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.

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The Iraqi Christ

Blasim
Blasim

A slightly edited version of this review was published at the Guardian.

Hassan Blasim, author of the acclaimed debut collection “The Madman of Freedom Square”, returns with fourteen more stories of profane lyricism, skewed symbolism and macabre romanticism. The qualities which distinguished the “Madman” are all here again in the opening pages of “The Iraqi Christ”: the sly self-referentiality of the frame – a story-telling competition hosted by a Baghdad radio station – the black comedy, the unexpected twists, and the sharp, disturbing images (a man “with no arms and a beard that almost reached his waist… deep in thought, like a decrepit Greek statue.”)

Like the “Madman”, this collection contains tales of war and migration, but these are more abstract, more difficult than the first, if possible stranger still. Treating casual cruelty, rape and murder, and common insanity, these sour cries from a land of generalised trauma don’t make easy bedtime reading. The processing of trauma, or the impossibility of such processing, is the collection’s central theme. Not only are stories dedicated to the dead, they are also narrated by the dead, concerned with death and the echoes of death in the souls of the living.

The subject matter is not exclusively Iraqi. Europe’s forests – with echoes of Grimm – loom as large as Baghdad’s broken streets. The title story, grimly ironic, is about a Christian soldier possessing uncanny powers of prediction who sacrifices himself so his mother may live. An extremist leader marches through with Purge The Earth of Devils tatooed on his forehead. Elsewhere, a narrator falls into a hole alongside a flesh-eating jinn who used to teach poetry in Baghdad. Another helps his brother bury a stranger alive. Characters slip into criminal perversity unwittingly, almost by accident, as spontaneously as the poisonous trees which, in “Sarsara’s Tree”, sprout from a bereaved woman’s gaze.

Blasim’s work is so unusual it’s hard to place. “A Thousand and One Knives”, as the title suggests, owes something to the heritage of the Nights and the ancient fantastic tradition of Arabic writing, now revived by the pains of Arab modernity, particularly in post-invasion Iraq. But “The Iraqi Christ” also seems to belong with the literature of Latin America, likewise struggling with contesting cultures, political violence and overbearing religion.

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The Madman of Freedom Square

I see no need to swear an oath in order for you to believe in the strangeness of this world.”

How can imagination respond to a situation like Iraq’s, in which truth is so blatantly stranger and more horrifying than the darkest fiction? Perhaps by simply recording real stories, then sometimes allowing reality to slip a little further in the direction it’s already chosen.

Hassan Blasim, film maker, refugee, and author of the astounding short-story collection “The Madman of Freedom Square,” has a more precise formulation:

The important thing is to observe at length, like someone contemplating committing suicide from a balcony. The other important thing is to have an imagination which is not melodramatic but malicious and extremely serious, and to have an ascetic spirit that is close to death.

Except this isn’t a formulation but a voice within a story. In another story there is a man who throws himself from a balcony – a man who clears blood and debris in the aftermath of explosions, then migrates to Holland, renames himself Carlos Fuentes, becomes a Hirsi Ali figure, more Dutch than the Dutch, and suffers nightmares. There’s a man who dreams a number which foretells not a lottery ticket but .. something else. I give away too much.

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