The Restless Brilliance of Hassan Blasim

My brief essay on Hassan Blasim in Kitaab, a site dedicated to the works of Asian writers.

Iraq hasn’t recovered from the throes of the devastation that invasion brought. It continues to be mired in sectarian conflicts, external attacks and extreme poverty. Who could possibly think of looking a hundred years into its future?

If anyone could, it would be Hassan Blasim.

Read the full essay here.

Photo: Arablit.org

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Partition literature from Bangladesh

An extensive essay on literature from Bangladesh reflecting the effects of Parition and its enduring presence in the Indian sub-continent. Poet, translator, and essayist Kaiser Haq writes in The Daily Star:

Bangladesh’s Partition literature deserves to be considered alongside similar works from other parts of the subcontinent. But more important than literary criticism is the task of transcending the conflicts that have given rise to the literature. Perhaps the most deleterious outcome of Partition has been the partitioning of the subcontinental mind. We have not only become an extended family of squabbling nations, we have grown to deny our civilisational unity. It is imperative that we make efforts to rediscover our commonality.

Beyond checkpoints and stones: a new crop of Palestinian writers

 

A new generagraffiti-2ration of Palestinian writers is taking their literature beyond the ongoing conflict. As Janan Bsoul reports in Haaretz:

 

 

In recent years, a generation of young Palestinian writers has begun to write about the Palestinian predicament from their point of view, about “life itself.”

Read the complete  article.

Image: eyewitnessblogs.com

 

In search of home and homeland: Seeking Palestine

Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home
Penny Johnson, Raja Shehadeh, editors
Olive Branch Press

Your mother’s face once sustained you. Now you have to strain your memory to trace its outline. The place you were born in you can’t return to, even if it were so you could die there. Y130225-seeking-palestineou can only be a nomad, an exile, or a refugee–never at home. Seeking Palestine, an anthology of nonfiction narratives gathers all these voices as it tries to make sense of the largely map-less Palestinian identity.

Susan Abulhawa chases this elusive piece in “Memories in an Un-Palestinian Story, in a Can of Tuna”. In her personal essay, the author best known for her novel, ‘Mornings in Jenin’ captures the breadth of a Palestinian’s nomadic condemnation. Her words–funny and shocking and tragic–tell how she was ping-ponged across geographies as a young girl. Thus, despite growing up in the US for most of her life, she says, “…I have come to understand that it (my life) represents the most basic truth about what it means to be Palestinian–dispossessed, disinherited and exiled.”

“Exile” is the permanent address many have been left with since the Israel-Palestine conflict began with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. And so as poet and translator Sharif L. Elmusa etches in an essay combining his poetry and prose with river-like flow, not only their presence but even the absences of Palestinians are portable. To lug this presence/absence around, a Palestinian pays steep baggage fees. “I can only go inside myself / into the maze of the hippocampus / which is like going inside a pyramid / and finding the robbers had carted away / the belongings.// What will I shed this round / to complete my portable absence?”

In Elmusa’s unresolved puzzle lies a fundamental kernel of the Palestinian struggle — resistance. To resist isn’t a political act but a pact one must make early on in life — for survival itself. Especially when one’s existence is shaped in refugee camps, bombed schools and hospitals, occupied territories and dreaded checkpoints.

It is a sort of resistance that brought back Lila Abu-Lughod’s father back to Palestine after living in the US for forty years as an exile. Abu-Lughod senior was a scholar and professor of political science in some of the most reputed North American universities. A medical condition impelled him to return to his homeland; he felt his time was running out. In “Pushing at the Door,” Lila tracks not only that journey — its irony and pathos — but its inter-generational roots, leading back to her grandmother and her dislike of the  neighbourhood she found herself in after her family fled their home (she didn’t want to leave) in the early days of the fighting. Her problems, seemingly simple — the absence of a public bakery and having to buy bread — point to the many compromises a refugee must make to survive. What is perhaps the most telling in this lovingly-profiled essay is a recurring nightmare Abu-Lughod’s father had been suffering from since 1948 — a nightmare that is the Palestinian tragedy.

The dream never changes…I am living by the sea–the house I grew up in was in Jaffa, right by the sea. A thief comes, a burglar. He starts pushing open the door and I try to shut it. A struggle that doesn’t end. He pushes and I try to shut the door…And I scream but no one hears me. I’m shouting to the people in the house that someone’s breaking in, but no one hears.

That the nightmare is a continuing one can’t be lost on the reader. Israel continues to build more and more settlements in Palestinian territories and despite decades of struggle, the voices of the people displaced from what was originally their land seems to fall on deaf ears within the international community.

