by a security guard, whose own body was blown apart by a suicide bomber. Again, the fantastical elements of the story are purely symbolic allowances. The monster or ‘shooismo’ in its many parts is a representation of the only ‘true Iraqi citizen’. The joined and diverse parts of a nation in conflict acting as a vigilante poses the question of moral relativism in a country at war. It explores the everyday hypocrisies that exist inside conflict without forgetting equal alliance to humour and ridiculousness.
Perhaps the most obvious comparison to draw in new Iraqi fiction would be to Latin America’s magic realism and the post dictatorship societies in which it rose to fame. Indeed, it shares aspects of the depiction of horror and critique of power, as Salman Rushdie has said of Marquez’s work ‘the formal experiment of magic realism allows political ideas to be expressed in ways which might not be possible through more established literary forms’. Meanwhile Naipaul has defined the device as establishing a third world consciousness. Here it is only fair to point out comparison and similarity of situation rather than indicate influence as given the Arab world’s relationship with magic and Iraq’s relationship with violence. When asked if his work was magic realism Blasim stated, “not magical realism”, but “nightmarish realism. Horrifying hallucination.” Following in an interview with the Independent with, “Violence is an experience at once nightmarish, horrifying and unreal. In Iraq violence has been practised over the past 50 years with severity and savagery; it has been a chain of painful and peculiar nightmares.”
Ultimately the emergence of hallucinatory horror and surreal elements as vessels for narration on conflict and violence have allowed for some fascinating advancements in modern Iraqi literature. But it is Blassim’s and Saadawi’s portrayal of truth within societies in conflict and how we can better make sense of the past and present in traumatic times. On the subject of truth Blassim takes influence again from centuries before, keeping the past as an important means to influence the future and keep the stories being told, in the view that absolute truth is impossible when there is only moral relativism he states, “Writing for me is an important piece of Jalal al-Din al-Rumi’s mirror fragments, as when he says, more or less, that, “The truth is like a mirror that has fallen from the sky and shattered into tiny shards. Every human being is capable of holding onto a piece of the truth.” I think the fragment of “imagination,” for example, contributes somehow to our understanding of the past.”
Foreward Iraq +100 pg 8
* Blassim, Hassan ed. Iraq +100, Comma Press, 2015 p. 8
Lydia Beardmore is writer and photographer currently based in London where she studies Anthropology of Travel, Tourism and Pilgrimage at SOAS. She lived in Istanbul for a number of years and considers it her true home. She has written for a variety of publications including ReOrient, Time Out Istanbul and Little White Lies and hosts spoken word events and creative writing workshops across Europe. She also runs a female focused travel writing blog which can be found at www.puddingshoppress.com