The ‘Hakawati’ as Artist and Activist

hassanI interviewed my friend Hassan Blasim, a brilliant writer and a wonderful human being, for the National.

Hassan Blasim is an Iraqi-born writer and film-maker, now a Finnish citizen. He is the author of the acclaimed story collections “The Madman of Freedom Square” and “The Iraqi Christ” (the latter won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize), and editor and contributor to the science fiction collection “Iraq +100”. His play “The Digital Hat Game” was recently performed in Tampere, Finland.

Because it’s so groundbreaking, his work is hard to categorise. It deals with the traumas of repression, war and migration, weaving perspectives and genres with intelligence and a brutal wit.

Why do you write?

To be frank, I would have killed myself without writing.

If you read novels and intellectual works since your childhood, your head is filled with the big questions. Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? You apply this questioning to the mess of the world around you – why is America bombing Iraq? why are we suffering civil wars? – and you realise the enormous contradiction between your lived reality and the ideal world of knowledge. On the one hand, peace, freedom, and our common human destiny, and on the other, borders, capitalism and wars.

Writing for me began as a hobby, or a way of dreaming. And then when I witnessed the disasters that befell Iraq, it became a personal salvation. It wouldn’t be possible to accept this world without writing.

Maybe writing is a psychological treatment, or an escapism. It’s certainly a dream. But it’s also to confront the world, and to challenge all the books that have been written before. And it’s a process of discovery. It’s all of these things.

Continue reading “The ‘Hakawati’ as Artist and Activist”


The Glasgow Film Theatre asked me and nine other writers based in Scotland to respond to the theme ‘For All.’ My response is part of the novel I’m writing at the moment. The extract  inspired this very brief but strangely wonderful animation by David Galletly:

You can read Tooth here at the GFT’s website.

The Role of Tom Rob Smith in Brand Israel

Tom Rob Smith is grappling with some serious philosophical questions these days. He asks himself what the purpose of fiction is? What the role of the writer in society is?

What prompted the popular writer to go back to his Cambridge roots and rehash this very Humanities 101 debate? Why the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement of course!

Tom Rob Smith at the Jerusalem Writers Festival not discussing the ways in which it whitewashes apartheid, and is sponsored by an organization which is responsible for ongoing ethnic cleansing, only minutes away from the premises. (source: The Jerusalem Writers Festival Facebook page)


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The Syrian People

picture by Zdzisław Beksiński

walls to scrawl graffitti on

slabs of stone for carving

if you crush it it sings a song

changes colour with a stamping

meat to hang upon a hook

wire conducting electricity

balls to kick around the yard

to reduce to pure simplicity

wet cloth to dessicate

sweet sounds to silence

flaps and buttons to be tugged off

obscenities to be licensed

unruly features to be trimmed and then

punished, then punished, then punished –

the guilty corpse, the damned – to be

punished, dissected, turned inside out

so all the world can see

Continue reading “The Syrian People”

Hama Hallucinated

picture by Reuters

Here’s an extract from my novel The Road From Damascus, in which the dying Ba’athist Mustafa Traifi hallucinates the Hama massacre of 1982. Back then the regime really was fighting an armed group – the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. I don’t much like my writing of four years ago, but the passage is rustling in my mind today for obvious reasons.

What’s time to a corpse? From the moment of its death, time becomes a foreign territory, a land stranger and more distant with every minute, every decade, until soon there’s nobody left to put a face to the corpse’s name, to the name of the dust, and soon the letters of its name have sunk into the graveslab’s grain, and the stone itself is broken or buried or dug up. And the land which was once a graveyard is overgrown, or shifted, or levelled. And the planet itself dead, by fire or ice, and nobody at all anywhere to know. No consciousness. As if nothing had ever been.

Unless there is Grace watching and waiting for our helplessness.

There is no permanence for a corpse, not even for corpse dust. Or corpse mud, in this country. All this graveyard sentiment. You may as well shoot it into outer space. Into the stars.

