I think that to begin to understand a historical moment, history books and news reports are never quite enough. In lieu of experiencing it, one needs to read literature whose creation was directly motivated by that moment. One of the most powerful contemporary voices of Iraq I have read is Hassan Blasim, whose simple but devastating prose in The Madman of Freedom Square offers a harrowing introduction to the darkest aspects of the country’s present and recent past. The book, a collection of short stories dealing with the period from the Iran-Iraq War up to through the United States’ occupation and subsequent internecine conflict, evokes an apocalyptic Iraq, a country which the U.S. invasion, a history of tyranny, and factional competition for resources and political power have turned into a waking nightmare for many of its inhabitants, especially its most vulnerable. Of course, this is far from the only face of modern Iraq, but it is the side which Blasim urgently wishes to convey. Taken as a whole, Madman is a deeply unsettling piece of literature, even for the cynical and world-weary. The gory scenes which Blasim matter-of-factly depicts are surprising because of how commonplace they seem to him. His protagonists are resigned to living in infernal conditions; ideas like human dignity and self-determination have become cruel jokes for them.
In the first story of the book, “The Reality and the Record,” a medical worker in Baghdad is kidnapped while cleaning up the scene of six decapitations. He is forced to film a video with the six heads, declaring himself to be an Iraqi soldier who has massacred innocent civilians. He sees himself on international news later. He is then sold, with much celebration, to another group, and then another still…to Islamic Jihad, to the Mehdi Army, to every militia in the country. Again and again he is dressed up and forced to make filmed confessions, often accompanied by gruesome props, to be broadcast on international news. “…I was a treacherous Kurd, an infidel Christian, a Saudi terrorist, a Syrian Baathist intelligence agent, or a Revolutionary Guard from Zoroastrian Iran.” He, like so many Iraqi civilians, is a pawn for violent militias and the proxies of international powers, a life whose only value resides in how it can be labeled and attacked by groups pursuing divisive ends. These groups will buy and sell human life without hesitation if it means attracting support, new recruits, resources, and international attention. The protagonist wearily recounts his story to an immigration officer in a European country. Is it fictitious? Of course – but it is also essentially true.
The titular story is brilliantly thought-provoking in its symbolism: two handsome, possibly foreign men, who walk wordlessly every morning through an impoverished quarter of an Iraqi city, inspire the people of the quarter to clean up their hovels, teach their children to behave properly, and make the neighborhood safe, colorful, and welcoming. Eventually the young men become legends, lionized by the people even as the latter fall victim again to the woes of long-term destitution and broader societal violence. The people had it within themselves to improve their reality, but now believe they needed some exotic, superior impetus to bring about the changes they themselves made; when their country is invaded and fighting spreads, they defend the statues of the young men, mere idols bereft of the transformative power imbued in them. The statues fall, and the people of the quarter succumb, losing themselves over time to the violence and madness all around.
Blasim himself left Iraq for Finland in 2004 to escape persecution as a filmmaker. Several of his stories, such as the poignant and tragic “Ali’s Bag” and macabre “The Truck to Berlin”, evoke the hardship, casual violence, and anomie to which illegal migrants are subjected in their flight from countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria to Europe. Perhaps the best is “The Nightmare of Carlos Fuentes,” wherein an Iraqi man named Salim forsakes all ties with his country and adopts the Netherlands as his homeland, taking the name of the famous Mexican writer (of whom he is unaware) to mask his Arab roots, learning the history and language of the country, and marrying a Dutch woman. Carlos inwardly suffers great envy and despair experiencing the organization, cleanliness, and liberal attitudes of the Dutch, lamenting his former country’s continuous failure to pull itself out of the abyss of conflict and poverty and demonstrate even the most basic rudiments of order. In a bitterly comic fashion that blends the deep sorrow of the protagonist’s self-loathing with a wry commentary on how the European surfeit of resources and time leads to endless self-inquiry and fads of diet and alternative medicine, Carlos seeks more and more absurd ways to finally obliterate every last bit of his Iraqi-ness. Carlos Fuentes is the perfect pseudonym for this tortured soul, as Fuentes was a master of literary analysis of the economic relationship between Mexico (“the land that has nothing”) and the U.S. (“the land that has everything”) and its ramifications for the Mexican psyche. Like the pre-Colombian god Chac Mool, who tortures the man who purchases his statue but whose power is eventually diminished in the face of shallow modernity and consumerism, Salim is a primordial force outside the control of Carlos. He cannot be silenced by a mere change in language and espoused attitudes. The psychological violence of suppressing one’s very self is irreconcilable with life.
Blasim’s diction and style are unpretentious; but the scenes he conjures are hallucinatory. Images like the dream “of a sheep’s head talking about the sun” and a man’s flayed skin strung on a flagpole as an artistic expression sear the strangeness and brutality of Blasim’s vision into the reader’s mind. He is convinced that mankind has not come so far from the Hobbesian state of nature, pointing to the many open wounds that now fester under the often impotent gaze of the international community. Iraq has many such wounds. As pundits discuss the possibility of a redrawing of the country’s borders along ethnic and sectarian lines, the corruption and inefficacy of the present government of Nouri Al-Maliki, and ISIL’s desire to establish a new caliphate, the most important dynamic is that more innocent civilians are being murdered and threatened with violence and displacement on a daily basis, and resource insecurity threatens vast swaths of the population. In this context, it may be too much to hope for that Blasim will never again feel compelled to write another such tragic and bleak set of stories about his native land.