Iraq+100: Stories from Another Iraq
Hassan Blasim (editor)
Comma Press, 224 pages
Review by Chris Kelso
A nation’s literature is often shaped by historical and political events, and there aren’t many countries who have recently undergone such immense turmoil and upheaval as Iraq.
It’s funny: science fiction seems such an obvious genre to explore for a population which has suffered decades of oppression, censorship and violence – and yet, not many have. There are, of course, reasons for this – the government’s dogged application of the 1969 penal code for one.
Iraq+100, edited by controversial author/filmmaker Hassan Blasim, is an anthology which aims to overturn the Western world’s preconceptions of what contemporary Iraqi literature is all about. He encourages his writers to shed the shackles of inflexible religious discourse (which has restricted so much of Iraq’s creative output over the years) and take a renewed pride in the Arab poetic tradition. In essence, this is a book about promoting progressiveness, and it’s long overdue.
Blasim assembles some of the brightest among the young Iraqi diaspora and lets them run in any direction with his mission statement: Imagine your homeland in the year 2103, a century after the US/UK invasion. What we get is ten fascinating and courageous short stories that bend the allegory of the future into something poignant and relevant – one almost feels that Iraq+100 should be required reading for any super power.
The anthology opener really sets the tone, an introduction full of bitter irony. Anoud’s ‘Kahramana’ starts with a young woman escaping her marriage to Mullah Hashish, leader of a group of anti-tech extremists called Empire (a faction which cleverly mirrors the real Islamic State) – but when she escapes one oppressive environment she finds herself quickly caught up in various others, each populated by tyrannical immigration officials and sensationalist television reporters who twist and distort Kahramana’s story to suit their own agenda. It’s a pertinent tale that resonates events closer to home – look no further than the French government’s recent promise to close the UK border post in Calais post-Brexit.
Diaa Jubaili, the only writer still based in Iraq, portrays a grisly future in ‘The Worker’. A portrait of a city which has been devastated by the loss of natural resources. The influence of faceless foreign corporations is another ever-present theme.
While most of the usual tropes are circumvented, there’s is the occasional foray into tried and trusted SF devices – virtual reality even makes an appearance in Jalal Hassan’s ‘The Here and Now Prison’ and an intriguing alien invasion in ‘Kuszib’ by Hassan Abdulrazzak.
The fact of the matter is that the horror and cruelty goes on today, and the future doesn’t look much brighter. Remember, we’re still bombing this country. We played a part in turning Bagdad into this type of dystopian wasteland. It shouldn’t take an anthology of fiction for that penny to drop, but if it does then the more the better.
The writing is superb and the stories are all beautifully executed, but it’s difficult to read some of these stories. There is a collective shame that marinates the people of Britain after our government’s decision to play a part in such an abominable act of senseless brutality. The whole book feels harrowing and necessary – for Westerners and Iraqi’s alike.
Keep in mind that in Iraq, the sinister totalitarian governments of George Orwell or Philip K Dick novels are real, not science fiction. It’s useful to have a reminder.
This review was originally published in Shoreline of Infinity issue 7.