‘I won’t disappear. I’m the people. I’m the poor. I am the truth. I’m a scream of protest in the face of crimes.’
I learnt to read when I was 30 years old. For the first three decades of my life, I believed that reading was about bringing context to books, unpacking the meaning of words, and using biographical, historical and critical references to understand what was being said.
But when I set out on my quest to read a book from every country in 2012, I quickly realised that this approach was not going to work. With only 1.87 days to find, read and write about each text I featured on this blog that year, there was no time for reading around and the careful critical analysis that had formed the backbone of my academic study of literature.
Faced with numerous texts from unfamiliar traditions, I had to accept that there were going to be a lot of things I didn’t know or couldn’t be sure of in the books I read that year. I would have to embrace incomprehension and see if I could have a meaningful encounter with these stories all the same.
This approach formed the basis of the reading workshops I now run in-person and online for curious readers at schools, universities and community groups. And it continues to inform my reading to this day.
Still, every so often, a text comes along that challenges me to take not-knowing to another level – and reminds me of the value of doing so. My latest Book of the month is a good example.
Shalash the Iraqi didn’t start life as a book. Instead, it began as a series of around 80 blog posts written in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein by an anonymous writer, also known as Shalash the Iraqi, living in Baghdad’s Thawra district. Radical in many senses – not least because of its biting satire and fearless criticism of the infighting, corruption and cruelty of the various factions struggling for control in Iraq – this collection of essays, short stories, parodies and polemics became an underground hit, a 21st-century samizdat text, printed out and circulated in secret. Now reassembled and curated by its still-anonymous author and translated by Luke Leafgren, this urgent writing is available to English speakers for the first time, nearly two decades after the events that prompted it.
There are plenty of opportunities for not knowing in this book. Bristling with references to local politicians, celebrities and scandals, as well as sectarian rifts, the text feels extremely slippery at times. There is little to hold onto and few footholds in many of the entries. Sometimes pages go past where it is impossible for someone without intimate knowledge of early-21st century Baghdad to retain much sense of what is being expressed.
Translator Luke Leafgren says in his afterword that he initially envisaged filling the book with encyclopaedic footnotes to help explain the multiple references. He (rightly in my opinion) decided against this on the basis that it would introduce more barriers than it removed. Instead, he invites readers to consult YouTube, Google maps and other online resources, reading the book in tandem with the internet on which it first appeared.
While this might aid understanding of some of the more information-heavy sections, however, it will not remove many of the challenges that come with this text for readers in other times and places.
Humour is one of the key issues. Knowing that the original blog posts were celebrated for their wit creates a strange tension in the mind. Are we supposed to regard descriptions of magical elephants and boys peeing oil as clever allegories for things we can’t pin down or surreal flights of fancy? Are the more extreme descriptions of the privations of life in occupied Iraq heartfelt laments or dark satire? Or both?
Nevertheless, there are moments where there can be no doubt of the humour at play. Many of these involve spoof pieces such as ‘The Shalashian Satellite Channel’, where a promise to give ‘each of our political parties an opportunity to introduce their platforms’ quickly disintegrates into muzzling candidates with lengthy adverts and irrelevant calls from viewers. There are also many zinging oneliners – take the description of Saddam Hussein’s bodyguards, ‘those men who would abandon said leader more than twenty years later so he could star in a TV show about sleeping alone in a pit’.
Similarly, at certain points there can be no mistaking the sorrow behind the words. A few paragraphs after the above, comes a particularly moving passage that reminds us of the damage Hussein wrought:
‘Then the sanctions settled in and transformed us from young men with dreams, striving for life, into street vendors with corner stalls; from excellent students into drivers’ assistants on minibuses; from lovers of life into scowling, deeply etched, prematurely aged faces.
‘Look at the Comrade Leader who destroyed our lives. Here he is, on trial for murdering a group of our people in Dujail. I also wanted to tell you that His Honor, the judge, is a kind man. He really does seem to be doing his job without remembering that the accused man standing before him did far worse than what’s listed on the charge sheet. He murdered our futures. He brought an end to our laughter and transformed our country from a paradise, the envy of nations, into a garbage dump picked over by black cats, as crows caw in the sky above.’
Yet Saddam Hussein is not the biggest villain in the book. One of the key challenges when you encounter stories from elsewhere are the moments when you realise you are not the reader the writer imagines. ‘You, dear reader, are also an Iraqi,’ writes Shalash. But of course the vast majority of those reading in English won’t be, except perhaps in a Je suis Charlie sense. Instead, we are more nearly aligned with Shalash’s greatest oppressor, the occupying forces who deposed Hussein and plunged Iraq into chaos.
For translator Luke Leafgren the response to this is to attempt to understand and amplify. One of his key motivations for undertaking the translation, he says, was his consciousness of being part of the culture that tipped Iraq into the savage instability that grips it to this day.
Given that the texts are not written in standard Arabic but in Shalash’s local dialect, this presented huge challenges. And there is no question that Leafgren has done a fantastic job in producing a lively, irreverent, coherent voice on the page, even if the text does creak occasionally in its attempts to convey the nuances of the original’s word play.
I’m with Leafgren when it comes to the importance of amplifying voices and attempting to use stories to establish common ground. But I also think that bewilderment and not-knowing have an important part to play when reading stories from elsewhere, even if it can make for a daunting read best approached in small sips day by day (in the manner in which the posts were first released) rather than a text that grips and sweeps you along.
It is by holding questions in our mind and remaining aware of the possibility that we have not understood perfectly that we can come closest to respecting the experiences and humanity of others.
This is perhaps particularly true when it comes to a text like Shalash the Iraqi. As the writer himself reminds us in his preface, bewilderment was central to what he and his compatriots lived through when the old order was bulldozed overnight: ‘I found myself a stranger in my own country, as bewildered as if I were suddenly thrust into the set of a movie about the Prophet of Islam in the early years of his ministry. Yes, my country vanished from the map after the invasion, and it was a bitter shock.’
In finding language exploded in this book and picking our way through words made strange, second-guessing ourselves at every turn, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, we perhaps come closest to the experience of those who first read these narratives. ‘See how quickly this story got from silly to deadly?’ writes Shalash in one of the earliest posts in the book. Well, quite.
Shalash the Iraqi by Shalash the Iraqi, translated from the Arabic by Luke Leafgren (And Other Stories, 2023)