Iraq’s Present and Future-Past in its Contemporary Literature
By Malu Halasa
Body parts are an essential component in Iraqi contemporary fiction. The soon-to-be published 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. InIraq + 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.
Muhsin Al-Ramli and Hassan Blasim
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.
*The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli will be published by MacLehose in April 2017.
**Malu Halasa is Jordanian Filipina American writer and editor based in London. Born in Oklahoma, she was raised in Ohio and is a graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University. Her books ...
***This article was updated on February 2, 2017