Posted tagged ‘Hassan Blasim’

Something Wicked This Way Comes: The Future of War Literature

July 27, 2014
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Graffiti at the ruined and abandoned Darul Aman Palace, Kabul, Afghanistan, 2008. “Darul Aman” means “Abode of Peace.”

“I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb,” wrote Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne after completing Moby-Dick. I don’t know if Moby-Dick is exactly wicked, or about the “spotless as a lamb” business, but I am ready for a wicked book about American soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, stories and novels about the wars have been remarkably dainty about depicting American soldiers’ capacity for killing, torture, carnage, malevolence, and other forms of evil. At some level, it seems, they try to hold a kernel of life-affirming goodness at the center of the war experience, whether it be located in the characters, the narrators, or within themselves.

That’s a great strategy for real life. “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle inside,” are words to live by. But it’s limited when it comes to fiction, a virtue of which is its ability to take readers to forbidden places. Another nineteenth-century author, John Neal, wrote that novels were places “where imaginary creatures, invested with all the attributes of humanity, agitated by the passions of our nature, are put to the task of entertaining or terrifying us.” The greatest characters, Neal continued, are “scoundrels,” while virtuous characters “are altogether subordinate and pitiably destitute of energy and wholly without character.” Edgar Allan Poe knew Neal’s work, it would seem, or at least felt the same. No one’s asking for a war story as related by the berserk narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado,” but would you agree that Poe’s narrator is more memorable than all the protagonists of contemporary war fiction put together? And his narrative voice even more so?

Poe and Melville are tough standards by which to judge, but great examples from which to learn. Iraqi author Hassan Blasim, in the tales that make up The Corpse Exhibition (2014), has crafted spell-binding tales that portray, not Americans, but his own countrymen as capable of any evil, first by nature and then made even more so by the pressure of war. Contemporary war literature written by Americans, on the other hand, has by-and-large shied away from depicting truly reprehensible–which is to say truly remarkable–characters in ways that are not mediated by other, more sympathetic voices. The only story I know by an American author that entertainingly plumbs depravity is Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” from the Fire and Forget anthology (2013). Compared to the solemnity of most modern war stories, the vitality of “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” is exceptional, and the story’s depiction of its charismatically ruined protagonists Sleed and Rooster startling. It’s a wicked tale indeed, and though I don’t know if Van Reet feels as spotless as a lamb, if it’s any solace I think more of him, not less, for writing it.

A spate of articles have appeared recently by civilian authors asserting their right to write about war and the military. A representative example is Sparta (2013) author Roxana Robinson’s essay “The Right to Write” that appeared in the New York Times. But Robinson, right as she is, and accomplished as she is, need not worry so much. I for one count on civilian authors to lead the way by demonstrating exactly how wide and deep are the boundaries of imaginative possibility, because, tales such as “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” excepted, vet authors are not yet so skilled at getting beyond the basic first steps of realistic description and gussied-up reportage of their own experiences. Or, maybe the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are still too fresh and hot, and the most visionary writing about contemporary war can only be found displaced in stories about past wars. Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn (2010), an opus about Marines in Vietnam, begs to be read as a commentary not just on Iraq and Afghanistan, but on Iraq and Afghanistan war literature. Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison’s novel Home (2012), for another example, depicts an African-American Korean War soldier’s sexual attraction to and subsequent murder of a young girl. An up-and-coming author, Julian Zabalbeascoa, published in Ploughshares a fantastic story called “498” (not currently available online, but hopefully will be again soon) that portrays a soldier in the Spanish Civil War who uses the pretext of war to become a mass murderer. Guess what the number in the title refers to?

Brian Van Reet’s article “A Problematic Genre: the ‘Kill Memoir'” exposes the limitations of first-person reminiscences by ex-snipers that jumble reflection and braggadocio about the military business of killing. In my mind, and I think Van Reet would agree, fiction such as Zabalbeascoa’s most compellingly explores the complicated emotions and social context that kill memoir authors struggle to explain. But so far, our authors of war fiction have written much about soldiers preoccupied by the way the big, bad wars have impinged on the sensibilities of those who fight, and little about soldiers who find themselves on other terms—if not delight, then an ambivalent complicity—with violence, force, hate, sadism, greed, ambition, selfishness, self-preservation, and killing. Let’s see what the future brings.

