At last, contemporary war fiction from the other side–a chance to see how the Iraqis think about us. Only it’s not that simple, because the Iraqis portrayed in Iraqi author Hassan Blasim’s great “The Green Zone Rabbit” are so caught up in their internal Iraqi-only machinations and subterfuges that the American presence barely registers, save for a number of references to Facebook. Apparently, even sectarian infighters in the Baghdad warzone lived from status update to status update. And who needs Americans, anyway, when the Iraqis in “The Green Zone Rabbit” kill each other just fine in the most brutal ways?
The first person narrator describes the death of two of his brothers: “The Allahu Akbar militias took them away to an undisclosed location. They drilled lots of holes in their bodies with an electric drill and then cut off their heads. We found their bodies in a rubbish dump on the edge of the city.” And that’s not the worst of it in, in story that manages to be graphic without being sensational. According to critic Yasmeen Hanoosh, Blasim’s fiction consists of “at once peremptory and incredulous accounts of human violence.” That seems about right.
What is the context for such laconic treachery and death? According to Hanoosh, Iraq’s war with Iran and Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship set the conditions for latent Shia-Sunni tensions to catalyze, not the Americans’ overthrow of Saddam and their subsequent occupation. In other words, post-2003 civic degeneration is only the latest manifestation of the contemporary historical nightmare from which Iraq is still struggling to awake. Within the literary realm, Hanoosh tells us that the emergence of authors such as Blasim represents an intellectual revolt against state-and-church sanctioned official speech. The import is a distrust of triteness and cant, formula and convention.
This historical-cultural stew generates a fictional texture unlike anything I’ve seen in American war fiction. One thing immediately noticeable in “The Green Zone Rabbit” is that the protagonists are grown adults, with richer personal histories and more complex worldviews than the boyish and girlish heroes of American fiction. There seems to be a lack of sentimentality and emotional gush, too; Hajjar, the narrator of “The Green Zone Rabbit,” is hyper-aware of the dangerous world he inhabits, but the story isn’t all about his feelings toward killing and dying in the way that, say, it is for the protagonists of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk or The Yellow Birds. Nor is it moralistic. For Hajjar, the problem of the war is as much intellectual than it is emotional or political or ethical or even religious. “The Green Zone Rabbit” emphasizes how quick of mind one must be merely to survive in an environment where motives are always obscure and loyalty in jeopardy.
“The Green Zone Rabbit” can be found at the Words Without Borders website, whose April 2013 issue is dedicated to Iraq, Ten Years Later. The biography of Blasim therein tells us that a collection of his stories called The Corpse Exhibition will come out next year, translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright. Yasmeen Hanoosh’s overview of Iraqi literature is also worth reading: “Beyond the Trauma of War: Iraqi Literature Today”. So too is Polish journalist Mariusz Zawadzki’s “A Vacation in Basra”, which is excerpted from his book Brave New Iraq. Zawadzki, among other things, is remarkably generous about the American occupation. He writes:
You can accuse the Americans of a lot of things, but one thing you have to give them: they have never been economical in Iraq. They have sacrificed masses of energy, billions of dollars and thousands of dead to carrying out the impossible and absurd task that they have set for themselves. I have gotten to know many of them; some I have considered stupid or arrogant, but all of them—from the privates to the generals—have performed their Sisyphean labor with real commitment.
That’s why you could even love the Americans, in a way.
Not sure if that’s what Hassan Blasim would say about the matter, but it’s a perspective worth thinking about, or even better, given fictional representation and made available for critique.
Thanks to Sean Case for alerting me to the Words Without Borders website.