Mustafa Traifi is dreaming intermittent dreams of war. He sees the city of Hama from above and within. Sees the black basalt and white marble stripes. The mosque and the cathedral. The thin red earth. The tell of human remains, bones upon bones. The Orontes River rushing red with the blood of Tammuz, the blood of Dumuzi, the dying and rising shepherd god. The maidens weeping on the river banks.

Life is precarious. This place is thirty kilometers from the desert. The river raised by waterwheels feeds a capillary network of irrigation and sewage channels, and agricultural land in the city’s heart. Traffic is organised by the nuclei of marketplaces (Mustafa sees from above, like the planes) where there are householders and merchants and peasant women in red-embroidered dresses and tall men of the hinterland wearing cloaks and kuffiyehs, and mounds of wheat and corn, and olives and oranges from the hill orchards, and complaining oxen and fat-tailed sheep. Where there is dust in the endless process of becoming mud and then again dust.

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Spontaneous Expression of Love

photo by Muzaffar Salman/AP

The regime brought thousands of supporters onto the streets of Damascus today. The picture shows them carrying a two-kilometre-long flag along Mezzeh Autostrade – this supposedly proves that the regime, despite its mass murder of Syrian civilians, is a patriotic one. Some of the loyalist demonstrators will be genuine supporters of the president. Many will be civil servants, teachers and schoolchildren told to do their duty. That’s how official demonstrations work in Syria.

I remember the run-up to the final referendum on Hafez al-Asad’s reign. Every night extended news bulletins screened grim-faced crowds shaking their fists on snowy hillsides or stiffly dancing debke in enormous stadiums. The newsreaders described these spectacles as spontaneous expressions of joy and loyalty. When the president won 99.something percent of the vote, the newsreaders called it ‘a marriage of people and leader.’

In honour of today’s occasion, I’m reposting the short story below. It’s inspired by an organised riot which I witnessed in Damascus in the late 1990s.

The Screen

There were no classes. Instead we marched down to the square and began to shout slogans. At first the teachers led us but soon we got into a group with no teachers and we could shout what we wanted.

Ya Blair Ya haqeer

dumak min dum al-khanzeer

O Blair, you are mud

Your blood is swine’s blood

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Easter Blood

On Friday the saviour died for our sins

That we might live.

Dumuzi, on the blood river’s brink

Takes the plunge.

Israa Yunis, seven years old, takes the plunge

And the little boys of Dara’a whose skulls they smashed

The brave men of Jableh, the warm women of Bayda

The intellectuals, the street kids, the people of truth

Walk into the waves.

Continue reading “Easter Blood”

Miss Dallal

Emil Nolde's Portrait of a Young Girl

This story was published in today’s Guardian.

He filled up the tank before he left Kuwait City, filled it again at Qurriyat near the Saudi-Jordanian border. He stopped a couple of times for sandwiches and crisps, otherwise kept on driving through the flat desert with stereo playing and air conditioning humming. They waved him through the crossings after he’d waved his genuine Rolex and his heavy silver rings at them. Including border stops, the journey took eighteen hours. These days the world’s a small place, which is one of the Prophet’s Signs of the Hour – distances will disappear before the end comes.

Dusk was falling on Damascus when he arrived. Fumes rose from the minibuses and paraffin heaters and from people’s cigarettes and swirled up to meet the thickening night. Green lights and minarets shook on either side, and there were potholes in the asphalt. He didn’t bother checking into his hotel. He wanted to get straight to business.

He drove towards the mountain, through the centre of town. He followed a highway along the bed of a gorge. Here at last the barren melted against the power of potential fertility. A gurgling stream rushed beside the road, and there were trees and restaurants, sometimes dining rooms fatly bridging the water. He pulled in at a building more contemporary than the rest, a tall building fronted in metal and dark mirrors.

Continue reading “Miss Dallal”

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