UPDATE, 3 August 2014.  In this post, I speculate that the darkest war fiction written about Iraq and Afghanistan might have to take as its setting another war.  In the Letters, I suggest that Hollywood might make a dark, bleak war film before our authors and publishers bring us such a book.  Now, two weeks later, comes notice of a new film called Fury, starring Brad Pitt and directed by David Ayers.  Read the New York Times review of Fury for what appears to be confirmations of my assertions.

War of Words, Words of War

April 21, 2014

Last week I was fortunate to hear masterful short-story war authors Phil Klay and Hassan Blasim read in separate events to West Point cadets, faculty, and interested community members.  Both Klay and Blasim were eager to share their enthusiasm for literature and what they have learned about war for the benefit of future officers.  Both, I think, were pleased to find receptive audiences—Blasim, no fan of Saddam Hussein but equally appalled at the destruction of Iraqi civilized, artistic, and intellectual life in the wake of his displacement by American forces, and Klay, a Semper Fi Do or Die Marine in the heart of the belly of the Army beast.  Both read powerfully, both were charming raconteurs in informal discussion, and both were inspirational about the necessity of imagination and art to help people—future Army officers—understand the complexity of war and the human experience of it.  Hats off to my bosses and colleagues at West Point who have worked hard to make contemporary war artists and writers relevant to the education of cadets.

This week, Klay and Blasim read together in New York City, where I took this picture of them together:

Klay Blasim

Also this week, I participated in two Vassar College classes that explored the Iraq War through fiction and photography.  The class had read David Abrams’ Fobbit, and now we were privileged to have Abrams join us by Skype—shades of deployment!—to discuss his black humor vision of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Abrams has written about the experience in his blog The Quivering Pen and even included two wonderful student response papers to his novel.  The following class, the professor, Dr. Maria Hoehn of Vassar’s History Department, brought in Michael Kamber, a photographer who has covered both Iraq and Afghanistan for the New York Times.  Kamber has recently published an important and fascinating book called Photojournalists on War:  The Untold Stories from Iraq.  In it, Kamber compiles hundreds of photographs too graphic for military censors and media editors and published them along with their photographers’ accounts of their taking.  Kamber is adamant that photographs can shape consciousness and politics and he is vehement in his indictment of a military-media complex that has restricted, censored, and otherwise blocked distribution of the photographs that would truly inform the American public about the Iraq War.

photojournalists-on-war-michael-kamber-cover-hr

This swirl of words and impressions came as a series of publications and events brought veterans and veteran fiction into high relief.  George Packer’s glowing assessment of the contemporary war lit scene in the New Yorker was great, but its fulsome praise was undercut by Cara Hoffman’s  indictment in the New York Times that that same scene has been inhospitable to women’s first-person accounts of war.  Next came the news of yet another shooting rampage by a veteran.  One could sense public patience with vets draining away with each new article; we who were once heroes are in danger of morphing into monsters.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, the New York Times ran an opinion piece that confidently asserted a causal relationship between military service and membership in white supremacist groups and then an article that made the current generation of West Point cadets sound like bloodthirsty ingrates for their admission of regret that they would not probably not see combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In the midst of these gloomy accounts came a personal triumph, but one whose relevance to contemporary war literature I’m still trying to figure out. The current Maryland Historical Magazine features an article I wrote about early American novelist John Neal.  Neal is unknown to most, but he authored seven novels between 1817 and 1823–a time when very few other American writers took novels seriously.  Neal obviously did.  He called novels “the fireside biography of nations” and said, “People read novels who never go to plays or to church.  People read novels who never read plays, sermons, history, philosophy, nor indeed any thing else.”  Novels, for Neal, were places “where imaginary creatures, invested with all the attributes of humanity, agitated by the passions of our nature, are put to the task of entertaining or terrifying us.”  Ominously, he wrote that readers were excited by immoral and criminal characters more than virtuous ones.  Speaking of two popular authors of the time, Neal claimed that “all their great men are scoundrels….  their good men are altogether subordinate and pitiably destitute of energy and wholly without character.”  Be that as it may, Neal urged that all writers “write fiction–let them put out all their power upon a literature that all may read, century after century–I do not mean quote, and keep in their libraries, but read.”

Is any of this true, then or now?  Is any of it important?  Tomorrow I travel to Wesleyan University in Connecticut to participate in a “Writers on War” panel with Roy Scranton and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya.  I’m interested to hear what they and our audience have to say.  And what about David Abrams?  Michael Kamber?  Phil Klay?  Hassan Blasim?

