Iraq + 100 poses a question to contemporary Iraqi writers: what might your home city look like in the year 2103—exactly 100 years after the disastrous American and British-led invasion of Iraq? How might that war reach across a century of repair and rebirth, and affect the state of the country—its politics, its religion, its language, its culture—and how might Iraq have finally escaped its chaos, and found its own peace, a hundred years down the line?
As well as being an exercise in escaping the politics of the present, this anthology is also an opportunity for a hotbed of contemporary Arabic writers to offer its own spin on science fiction and fantasy.
Iraq + 100 publishes September 12th with Tor Books. We’re pleased to share editor Hassan Blasim’s introduction to the anthology, translated by Jonathan Wright.
The idea of this book was born in late 2013 amid the chaos and destruction left by the US and British occupation of Iraq—chaos that would drag Iraq into further destruction through Islamic State control over many parts of the country.
No nation in modern times has suffered as much as Iraqis have suffered. Iraq has not tasted peace, freedom or stability since the first British invasion of the country in 1914. Since then, Iraqis have lived through a long saga of wars, death, destruction, population displacement, imprisonment, torture, ruin and tragedies. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was difficult to persuade many Iraqi writers to write stories set in the future when they were already so busy writing about the cruelty, horror and shock of the present, or trying to delve into the past to reread Iraq’s former nightmares and glories. In the process, I personally wrote to most of the writers assembled here in an attempt to encourage them to write for the project. I told them that writing about the future would give them space to breathe outside the narrow confines of today’s reality, and that writers needed more space to explore and develop certain ideas and concepts through story-telling. I said they would be writing about a life that is almost unknown, without relying directly on their own experience or their personal reading of the past or the present. Writing about the future can be wonderful and exciting—an opportunity to understand ourselves, our hopes and our fears by breaking the shackles of time. It’s as if you’re dreaming about the destiny of man!
At first, I was uneasy that we would pull it off. The idea had originally been suggested by my friend and publisher, Ra Page, along the lines of ‘imagine Iraq a hundred years after the US occupation through short fiction’. My unease arose from two sources—the first was related to Iraqi literary writing in general and the second to the literary scene and my personal relationship with it.
In an article that dealt with the beginnings of our project, the journalist Mustafa Najjar wrote, ‘The reluctance of Arab writers to address the future has long been a great mystery, at least to me. The walls of repression and censorship that confine Arab creativity so severely offer in themselves an ideal environment for writing about the future, a space that is free of the taboos that weigh on the past and the present.’ Iraqi literature suffers from a dire shortage of science fiction writing and I am close to certain that this book of short stories is the first of its kind, in theme and in form, in the corpus of modern Iraqi literature. Faced with the fact that Iraqi literature lacks science fiction writing, we have tried in this project to open more windows for Iraqi writers. We asked them to write a short story about an Iraqi city 100 years after the start of the occupation and said they were not required to write science fiction but had complete freedom to choose any genre of writing that could address the future.
We did not select specific writers to take part in the project: we opened the door to anyone who wanted to take part and to imagine an Iraqi city in a hundred years, whether academics, novelists, or writers of short stories.
There are many possible reasons for this dearth of science fiction writing in Iraqi literature, and in Arabic literature in general. Perhaps the most obvious reason is that science fiction in the West was allowed to track the development of actual science from about the middle of the 19th century onwards. The same period was hardly a time of technological growth for Iraqis, languishing under Georgian ‘Mamluk’ then returning Ottoman overlords; indeed some would say the sun set on Iraqi science centuries before—as it set on their cultural and creative impulses—in the wake of the Abbasid caliphate. What have the subsequent rulers and invaders of Iraq done since then, the cynic might ask, apart from extol the glorious past when Baghdad was the centre of light and global knowledge? Knowledge, science and philosophy have all but been extinguished in Baghdad, by the long litany of invaders that have descended on Mesopotamia and destroyed its treasures. In 1258, the Mongol warlord Hulagu set fire to the great library of Baghdad, a place known as The House of Wisdom, where al-Khwarizmi had invented algebra, Sind ibn Ali had invented the decimal point, and Ya‘qub ibn Tariq had first calculated the radius of Earth, and the other known planets. The library was burnt to the ground. Precious books on philosophy, science, society, and literature were deliberately destroyed. Those that weren’t burnt were thrown into the Tigris and the Euphrates by the invaders. The water in the Euphrates is said to have turned blue from all the ink that bled into it from the books. From the Mongol Hulagu to the American Hulagu, George W., this once great seat of learning has been destroyed and pulverised. Bush the butcher, and his partner Blair, killed hundreds of thousands in Iraq, and in the process its museums were once again ransacked. All this without mercy or even shame, and in full view of the free world. But let’s leave aside Mr Bush, Mr Blair and the other killers still on the loose, and go back to our modest project, which tries to imagine a Modern Iraq that has somehow recovered from the West’s brutal invasion, in a way that Iraq didn’t recover from the Mongol one, in the blink of an eye that is 100 years. Our project tries to imagine the future for this country where writing, law, religion, art and agriculture were born, a country that has also produced some of the greatest real-life tragedies in modern times.