In “Onions and Diamonds,” Mischa Hiller, an English writer of Palestinian origin looks at the theme of exile with a refreshingly liberating view. He recalls Edward Said’s memoir “Out of Place” to make the point that exile need not always be a dirty word. He cites the examples of self-exiled American writers, Jewish writers forced to flee during the Second World War and contemporary Arab writers in exile. Returning to Palestine isn’t just about the right to reclaim a physical space (irreversibly altered by Israel) but having the freedom to “graduate from being dispossessed to becoming an exile,” for him.

 

Israel’s occupation of Palestine doesn’t stop at territorial boundaries. In “Of Place, Time, and Language,” Adania Shibli writes about the intellectual occupation of young Palestinian minds that starts as early as their school years. The curriculum taught in Palestinian schools is subject to the approval of the Israeli Censorship Bureau, which allows teaching texts from different Arab countries except Palestine. What if those stories got the children thinking about the Palestine issue? Another thing makes Shibli’s essay interesting. She writes how every time she enters Palestine, her wrist watch stops working. Once she leaves the place, the watch works fine. Like Abu-Lughod’s nightmare, this, too, is a metaphor for Palestine itself — a place where time has stopped and refuses to move, regardless of all the strides elsewhere in the world.

No other piece in the book captures the violent and browbeating takeover of Palestinian territory, and along with that, its people’s society and culture like Rema Hammami’s “Home and Exile in East Jerusalem.” Hammami chronicles with humour and journalistic ardor, how within a decade (1992-2002), the neighbourhood where she lives in Nablus went on from being a gentrified Palestinian locality to a place devoured by Israeli settlements; how people’s houses are overtaken by the state of Israel and even while the matter was in court for settlement, guards were posted in a Palestinian’s property. And about how people construct their dehumanized lives in the face of continued bombings, airstrikes, and flagrant human rights abuses.

As with many others in the city…the main ingredients of my life were on the other side–in the theatre of war. My commute to work now involved crossing four of them (checkpoints) each way–each with its own random moods, ludicrous demands, and particular expertise in sadism.

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One of the most powerful voices in Seeking Palestine is that of Jean Said Makdisi’s. Writer and researcher Makdisi is also the sister of Palestine’s best-loved intellectual, Edward Said. Her essay “Becoming Palestinian” draws upon family history and her father’s influence in creating for Jean and his brother a deep sense of connection with Palestine and its history. More importantly, though, Makdisi makes a crucial point in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict–the role of Palestinian Christians. She points out how the propaganda of the conflict tries to portray “the Judeo-Christian Western world in an endless conflict with the Muslim world over the ‘Holy Places’ in the ‘Holy Land’.” Restoring Christian Palestinians to their legitimate place in the public awareness is key to dismantling this idea of a religious clash, Makdisi feels.

An anthology of narrative nonfiction on Palestine that’s not academic in nature runs the risk of succumbing to cliched tropes of nostalgia and sentimentality. Editors Penny Johnson and Raja Shehadeh must be commended for making this an anthology which, despite drawing heavily from memory relies on straight facts, deep humanity, and lucid analyses, not maudlin reminiscing.

Shortly before writing this, I posted a question for my friends on a social media platform. What did home mean for them, I asked. The responses were varied but the common patterns alluded to comfort, security, acceptance, and freedom. And returning. The last pattern is a crucial absence, even an impossibility, for many Palestinians. When you can’t return home, the least–or the most, depending on how you view the situation–you can do is to seek your home. Like tracing the outline of your mother’s face because you can no longer visit her.

Hence, Seeking Palestine.

Dead Man Talking — Hassan Blasim’s short stories

The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq
Hassan Blasim
Penguin
Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

What is left when a place dies a thousand violent deaths?

A million stories sprout over the graveyard. Each narrator is a Scheherazade (of One Thousand and One Nights), except none of them is compelled to tell a tale for fear of being killed. Some of them have already crossed over to the other shore and even those still alive know death to be lurking around the corner. Yet the emotive force — mind-bending and magnetic — of the voices echoing through Hassan Blasim’s short stories forces the listener/reader to be pulled into their universes — macabre and enigmatic as they are.

I felt the sharp stab of Blasim’s storytelling knife in The Corpse Exhibition — the very first story in the collection. Written in the backdrop of the Iraq War, the story puts a chilling spin on the practice of displaying executed bodies in public. The narrator, evidently the boss of an organization curating the corpse exhibitions speaks in a clinical tone to a prospective new hire. The emphasis on the aesthetics of displays — one of the top pieces the boss cites is that of the corpses of a breastfeeding mother and her child both naked placed under a dead palm tree with not a trace of wound — layers the story with a degree of perversion that’s so disturbing it is riveting.

Even as he sets the stage with that opening story, Blasim primes the reader for the explosive brilliance that would erupt. With scathing candour, he takes the reader through the lives of a people whose entire world is war — not only the external conflict raging around them, but a series of battles — against international sanctions that leaves them without electricity for 20 hours a day, avenging the killings of loved ones, and against one’s own fate and even conscience. As he said in an interview:

They say to me, for example, “Your style is magical realist like Marquez.” And I say: “No, I write nightmare realism.”