“Terps”: Afghan and Iraqi Interpreters in War Memoir and Fiction

March 28, 2014

One aspect of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not generally understood is how dependent were American and other Western forces on the services of native interpreters to mediate virtually every interaction with host-nation military personnel and civilians.  Given the lack of Arabic, Dari, and Pashto speakers actually in the military and the paucity of bilingual speakers in Iraq and Afghanistan, you can assume that anything you might have read about in the papers that involved on-the-ground operations, and the millions of missions and engagements you didn’t, took place with a native speaker translator at the side of the officer or NCO charged with carrying them out.  Though some interpreters in Iraq outlaw-platoonand Afghanistan were American citizens or residents recruited in America and then deployed back to their homelands, most were natives. The fullest portrait of a host-nation interpreter and a US military member I know of appears in Sean Parnell’s Outlaw Platoon (2012), a memoir about Parnell’s service as an infantry platoon leader in Paktika province, Afghanistan.  Parnell uses anecdotes about his interpreters, one, named Abdul, faithful and competent, the other, Yusef, untrustworthy and treacherous, to frame his account.  “A good ‘terp,’” writes Parnell, “could make a huge difference in daily operations.”

“Terp” was the commonly used shorthand to describe military linguists.  I never really liked the term, but it was ubiquitous and even I would use it to describe “Terp Village,” the humble compounds affixed to US bases in which a unit’s interpreters lived.  The term appears again in a passage found in journalist-historian Bing West’s The Wrong War (2011).  West, describing operations in southern Afghanistan, writes, “The interpreters were the funnel for all coalition interactions with Afghans at all levels.”  Then, describing an interpreter named Siad, West continues: “Siad was typical of the local The Wrong Warinterpreters.  They all tried hard, and most worshipped the grunts they served locally.  Their thirst for absorbing American culture never ceased…  Their skills were marginal, no matter how hard they tried.  Their hearts were huge.  Anyone who doubted the magical image of America in the minds of millions of Afghans had only to spend a day under fire with a U.S. squad and the local terp.”

Before examining fictional representations of interpreters, I’ll post a passage from a private document written by a former interpreter of mine who is now applying for admission to the US.  It offers insight into the lived life of the men described abstractly so far:

I am engaged now and my fiancé is from Ghazni province.  All her relatives know that I am working with Coalition Forces as a linguist.  For that reason, I cannot go to Ghazni province now to see her or relatives or take part in a condolence or happiness party.  Since I know that everybody knows that I am working with Coalition Forces I do not feel free and I am sure my life is at risk.  Even in Kabul City where I live, I cannot go out at night and visit other people because I am very afraid my life is at risk.

War fiction writers have begun to make something of the possibilities offered by these complex figures and intense soldier-local national relationships.  Their portraits do what fiction does:  combine artistic creativity with realistic verisimilitude to provide social, psychological, and emotional nuance.  They might be said, however, to focus on dramatic aspects where the day to day record is more placid or positive.  The first depiction of which I am aware is in a Siobhan Fallon short story “Camp Liberty,” from her collection You Know When the Men are Gone (2011).  In this story, Fallon tells of a soldier deployed to Iraq, named  David, whose romantic relationship with SF-PictureMarissa, his stateside fiancé, fades as the working one with Raneen, a female interpreter, intensifies.  David grows enamored of Raneen, but she disappears and is probably killed before he is able to speak to her in anything but an on-the-job context.  Her disappearance leaves him more adrift than he imagined possible, and perhaps now too estranged from Marissa for that to ever be right again.  Fallon puts a romantic spin on what was usually a close working relationship between two men, while characterizing David and Raneen’s relationship as at least reasonably compatible and effective, but other stories depict much more fraught relationships.

In Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds (2012), an Iraqi named Malik appears as a minor character early in The Yellow Birds Coverthe book.  Powers’ narrator John Bartle tells us that Malik’s “English was exceptional… He’d been a student at the university before the war, studying literature.”  He wears a hood and a mask because, he says, “’They’ll kill me for helping you.  They’ll kill my whole family.’”  A few pages Malik is killed by a sniper, and Bartle and his friend debate whether to include him in their morbid count toward 1000 Coalition Force casualties:

“Doesn’t count, does it?” Murph asked.