It is my belief that it is not only science fiction that is missing in modern Iraqi and Arab literature. I share with colleagues the view that Arab literature in general lacks diversity when it comes to genre writing—by which I mean detective novels, fantasy, science fiction, horror and so on—just as there is little diversity or transparency in our day-to-day lives. We, by which I mean Arabs today, are subservient to form and to narrow-minded thinking because we have been dominated by religious discourse and by repressive practices over long periods, often by dictatorships that served the capitalist West well, bowing to its whims and fitting with its preconceptions. But certainly that does not mean that science fiction is entirely absent from the Arab or Iraqi literary tradition. Reference is often made to the Arab roots and origins of science fiction and fantasy in A Thousand and One Nights and in Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, the thought experiment novel written in the 12th century by Ibn Tufail. Some people trace it to the Sumerians even further back, as the Iraqi writer Adnan al-Mubarak has done on several occasions. Al-Mubarak says, ‘Modern science fiction is strongly associated with the scientific-technological revolution and usually focuses on related issues. On the other hand science fiction is a literature that is part of a very old tradition that goes back to humanity’s first ideas about the real world and about the potential for human beings to constantly explore nature and the world. As is well-known, we find the first written material about journeys, including to other planets, in Sumerian literature (The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example), and in Assyrian and Egyptian literature. In an Egyptian text written four thousand years ago, we read about imaginary journeys to other planets. It is important in this context to go back to al-Mubarak’s essay, ‘How the Sumerians invented space aeronautics’.2 In the middle of the last century Arabic writers, from several Arab countries, started to experiment with writing science fiction and fantasy, and Egyptian literature was the dominant presence. But those short stories can be criticised for their references to the supernatural, to spirits, devils and fairytales that all fall back on that all-too dependable myth-kitty, A Thousand and One Nights. Hayy ibn Yaqzan, on the other hand, met the conditions for writing science fiction in an interesting way, and I believe that modern Arab literature has not paid enough attention to that work, just as it has not shown enough respect for the treasures of Sumerian, Ancient Egyptian or Babylonian writing.
Inflexible religious discourse has stifled the Arab imagination, and pride in the Arab poetic tradition has weakened the force and freedom of narration, while invaders and occupiers have shattered the peace that provided a home for the imagination.
The picture is not wholly bleak however.
Today there is great hope in a new generation, a generation native to the internet and to globalisation. It is a generation that is open-minded, more adventurous about genres, and more impatient to exercise the freedom to express oneself and to experiment. Serious attempts to write science fiction and fantasy have started to appear, especially now that the science is so much easier to get hold of: the internet gives us access to research, to documentaries, and to other novels and books from around the world, and allows us to follow the extraordinary and rapid development of human imagination through science and other forms of knowledge.
As for my second, more personal source of unease about editing this anthology, this arose from the fact that I am a writer whose work found its place in the wider, non-Arab world while I remained on the margins of the Iraqi literary scene—a scene I have always chosen to keep my distance from. Iraqi literature is populated by ‘official’ writers who belong to the Writers’ Union and other cultural institutions. It is a literary scene that depends on personal and cliquey relationships and on the corruption in the press and in the Ministry of Culture. Literary and other cultural projects in Iraq usually come about through personal relationships that are not entirely innocent. Being out in the cold like this comes with its disadvantages, and I have often pressed my editor, Ra Page, to write to Iraqi writers directly and asked him to make some of the selection decisions: if I were the only person in the picture and the sole decision-maker in this project, it might irritate or surprise some Iraqi writers, who are more accustomed to literary projects initiated by people from within the narrow circle of ‘usual suspects’.
The stories collected here have been written by Iraqis from various generations, and display a variety of styles. The authors were born and grew up in a variety of cities; some have abandoned those cities seeking peace and freedom in exile, while others have chosen to stay on and bear witness to their cities’ plight to the end.
The cities featured here—Baghdad, Basra, Ramadi, Mosul, Suleymania, Najaf—are all wildly different places, in fiction and reality, but are united by the tragedy of modern Iraq— the tragedy of a people that is desperate for just a solitary draught of peace. As Iraqis, at home and abroad, we are desperate for this peace, and thirsty for the imagination and creativity essential to rebuild this ancient country—this land of the two rivers.
–Hassan Blasim, September 2016
Translated by Jonathan Wright.
Excerpted from Iraq + 100, copyright © 2016 by Hassan Blasim