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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 18 August 2018

Through the lens of science fiction, Iraq’s distant future is reimagined

A new collection from the Iraqi author Hassan Blasim imagines the country 100 years after the 2003 invasion. The result is spectacular, writes Yasmin Khan
Author Hassan Blasim in London (Photo: Katja Bohm)
Author Hassan Blasim in London (Photo: Katja Bohm)

More than a thousand and one nightmares have plagued the people of Iraq since the American and British-led invasion in 2003. Thirteen years on from that devastating event, few can comprehend the scale of the challenge: not merely rebuilding the infrastructure of a country like Iraq, but constructing a long-term aspirational vision of what Iraq could become.

Two weeks ago in London, one such attempt surfaced. As part of this year’s London Literature Festival at the South Bank Centre, the Iraqi author Hassan Blasim, award-winning author of The Iraqi Christ, announced the publication of Iraq+100, a groundbreaking anthology of speculative short stories. In the book, edited by Blasim, a collective of 10 Iraqi writers tackle the challenging mission of crafting visionary responses to a key question: what might your homeland look like in the year 2103 – a century on from the catastrophic invasion?

Futurism, which underpins Blasim’s collection, is geared to the artistic imagination of new possibilities. In the best hands, it is a conceptual tool for expanding the mind, liberating the consciousness from material constraints.

Such speculative thinking has become a common trope in mainstream science fiction, but has not yet surfaced as a core element in Arabic literature – until now.

At root, Iraq+100 tackles a central question: how might ordinary Iraqi citizens cerebrally transcend the chaotic effects of that one intervention? The result is a potent cocktail of fantastical scenarios that postulate fresh prospects for its politics, economy and society. Each vignette in the anthology embraces those classic cornerstone elements of sci-fi, freeing our minds to wonder: “What if?” or “Just suppose?”

Through ring-fencing a safe space for new thought experiments to percolate, could Iraq+100 become a genuine turning point for incubating a new aesthetic for Arab science fiction? In truth, the anthology is not a manifesto of hard sci-fi, it is an eclectic blend of unconventional fantasy, magic realism and technological twists that parody Iraq’s present situation in futuristic settings.

The range of writing styles and subgenre forms are reassuringly sophisticated; from a mind-blowing cyberworld, a bizarre alien invasion of cannibal hermaphrodites, right through to dystopian premonitions of parallel futures. Readers encounter a time-travelling soldier, droid police units, implanted holograms, hallucinogenic bot-bugs and other abhorrent tonics.

Each chapter is anchored by unique cityscapes that depict Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Najaf, Suleymania and Ramadi. But these are far from naive, rose-tinted visions of a utopian Iraq; while the concept of the book is inherently uplifting, these stories, laced with dark humour, are smattered by melancholic undertones.

Inadvertently, the anthology doubles up as an exercise in psychoanalysis; in attempting to imagine alternate future realities each writer inevitably reflects the turmoil of the past century that has been so deeply ingrained in their psyche.

The anthology commences with the story of Kahramana, written anonymously by a London writer using the pen name Anoud to circumvent reprisals to her family in Iraq. Her satirical biography chronicles the tribulations of a blue-eyed bride on the run from the “Islamic Empire of Wadi Hashish” who ends up tragically thwarted by the protracted procedures at the American-controlled border.

Anoud’s brutally candid tone provides lashings of comic relief to a surreal fictional situation yet equally acts as a catharsis to the grim realities suffered by men and women alike in the recent past and present; oscillating between the hopes and fears of the nation is part and parcel of the natural healing process.

Likewise, it is impossible not to chuckle at the philosophical musings in The Corporal, expertly written by Ali Bader, translated from Arabic into English by Elisabeth Jaquette.

The protagonist, Corporal Sobhan, is a rather weary and withered member of Saddam’s army who dies after being shot dead in the forehead by an American sniper.

He had foolishly saved a rose in his pocket as an offering of gratitude to the incoming Americans he secretly hoped were coming to make Iraq prosper again.

For this miscalculated deed he is left in limbo (in a “corridor to heaven”) for a period of 100 years before he is granted his plea to return to Earth to check up on his hometown of Kut.

The corporal finds Kut transformed into an urban oasis beyond all recognition and discovers the extent to which the tables have turned in the world as he bumps into a couple who are on their way to donate gifts to American refugee children; America has become an extremist state overrun by religious intolerance, terrorism and hate.

The new secular vanguards of the civilised world fighting against the axis of evil are an industrialised trio of fully-fledged democratic nations: Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In London, Blasim was beamed over from his base in Finland to take to the stage with Jonathan Wright, Blasim’s literary translator, along with Zhraa Alhaboby, a medical researcher and novelist who contributed to the anthology.

While living in the present remains a continuing struggle for many Iraqis, Blasim was asked whether the anthology was symptomatic of Iraqi’s yearning to fast forward into the deep future.

Well not quite – there are unresolved preoccupations that are still pressing the minds of many. To paraphrase Blasim’s bittersweet reflection: “Many of us hope to spend our lives dwelling on those big existential questions like ‘Who are we?’, ‘Why are we here?’, and ‘What’s out there?’ but ordinary Iraqi people have instead been left wrestling with a depressing question like ‘Why are others bombing us?’” The enthralled audience had no trouble catching his drift.

The very act of conceiving this book is itself a creative act of defiance; empowering writers who are legitimate stakeholders in the region to use their own agency to reimagine futuristic narratives in defiant divergence to Iraq’s colonisers – be they commercial, corporate or ideological.

The anthology offers a vital platform for juxtaposing autonomous visions of the future without fear of failure or repercussion. It is a bold initiative that is fundamentally about reclaiming the licence to dream, having the courage to maintain hope in the face of uncertainty, loosening the straitjacket of despair about the past and having the audacity to imagine alternate realities that transcend the stark truth of the present.

While this anthology proves how trauma and a determination to survive despite the odds can spur innovative thinking, these are not the optimal conditions for creativity to thrive. As Blasim astutely acknowledged, what is needed now is stability: “Peace is the laboratory of the imagination.”

Yasmin Khan is a cultural adviser and producer of Sindbad Sci-Fi. Iraq+100 is published in paperback by Comma Press next month

Twitter: @SindbadSciFi

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