“No.  I don’t think so.”

Bartle reports, “I was not surprised by the cruelty of my ambivalence then.  Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed.”

Redeployment“Money is a Weapons System,” by Phil Klay, in his recently released collection Redeployment (2014) portrays “a short and pudgy Sunni Muslim” interpreter known as “the Professor.”  Sullen and contemptuous, the Professor is “rumored to have blood on his hands from the Saddam days,” but Klay’s narrator, says, “Whether that was true or not, he was our best interpreter.”  A short exchange reflects their tense relationship:

“Istalquaal,” I finally said, trying to draw him out.  “Does it mean freedom, or liberation?”

[The Professor] opened his eyes a crack and looked at me sidelong.  “Istalquaal?  Istiqlal means independence.  Istalquaal means nothing.  It means Americans can’t speak Arabic.”

The most extensive portrait of an interpreter and the only one I know of published first in English that attempts to portray the interpreter’s thoughts and point of view is Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch (2012).  In this novel, The Watchwhich is set in the southern, Pashtun-region of Afghanistan, a young ethnic Tajik interpreter named Masood, loyal to the Americans and eager to do well, is dropped off at a remote combat outpost in the middle of the night after the big battle.  He doesn’t know about the battle, but expecting better he confronts hostility and mysterious behavior at every turn from his new American hosts and allies.  Roy-Bhattacharya gets right the incredibly uneven regard of young American soldiers for those outside the fraternal ranks of their unit.  Masood is mystified and hurt by the Americans’ baffling rudeness, and yet it is more complex than that—just when he is ready to write off the Americans as barbarians, he meets a medic who knows more about Afghan literature and history than he does, then the warm and wise COP first sergeant, and finally the outpost commander, whose fanatical adherence to mission and security coincides with a more than passing fluency in Pashto and Dari.

The dramatic focus on interpreters and the soldier-interpreter relationship, to my mind, suggests several points:

  1. The interpreter, not the host nation populace, was the “other” most often encountered by American soldiers, and the only one with whom he or she might bond.  With emotional investment, however, comes gratitude, guilt, and feelings of loss after the relationship ends.
  2. In life, the relationship between soldier and interpreter was often characterized by respect and mutual affection.  In fiction, however, the relationship is mined for tension and drama.  The interpreter, from the fiction author’s viewpoint, is part of the problem, and dysfunctional interpreter relationships symbolize the divide between Western military forces and the populaces they intend to help.
  3. The interpreter himself, or herself, is a complex, in-between figure who must manage a thicket of complicated personal histories and commitments.  In some ways they become “people without a country,” or a contemporary “tragic mulatto,” neither white nor dark and doomed to unhappiness and premature death.
  4. Contemplation of the interpreter’s role help us understand the basic unreality and unknowability of the wars:  mediated, filtered, coming to us second-hand via seriously invested witness-participants.  The general situation short of combat was always linguistically, rhetorically, and even artistically arranged for us by translators about whom we knew little and did little to comprehend.

The Corpse ExhibitionThe only fiction I know of written by an Iraqi or Afghan that portrays interpreters is Iraqi expatriate author Hassan Blasim’s story “The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes,” from his recently published collection of translated short stories The Corpse Exhibition (2014).  It is also the only tale that imagines a future existence for interpreters post-war and measures the long-term consequences of their involvement with Americans.  Carlos Fuentes is the pseudonym of an Iraqi named Salim Abdul Husain who has emigrated to Holland; he has taken the name because he reports that his own name makes him a marked man in the eyes of those who won’t forgive him for working as a translator for American forces.  Carlos Fuentes has seen nothing but violence and injustice in Iraq, and in Holland he becomes a model citizen, fully embracing European values and habits while scorning immigrants who don’t.   Blasim’s narrator states:

“Why are the trees so green and beautiful, as though they are washed by water every day?  Why can’t we be peaceful like them?  We live in houses like pigsties while their houses are warm, safe, and colorful.  Why do they respect dogs as humans?  ….  How can we get a decent government like theirs?”  Everything Carlos Fuentes saw amazed him and humiliated him at the same time, from the softness of the toilet paper in Holland to the parliament building protected only by security cameras.