For me, the fourth story in the collection is where Blasim begins the real — and astonishing — paint job for which he provides an enduring primer in the preceding chapters. An Army Newspaper begins with a stunning opening paragraph leading the reader into the mind of a dead narrator, formerly the curator of an army newspaper’s culture page. He experiences the most decisive shift in his career when he starts receiving stories from a soldier written in an “elevated literary style,” their subjects not focused on war. When he learns the soldier is dead, the curator sees an opportunity he can’t ignore — co-opting the dead soldier’s writing. His new reputation as an author brings the curator unprecedented acclaim. The fame comes at a cost, though. The stories, always handwritten in large elementary school notebooks, keep multiplying exponentially, “like a storm of locusts: today a hundred stories, tomorrow two hundred, and so on.” Unable to keep up with the volume of stories, the curator must resort to extreme steps, leading to tragic and irreversible self destruction — the intrinsic law of all wars.

This– conflicts rebounding on themselves–spring in Blasim’s stories as such a powerful concoction of language, imagination, and storytelling that despite the morbidity, one can see why the author is compared to literary greats such as Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Garcia Marquez and, in my mind, Sadat Hassan Manto.

Blasim has gone on record to say he doesn’t like borders (between nations). Nor do his stories. Despite an underpinning of dark reality, the stories in The Corpse Exhibition…dissolve magic and horror, dystopia and fairy tale with ink-, or, more appropriately, blood-in-water fluidity.

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In Crosswords, Blasim takes another audacious leap by having two voices, not one, tell the story. Both the voices speak in the first person, initially in apparent parallel streams, almost like the across and down grids of a crossword puzzle (Blasim’s repertoire of skills includes crossword puzzle writing), but increasingly closing the gap in the reader’s journey, until the two voices — of friends talking about a mutual dead friend — collapse and the puzzle is solved. Marwan –the dead friend in question,  a crossword puzzle and astrology column writer in a magazine, is tortured in the brief period leading up to his suicide, when he receives a head injury in a car bomb explosion and feels a policeman who died on the spot has taken hold of his body and mind.

By the time they appear in a story, the characters’ lives are already irreparably fractured by continuous cycles of destruction. As evidenced in The Hole, in the bloodied history of war-ravaged countries, generations of dead cohabit with each other in holes from different ages, an endless pit of violence swallowing them. For the living, the physical reality of existence is that of a “darkness district,” a locality without electricity and with little to be joyful about in The Madman of Freedom Square.

In dark places, when reason stops making sense, humour isn’t just an alternative way of looking at things. For the people caught in these circumstances, comic relief in its barest form is a tool for self preservation. A waiter in The Iraqi Christ, centered around a “human radar” who can foretell the enemy’s presence, mixes food names with references to the carnage all around as he serves dishes.

“He would call out orders such as “One explosive, mind-blowing, gut-wrenching kebab. One fragmentation stew. Two ballistic rice and beans.”

Every story in the collection is but a small universe in Blasim’s overall multiverse because, as the author would remind us “the world is all interconnected, through feelings, words, nightmares, and other secret channels…” in The Reality and the Record. Themes reappear as do characters and motifs, as also the grand Middle-Eastern apparatus of stories within stories.

My favourite story in the collection, despite the unfairness of picking any one of the fourteen brilliant stories, was A Thousand and One Knives. Arguably the only story to end on a hopeful note, it is an endearing, if heartbreaking fable of how ordinary people still connect with each other over coffee, soccer, and magic in the face of total gloom. The story is about a group of friends who make knives disappear. Only one of them — the narrator’s wife — can make them reappear. Eventually the group disintegrates, much like all life in strife-torn regions, and its leader Jaafar is brutally killed. His memory lives on as the narrator names his new born after his beloved friend. At five, little Jaafar shows the same talent as his mother’s — making knives reappear. Symbolically, the woman and the child bring order to and save a world torn to shreds by decades of mindless violence.

Through his stories, Blasim tracks the entire journey of war survivors, right up to their fight for and struggles of a refugee life. While The Reality and the Record deals with the many versions of personal history a claimant keeps in his pocket to be granted refugee status, The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes, the last story in the collection, is a gripping example of horror nearly normalized through fantasy. The story is about Salim Abdul Hussain, an Iraqi cleaner who adopts the name of Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican writer while seeking asylum in Holland. Carlos does everything to shed his Iraqi identity, down to learning Dutch, marrying a Dutch woman and becoming a citizen of Holland. Yet, his original identity comes to haunt him via recurring nightmares. In his efforts to control his dreams, Carlos makes bizarre lifestyle changes. Yet, despite everything, the nightmare — an outcome of his deranged state — pushes him to the edge as he jumps off his window in an exact replay of the last dream he has. The story ends with scathing irony — of Fuentes living, and dying, an Iraqi.

