Iraq: getting a perspective

There were quite a lot of contenders available in English for Iraq. Perhaps that’s not a surprise, given that the country has been in and out of Western headlines for more than the last 20 years. Still, it was good to know that the traumatic occurrences of recent decades had not disrupted storymaking in the region – or so I thought until I read this book.

The Madman of Freedom Square – the first commercially published short story collection by Hassan Blasim, co-editor of Arabic literary website Iraq Story – paints a brutal, yet layered picture of the effects of international events on individual lives in and around post-invasion Iraq. Often starting or ending with a mutilated corpse, the tales trace the connections that bind people to one another and reveal the psychological wounds that result when these ties are ripped apart. There are the refugees reduced to animal cruelty when the truck they are locked in is abandoned, the patriotic songwriter turned atheist who wanders the streets railing against God and existence only to meet a gruesome end, and the underground collective that roams Baghdad making art out of its murder victims.

More than anything, this is a book about the function of storytelling. From the very first tale, ‘The Reality and the Record’, in which a traumatised man tries to tell the right story to secure asylum at a refugee centre, the text interrogates the act of narrating, as though trying to identify its weak points and secret guilt.

Sometimes – as in ‘An Army Newspaper’, an account of an unscrupulous editor who gets trapped in his lies when the dead soldier whose work he has passed off as his own continues to submit reams of manuscripts – storytelling takes on monstrous, nightmarish proportions. At other points, as with the sensational anecdotes spread by gossipmongers in the wake of bomb blasts in ‘The Market of Stories’, it seems a low, self-indulgent exercise, a sort of ‘primitive tribal gibberish which tries to hide behind tasteless and gory laughter’.

That story, however, also holds something of a key to the text’s uneasy relationship with its own function. According to the narrator, it may have its roots in Iraq’s history:

‘Since the fall of Saddam Hussein there have been incessant calls for writing to be intelligible, realistic, factual and pragmatic. […] They claim that the writers of the past made the readers defect, whereas in fact for hundreds of years there were no readers in the country, in the broad sense of the word. There were only hungry people, killers, illiterates, soldiers, villagers, people who prayed, people who were lost and people who were oppressed. Our writers seem to have grown tired of writing for each other.’

It’s important to note, of course, that these are the narrator’s words rather than Blasim’s own. Nevertheless, the question of who narrates, who listens and the value of telling at all rankles throughout the book, inviting the reader to look beyond it to the man writing in Arabic in Finland – Blasim’s home since 2004 – and wonder who exactly these words are for.

Underpinning this unease are repeated comments on the world-altering properties of perspective, with many of Blasim’s narrators suffering from mental illness, trauma or profound emotions that render their accounts suspect. The most powerful example, however, comes in ‘The Virgin and the Soldier’, an account of two young lovers doomed to a horrific death when they are accidentally locked in at the sewing factory where they work at the start of a holiday:

‘In reality there was nothing in the factory but army uniforms, but the government’s aim was to make the UN inspectors suspect that the factory was used for prohibited military purposes. […]

On that morning the American satellite pictures could not of course detect the muffled screams on the second floor. The screaming was hardly audible, and desperate. From the end of a world that was dying it reached the sewing room, which was empty and looked like a dreary sunset over an abandoned city.’

Too much distance, Blasim seems to be suggesting, and we become unable to empathise with fellow human beings, like satellites monitoring the Earth from the exosphere. And yet, even as he writes this, the author draws us in to the heart of the events he describes, immersing us in their brutal, bloody and heartbreaking immediacy.

Some of the stories end less successfully than others and there are one or two twists that miss their marks, but overall this is a powerful and thought-provoking work that transports readers to the extremes of human experience – and a mental terrain most of us are lucky enough never to have to  travel through. If Blasim needed proof of the validity of storytelling, he has written it.

The Madman of Freedom Square by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Comma Press, 2011)

Cyprus: double vision

Royal Mail nearly scuppered this one. When Haris Ioannides, director of Cypriot publisher Armida Publications kindly offered to send me a selection of titles in English, I waited with excitement for the package.

And waited. And waited. A delivery card appeared telling me there was a parcel at the sorting office for me, but when I trotted off to collect it I was met with blank faces. Computer said no.

Eventually, I received an email from Ioannides telling me that the three books, having travelled to London and back, were now in Nicosia again. Could he send me the ebook pdfs instead?

By this stage, buoyed by British-Cypriot writer Lorna V’s enthusiasm for the writers on Ioannides’s list, I had already ordered a copy of Nora Nadjarian’s Ledra Street. However, given past form, I thought I’d play safe and get the ebook version too. Ioannides emailed me the files, whereupon the print volume arrived. I now had two copies: one for each eye.

As it turns out, this doubled reading experience was particularly appropriate for Ledra Street, a short story collection set in Nicosia, the last divided capital city in the world. Terse, jagged and sometimes fragmentary, Nadjarian’s tales capture moments in lives and psyches sundered when the island was split in two during the Turkish invasion of 1974. Ledra Street, once a bustling thoroughfare, is now a blind alley populated by people yearning for things they can never attain: an estranged son, a perfect love, or simply ‘a time when Ledra Street was whole, non-pedestrianised, and we still called Turkish coffee, Turkish’.

Nadjarian’s attention to detail and use of the mundane to capture the extraordinary experience of seeing your homeland torn in half make the book. Whether she’s describing politicians rambling on a TV chat show, a disastrous haircut or a trip to a museum, the writer portrays the irreconcilable rifts in perspective that leave people isolated and sad. One of the most successful stories in the book, ‘Guided Tour’, for example, sees a woman leading a group of tourists around the city’s sites, and portrays the gulf between their casual absorption of the  neat list of facts she reels off and the turbulent emotions behind the events:

‘Everything makes perfect sense. Of course, of course, history when it becomes history, when it can be read in history books, when it can be talked about by tourist guides, makes perfect sense. The only way out.


‘What a strange thing, a rare pain, to be trapped in your own country.’

This packing of meaning into street signs and small talk, combined with the brevity of many of the pieces, gives them a poetic quality. At times, it almost feels as though they are poems that have been stretched like canvasses across the page to fill the space of stories. This impression is enhanced by Nadjarian’s creative use of language, which sees metaphors blurred and spread over paragraphs like watercolour paints.

Occasionally, the fragmentary nature of the pieces is too stark. I wasn’t sold on the ‘Ten Nights at the Movies’ vignettes, which ended the book and felt faintly contrived. Similarly, one or two of the ‘Ten Little Stories of Love and Hate’ were so stripped back as to teeter into the banal.

On the whole though, this is a powerful series of pieces that harnesses violent gusts of emotion in taut writing, pulling the collection along at an exhilirating pace. Familiar and yet strange, European and yet not, Nadjarian’s voice reveals what word artists can achieve, creating a lively collection that intrigues, delights and challenges. I’m very glad my copies found their way to me in the end.

Ledra Street by Nora Nadjarian (Armida Publications, 2006)