All goes well for Carlos Fuentes until he begins having nightmares about his past life.  He takes extremely fantastic measures to avoid the nightmares—“One night he painted his face like an American Indian, slept wearing diaphanous orange pajamas, and put under his pillow three feathers taken from various birds”–and yet nothing works.  At tale’s end he is confronted in a dream by Salim Abdul Husain, his old self:

Salim was standing naked next to the window holding a broom stained with blood…. Salim began to smile and repeated in derision, “Salim the Dutchman, Salim the Mexican, Salim the Iraqi, Salim the Frenchman, Salim the Indian, Salim the Pakistani, Salim the Nigerian….”

The Carlos Fuentes character takes aim at Salim with a rifle, Salim jumps out the window, and the narrator tells us that Carlos Fuentes’s wife finds him dead on the pavement below in the morning.  In a final indignity, Carlos Fuentes’ death is reported in the papers as that of an “Iraqi man” rather than a “Dutch national,” and his brothers have his body taken back to Iraq for burial.  No one it seems has been much convinced by his effort to renounce his past.

Interpreting the interpreter, we can surmise that Carlos Fuentes’ divided self and attempted cultural makeover does not hold.  The war has traumatized him beyond his knowing and his idealization of the West a dream not meant for him to possess.  But it’s not just about what happens to him while working alongside American and European forces in country, or that his attempt to adopt and internalize Western values and beliefs have instead generated pathological self-hatred and destructiveness.  It’s about the lived life of immigrants after the personal relationship ends, the Americans go home, and the rest of the interpreter’s life begins.  Blasim’s story, and all stories about interpreters, remind us that real linguists exist by the 1000s in both Iraq and Afghanistan or elsewhere, and letting them fend for themselves now that we are gone is one more of the ways we fought the wars very callously and in ways that kept us from being as successful as possible.

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Most of this post was first presented at the recent American Comparative Literature Conference in New York City.  Thanks to panel organizer Susan Derwin for inviting me to speak.  Thanks to fellow panelist Brian Williams, who reminded me of the presence of the interpreter Malik in The Yellow Birds.  The paper as delivered at ACLA did not reference The Yellow Birds.  I am invested in this subject because of my own positive experience with two interpreters in Afghanistan who are now in the United States, enlisted in the US Army, and who hope to become US citizens.  I am actively engaged in trying to help a third trusted interpreter emigrate to the US.  Paul Solotaroff describes the difficulty interpreters have in obtaining visas in “The Interpreters We Left Behind,” published this week in Men’s Journal.

Time Now Live in Seattle: Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference

February 23, 2014

AWPThis week I’ll be presenting at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Seattle.  Thanks to Roy Scranton for the invite; it’s an honor to be part of a panel with Roy, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, and Phil Klay. If you’ll be at AWP, too, check us out at 10:30 on Friday morning.

Sterling review of Phil Klay’s short-story collection Redeployment here, just out today 26 February in the New York Times.  Congratulations, Phil!

Another 26 February update: Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya will not be able to make it, but we will be joined by novelist and essayist Hilary Plum.  Check out this interview with Hilary on the Full Stop website.  It appeared shortly after the release of her 2013 novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets, which I haven’t read but am now eager to check out.

The AWP blurb for our panel:

F160. War Stories: Truth, Fiction, and Conflict. Roy Scranton, Phil Klay, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Peter Molin. Room 301, Western New England MFA Annex, Level 3. The truth of war is always multiple. Homer’s Iliad gives us both Achilles and Hector, just as Tolstoy’s War and Peace opens up a panorama of perspectives. Fiction offers an unparalleled medium to explore the conflicting truths of war, yet also offers dangers. How do we negotiate politics, witnessing, and voyeurism? How can we highlight war’s ugliness and still write a compelling story? How do we portray war’s beauty and still write an ethical one? Our panel explores these age-old problems.

The Corpse ExhibitionTo give you an idea of what’s on my mind, here’s an excerpt from Iraqi short-story writer Hassan Blasim’s “An Army Newspaper.”  Blasim’s narrator is the cultural editor of a military newspaper during the Iraq-Iran War. He writes of the submissions that he would receive from soldier-authors:

But I do admit that I would often interfere in the structure and composition of the stories and poems, and try as far as possible to add imaginative touches to the written images that would come to us from the front.  For God’s sake, what’s the point, as we are about to embark on war in poetry, of someone saying, “I felt that the artillery bombardment was as hard as rain, but we were not afraid”?  I would cross that out and rewrite it:  “I felt that the artillery fire was like a carnival of stars, as we staggered like lovers across the soil of the homeland.”  This is just a small example of my modest interventions.