“Perhaps Fuentes would have forgiven the Dutch newspapers, which wrote that an Iraqi man had committed suicide at night…instead of writing that a Dutch national had committed suicide.”

Translated into English crisply by Jonathan Wright, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq is stellar and significant in its scope and treatment. In my experience as a reader, with this collection, Hassan Blasim has created new benchmarks both for short stories and conflict literature.

Move over, magic realism. Nightmare realism is here.

Of silences, screams, and fragrances: The Silence and The Roar by Nihad Sirees

 

The Silence and The Roar by Nihad Sirees
Other Press

Translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss

In a nameless city, a writer, once well known, now lives a near-wasted life. Rendered a pariah, his life oscillates between the uproar of a dictator’s tyranny and his seeking of an elusive silence. The dictator, identified simply as the Leader throughout The Silence and the Roar, a cracking satire by Nihad Sirees, is a classic autocrat — narcissistic and insecure to the core.

Fathi Chin, the thirty-one-year-old hero of the taut novel takes us through the city, oppressed both by hot weather and the fanatical demonstration of the Leader’s supporters who shout their lungs out in his praises to mark his twenty-year rule. That Sirees employs his hero as a writer is both clever and subversive. The cleverness shines in Fathi’s voice — humour laced with a bite so sharp it stings even as it makes you smile. The subversion is in Sirees satirizing, through Fathi, the political atmosphere he himself experienced in Syria, where the government banned his writing. Sirees has been living in exile since 2012.

Love for the Leader requires no thought; it’s axiomatic…You must love him for who he is, simply because he is, and any thought given to reason why might cause you to — God forbid — stop loving him one day because you might find…that his eyes blink continuously whenever he speaks…and your love for him may start to diminish, which is, after all, a very grave sin indeed.

Fathi finds his already stagnant station in life further complicated by factors outside his control and often beyond his understanding. During the demonstration, as he steps out of his house to meet his girlfriend, Lama, the police seizes his ID card. His attempts to get it back only land him into further ordeals. Then there is the twist in his family life — his widowed mother is set to marry a close aide of the Leader and tries to persuade Fathi to resume writing; the Leader’s lackey will support and protect him, she assures. But there’s a catch to this olive branch as the young writer would find out during his interrogation at the Party office where he goes to retrieve his ID card. The invitation for him to resume his craft is more of a command and comes with a rider — that he must speak positively of the Leader and his regime.

In its geographical anonymity, despite the alluded location being somewhere in the Middle East, 16113763The Silence and the Roar is striking in its mirroring of repressive dictatorships anywhere in the world. A lot of times, these dictators aren’t self-imposed but actually democratically elected. One only has to look at the rise in right-wing extremism and the resulting political climate around the globe to validate the pattern.

Megalomania, manipulation of power, total disregard for justice, suppressing dissent in any form, and, in the 21st century, a complete and post-truth control of the media apparatus, down to the latest technological tools — Sirees is able to map, with remarkable brevity and acerbic wit, the entire trajectory of an authoritarian regime.

For me, one of the most telling scenes in the book–not because of what happens in it but the despondency it conveys–is when Fathi carries an elderly woman injured in the demonstrations and brings her to a hospital. He’s badly injured himself, too, and learns from the doctor treating him that the woman was already dead by the time she was brought in. At one point, the doctor presses Fathi, the famous writer, to give him a name for the tragedy that has gripped the country.

“Naming can satisfy a need, it can shorten a conversation that otherwise might go on for hours. Tell me, I’m begging you!”

…”Surrealism, Surrealism,” I found myself repeating.

He received the word from my lips…stared up at the ceiling and hissed repeatedly, “Surrealism, yes, Surrealism. That’s it.”

Through all his travails, if there’s one door that promises both hope and an escape for Fathi, it is Lama and the love she embodies. Her sensual and explicit display of affection is for Fathi, the antithesis of the regime’s demonic suppression of free speech and independent thought. The vividness of Lama’s physicality is possibly the most ethereal and manifest expression of creativity for him. If Lama exhibits little inhibition in baring her sexuality, his lover, the narrator, doesn’t hold himself from letting that beauty spill through his words.

This love is also the closest that Fathi will get to experience to the silence he seeks. This silence isn’t the absence of noise but rather the space against which one can appreciate the most mundane and perhaps thus, the most comforting of sounds — the cooing of a pigeon, an owl’s hooting, a muezzin’s early morning call to prayer. As Fathi observes, “…the most beautiful thing in the entire universe is the silence that allows us to hear soft and distant sounds.”

In the backdrop of today’s Syria and the cacophony surrounding which faction is on the right side of history, such a silence may not just be desirable but also prescriptive.