Baghdad used to be the most important city in the Arab world. Founded by the Abbasid Caliphate during the Middle Ages, this multicultural city was a center of learning and home to over a million people for more than five centuries. Until the Mongols torched it.
When the British Empire imploded post World War II, there was some hope that Baghdad, and the country of Iraq, would be able to reestablish their ancient glory. However, after three violent revolutions, which ultimately led to Saddam Hussein as dictator in chief, that hope was ripped to shreds.
Saddam was not a good person or a good leader. After killing around 250,000 Iraqis in various purges and genocides, starting a war with Iran, and attacking Kuwait, the United States decided that enough was enough. President Bush invented weapons of mass destruction and used that as an excuse to invade the country and forcibly establish a democracy. It didn’t really work out (Civil war, the Arab Spring, and ISIL), and the remaining shreds of hope are missing.
But what about in a hundred years? Is that far enough ahead for things to maybe get better? Or at least more stable? That is the theme that Iraq+100, a short story anthology that tries to imagine the country in 2103, one hundred years after the country was invaded.
It’s a challenging request when you consider that the authors are writing from within the context of the present. Therefore, I wasn’t really surprised about the overall lack of futuristic utopias. Still it was interesting to read and I got to experience the anger and resentment felt by Iraq’s current generation of writers.
The Future is Usually not Pretty
“They sampled more wine from other regions. Mainly made from human blood, although the ‘Other Vinos’ section offered vintages derived from dog, cat, hamster, and pig.”
Most of the stories in Iraq+100 are dystopias. Some are more graphic than others. For example, in “Kuszib” by Hassan Abdulzarak, I got to experience a vision of what Baghdad (and the rest of Earth) would like after aliens invaded and started factory farming humans for food. Told from the perspective of an alien couple experiencing marital difficulties, we are shown in graphic detail how our civilization was erased, and humans were unceremoniously tossed to the bottom of the food chain. Be warned this story may turn you vegan.
“The Worker” by Diaa Jubaili (translated by Andrew Leber) tells how Basra is ruled over by a benign governor who likes to remind his starving populace that things have never been better by comparing to the millions of starving people in Africa or the disasters of the ancient past. Meanwhile an old automaton (disguised as a statue), remembers how things used to be and roams the streets, a silent witness to the city’s suffering. He’s just a statue though.
Not everything is completely bad though. The “Guardians of Babylon” by Hassan Blasim, the editor of the anthology (translated by Jonathan Wright), offers a utopian future in which water is plentiful, Iraq is now Federal Mesopotamia, and Babylon has been reestablished. In this city, which has been divided into twenty-four giant domes, a games designer is tasked with writing a smart-game based on the life story of an Iraqi who lived through the invasion that toppled Saddam’s regime. The protagonist ends up becoming fascinated with the past even as I became fascinated with the future he was living in.
And sometimes, the future is just so incompatible with the past that those who visit it find themselves no longer welcome. In “The Corporal” by Ali Bader (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette), a strange soldier was arrested in Kut, Corporal Sobhan. Sobhan claimed he used to serve in Saddam’s army, but secretly hated him, and that he was killed in 2003 by an American sniper. However, his language and mannerisms are so violent that he finds himself completely out of place in a civilization that managed to abolish religion, and all other forms of extremism. He should have been sent to America instead.
A Lot of Anger
“The best science fiction, they say, tells us more about the context it’s written in than the future it’s trying to predict.”
This is the opening sentence in the afterword written by Ra Page, and it does a good job explaining what this anthology is about, an Iraqi future that is very much shaped by the Iraqi present. It’s a present that unfortunately is very ugly, and as a result, I wasn’t really able to enjoy the stories that were written, which I think was also the point of the book. I’m not supposed to be having fun with the book. I’m supposed to better understand what is going on in Iraq, and maybe change my perspective.
The stories contain lots of resentment and anger. This is made very clear in the Foreword by Hassan Blassim who argues that no nation has suffered as much as Iraq, and that Bush is a butcher and so is his partner Blair. I hear where this is coming from, but also don’t fully accept it. There are a lot of countries that have experienced worse than Iraq. You can find most of them in Africa, and you need to compare Bush and Blaire to Saddam Hussein. But, I’m privileged (yes I do use that term). My country hasn’t been tearing itself apart for the past century.
That’s why I have a lot of mixed feelings about this novel, and am not sure I would recommend it to others. If you’re looking for a fun anthology, I’d give this a pass. If you’re looking to better experience what Iraqis are feeling, and expose yourself to large amounts of somewhat justified anger and resentment then maybe give the stories a shot. You’re not going to get an objective perspective, but then again, that’s not what most stories offer, and not what you should be looking for in an anthology like this. That’s what Wikipedia is for.
The Omer today is foundation in courage. Iraq today is a living lesson on what happens when you try to establish a democracy without the proper foundations already in place. Change takes time and it needs to come about at its pace. When you try and force things, you risk the entire structure falling apart, and risk being homeless. I am not going to presume to offer any advice to the Iraqis. It’s not my place. All I have is
About the Editor
Hassan Blasim was born in Baghdad in 1973, where he studied at the city’s Academy of Cinematic Arts. In 1998, he was advised to leave Baghdad, as his documentary critiques of life under Saddam had put him at risk. He fled to Sulaymaniya (Iraqi Kurdistan), where he continued to make films, including the feature-length drama Wounded Camera, under the Kurdish pseudonym ‘Ouazad Osman’. In 2004, after years of travelling illegally through Europe as a refugee, he finally settled in Finland. is first story to appear in print was for Comma’s anthology Madinah (2008), edited by Joumana Haddad, which was followed by two commissioned collections, The Madman of Freedom Square (2009) and The Iraqi Christ (2013) – all translated into English by Jonathan Wright. The latter collection won the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and Hassan’s stories have now been published in over 20 languages.
(Bio taken from book)