Now why would Blasim write that?  What was his narrator thinking?

Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq. Penguin, 2013.  Translated by Jonathan Wright.

War Poetry: Brian Turner’s “A Soldier’s Arabic”

February 15, 2014
Brian Turner's "A Soldier's Arabic," as adapted by Giulia Alvarez

Brian Turner’s “A Soldier’s Arabic,” adapted by Giulia Alvarez. Click to enlarge!

“A Soldier’s Arabic”

This is a strange new kind of war where you learn just as much as you are able to believe.  –Ernest Hemingway

The word for love, habib, is written from right
to left, starting where we would end it
and ending where we might begin.

Where we would end a war
another might take as a beginning,
or as an echo of history, recited again.

Speak the word for death, maut,
and you will hear the cursives of the wind
driven into the veil of the unknown.

This is a language made of blood.
It is made of sand, and time.
To be spoken, it must be earned.

The great artwork by Giulia Alvarez at the top of the page illustrates the first poem in Brian Turner’s 2005 volume Here, Bullet.  Nine years after publication, not all might remember the force with which Here, Bullet shook the poetry world and inaugurated our contemporary war literature tradition.  No one in either the war or the lit business saw Turner coming–a poet with such skill, imagination, and empathy married with front-line experience, so devoid of amateurish stylistic flourishes or naïve or polemical thinking.  Even now, it’s hard to point to another war poet who comes close to the mark established by Turner in Here, Bullet and his subsequent 2010 volume Phantom Noise.  He practically defined the range of concerns and characteristic attitudes that almost all war lit writers would later echo, and in most cases he did so with more interesting imagery and emotional nuance than those that followed him.

Turner was also onto from the beginning subjects that others have overlooked or haven’t been prepared to deal with.  For example, the last line of “A Soldier’s Arabic”—“To be spoken, it must be earned”—seems to imply something about veteran-authors hoarding the right to speak with authority about war.  This sentiment remains strong today, but I don’t think it’s what Turner really feels, or what the poem is really about.  To me the line and the poem reach beyond the poet’s bond with fellow soldiers to embrace the Arab-Islamic world into which he and other Operation Iraqi Freedom participants were plunged.  Turner, more so than most American authors, has determinedly and persistently tried to measure the war in terms of the language, culture, and history of those on whose land it was fought.  Even a simple thing like learning the Arabic words for “love” and “death” is telling.  Not to underestimate anyone, but I’d be willing to bet less than 1% of Americans deployed to Iraq learned these most basic of words.  “Why would we?” they might ask, pragmatically enough from their perspectives, but short-sighted in its implications.

In this New York Times essay titled “After War, A Failure of the Imagination,” Marine vet Phil Klay asserts the power of fiction to make accessible foreign (in every sense of the word) experiences.  He pleads for readers who have not served or fought to sympathetically embrace the imagined worlds of war authors as acts that blend courage and curiosity.  Klay speaks mainly of efforts to bridge the divide between American civilian and military cultures, but pace Turner, I would extend Klay’s argument to the poetry and fiction written by Iraqis and Afghans. Turner as always leads the way.  In the current issue of Prairie Schooner, Turner as guest editor includes work by Iraqi, Afghan, Iranian, Pakistani, and Sudanese authors in near-equal numbers alongside American and European writers on war and conflict.  I look forward to opportunities to write about these authors and in the spirit of Turner offer notice of the following works of fiction authored by Iraqi writers:

Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, recently published by Penguin.  I have written about Blasim here and will write more about him soon.

Abdel Khaliq al-Rikabi’s The Sad Night of Ali Baba.  Not yet translated into English, a short description is here and an interview with al-Rikabi is here.

Ahmed Saadwi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad.  Also not yet translated into English, but an intriguing review is here.

Thanks to Sean Case for alerting me to the Arabic Literature (in English) website.  Big thanks to Giulia Alvarez and all the other students in Rebecca Bahr’s War and Literature class at Horace Mann School in the Bronx, New York City.

Iraqi Iraq War Fiction: Hassan Blasim’s “The Green Zone Rabbit”

May 18, 2013

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.

Review of Hassan Blasim at the Shortly Speaking webpage


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