The Iraqi Christ
Comma Press, Paperback
176 pages, 978-1905583522, £9.99
In his new book The Silence of Animals, John Gray attacks humanist notions of societal progress by searching for examples of the behaviour of populations placed in extreme conditions. In one particularly shocking episode, he recounts the effect of military occupation on the civilian population of Naples in 1943. For Gray, the chaos which followed liberation was evidence of the fragility of civilisation. There was no work, and basic services no longer functioned. In their desperation to survive, humanity began to slip away from the city’s inhabitants: ‘what were left were hungry animals, ready to do anything to go on living’.
In Gray’s book, the eyewitness accounts are provided by Norman Lewis, a British army officer, and Curzio Malaparte, an adventurer with a slippery sense of loyalty and an extremely vivid imagination – at one point he claims to have seen hundreds of frozen horses, their heads picturesquely rising out of a sheet of ice. As far as Gray is concerned, the Neapolitans have no voice – we only hear the reported speech of gangsters and pimps.
Sixty years on from the experiences documented by Gray, the inhabitants of Iraq were subjected to a similar ordeal. The fall of their state was marked by disruption to electricity and water provision, the end of any form of effective bureacracy and the systematic looting of the country’s cultural heritage. As reported by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine, ‘Iraqis went through this unmasking process collectively, as they watched their most important institutions desecrated, their history loaded onto trucks and disappeared’. Klein compares the body politic of the Iraqi state to the body of a waterboarded inmate of a torture cell. If Gray’s thesis on the dehumanising effect of occupation is correct, then surely the Iraqis must have reverted to the atavistic behaviour allegedly displayed by the Neapolitans.
Every word of Hassan Blasim’s collection The Iraqi Christ rejects this notion. Unlike Gray’s essentially solitary view of the struggle for survival, Blasim documents a shared national consciousness, whilst stressing the dignity of the Iraqi people. Unlike the mute denizens of occupied Naples, Blasim’s Iraq is a modern Babel. The first story, ‘The Song of the Goats’, describes a storytelling competition hosted by a radio station. The participants were ‘terrified a terrorist would infiltrate the crowd and turn these stories into a pulp of flesh and fire’, and yet they gather together, determined to make their voices heard.
‘The Song of the Goats’ exemplifies Blasim’s work. This is a world in which horror is normalised – the narrator’s father lost a leg in the Gulf War, his brother drowned in a septic tank, and his uncle is a torturer, who may one day be required to turn his tools against his relatives. In this situation, where life is circumscribed by an oppressive government and life and death is decided by chance, the one asset the individual Iraqis can cling to is the ability to construct their own narrative. As one man says, ‘A story’s a story, whether it’s beautiful or bullshit’.
We are reminded too of the rich cultural heritage of Iraq. Where Gray’s Neapolitans desperately sell off their antiquities (‘a smiling priest sold… ornaments carved from bones stolen from the catacombs’), Blasim appropriates the work of authors such as Italo Calvino and Kafka, whose Metamorphosis is adapted in ‘The Dung Beetle’ to describe the experience of life in exile. The Dung Beetle’s nameless protagonist feels his body has been corrupted by his absence from his homeland (‘bugs of every shape and form trap the air around my head’), but he clings with pride to his culture, the fact that he has read Kafka translated into Arabic.
Other stories such as ‘The Green Zone Rabbit’ demonstrate extremely sophisticated storytelling, with hints of magical realism and deeply unsettling undercurrents. Blasim is always aware that life and death can often be decided by chance. Car bombs will wipe out families, leaving only one survivor who went out to buy cigarettes. Mothers die when their front doors are raked by machine gun bullets. ‘The Killers and the Compass’ displays hints of Bukowski in its low-life narrative style, showing that the arrogant and the immoral can thrive in chaotic times.
Most impressively, the self-referential story ‘Why Don’t You Write Novels?’ sees Blasim questioning his own motivation and ability. We see Blasim’s desire to fit the fragmented stories of the Iraqi diaspora into a coherent, overarching narrative, as if the act of writing a novel would somehow heal the wounds of occupation. As it is, his style reflects the reality of occupation and oppression whilst reflecting the dignity and strength of his culture. As a refugee himself (he has lived in Finland since 2004), Blasim’s writing contains a raw sense of guilt at his departure, whilst also having the distance needed to capture the variety of experience he describes.
The final story, ‘A Thousand and One Knives’, is an allegory of the circle of violence in which Iraq is trapped. Amputations, hostage taking and revenge are rife, but Blasim’s characters are still able to demonstrate love, community spirit and acts of kindness which redeem the people themselves whilst condemning the chaotic state of their existence. This is the message of The Iraqi Christ as a whole. While Nick Cohen argues for the positive impact of invasion, pointing to the removal of Saddam Hussein as justification for a decade of near-anarchy, Blasim paints the post-Occupation years as a mere continuation of oppression in new forms. John Gray, with his anti-progressive mentality, may agree with Blasim here. Where they differ, crucially, is the dignity with which Blasim imbues the occupied people, and the hope he sees in their small acts of kindness and intellectual strength. Most importantly, Blasim’s occupied people have their voices restored to them.