In November 2016, Comma Press published Iraq +100, a collection of short stories edited by Hassan Blasim. Blasim invited ten Iraqi writers to imagine what their country might look like in the year 2103—a hundred years after the 2003 American- and British-led invasion. For this roundtable, Comma Press and Strange Horizons bring together two of the contributors to Iraq +100, and two journalists who track Arabic literature, to talk about the book in the context of Arabic SF, past, present and future.
- Ali Bader, one of the contributors to Iraq +100, was born in Baghdad. He has thirteen novels, several essays, scripts and plays, and two poetry collections, many of which have won awards. His best-known novels include Papa Sartre, The Tobacco Keeper, and The Sinful Woman.
- Anoud, one of the contributors to Iraq +100, is an Iraq-born writer, and now a wanderer, interested in telling stories about her home country and its issues.
- M. Lynx Qualey writes about Arabic literature and translation. Her website, “Arabic Literature (in English)”—a hub for translators, authors, publishers, librarians, academics, students, and readers—won the 2017 Literary Translation Initiative Award at the London Book Fair.
- Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of The Road From Damascus, a novel, and co-author of the non-fiction book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War. Books he’s recently contributed to include Syria Speaks, Shifting Sands, and Beta-Life: Stories from an A-Life Future. He writes book reviews and journalism too.
- Gautam Bhatia is an articles editor at Strange Horizons.
Gautam Bhatia [GB]: As a reader, the first thing that strikes me about Iraq + 100 is its avowedly political character. The writers are asked to imagine their home cities—in Iraq—in the year 2103; this year is specifically chosen because it is exactly a century on from 2003, the year of the Iraq Invasion, one of the most devastating political events in recent times. Despite the passage of a century, the Invasion is at the forefront—or in the background—of most of the stories in the collection. I am reminded of how Edward Said, in his Introduction to Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain, described the Arab novel as “an engaged form.” Do you think that, in the present circumstances, Arab SF must inevitably be political (even in its futuristic imaginings) in a way that is more direct and immediate than SF in other places (especially Europe)? Specifically, as writers, do you feel an imperative to engage with present politics in your writing?
M. Lynx Qualey (MLQ): Elias Khoury hasn’t written any SF as far as I know (more’s the pity!). But he said that, with the publication of White Masks, he found he could either be a fighter or a writer (sorry, Elias, for oversimplifying through rhyme). No one can doubt Khoury’s ethical commitments, but his writing also is (& must be) independent from factional allegiance.
I’m further reminded of how Syrian poet Ghayath al-Madhoun, who lives and writes in Sweden, said that Swedish poets often see “politics” in his work. He wouldn’t deny that his work is critically engaged (I don’t think), but told me, “I’m really against the political poetry. This is my life. When my life is perfect, then you will find my poems about flowers and spring. But it’s a reflection of my life.” I would think the same about these stories: they reflect the present of Iraq, a present of factions, diseases, violence, but also—as in much SF—individual desires for a different, reframed world.
Yes, the collection’s framing has an explicit politics to it—to focus attention on the 2003 Invasion as an important turning point for Iraq and the region. But the individual stories are very much about individual lives, imaginations, anxieties, communities. I certainly see no shared politics here.
Robin Yassin-Kassab (RYK): I think it’s a general truth that science fiction is concerned primarily with the present, that it projects the present’s fears and hopes on to the future. It sets up metaphors, and sometimes satires, of our present state. In this sense, yes, SF is inevitably political. (The only SF story I’ve written so far—called “Swarm”—was certainly political in that it imagined an Assad-like dictator and his secret police using nanotechnology.) And it’s inevitable that contemporary Arabic fiction, including SF, will tend to be more obviously political than not, given the enormous political and social transformations occurring in the Arab world.
This is not the same as to say that the Arab novel, or Arab SF, must be political, let alone “engaged.” Sometimes the most politically significant novels are not overtly “political” at all. Their authors may have considered themselves engaged in escapism as much as in political agitation. Indeed, novels which aim to teach a particular political lesson tend to be dogmatic, stilted, and quickly dated. Their purpose would be better served by a pamphlet or an opinion piece. The point of fiction is to use a different language than those of journalism or polemic. At its best, fiction is more suggestive of new possibilities than those forms can ever be.
No sense of political obligation should be imposed on the writer. The Arab region has suffered more than most from such enforced “engagement,” which tends to stifle creativity.
I interviewed Hassan Blasim—editor and contributor to Iraq +100—recently. He clarified the distinction between politicised art and imposed “engagement”: “I think the artist should be an activist too. I don’t mean you should write a novel as if you’re an activist, but that you should do both … In this desperate situation, with all the racism and war in the world, artists must play a much greater role. Not in the old Communist sense of “engaged art,” which was superficial and propagandistic. Of course the artist needs independence from political lines. But still he should demonstrate, speak out, and help others.”
GB: Robin, just to follow up on that—do you think that the distinction between the engaged novel and the escapist novel is that clear-cut, though? I’m wondering, for instance, where you would place Emile Habibi’s Saeed: The Pessoptimist on this spectrum … it has the look and feel of an escapist, magical-realist fantasy, but its political overtones with respect to Israel and Palestine are unmistakable. Or take, for that matter, Amjad Nasser’s Land of No Rain ...
RYK: Well, almost nothing is clear-cut, in life or in literature.
Is Said: The Pessoptimist escapist or engaged? Perhaps a bit of both, but I think it tends more towards engaged. It’s a particularly successful attempt at engaged literature, because it’s light, funny, playful, magical as you say, and these features mean its engagement doesn’t come across as grimly didactic.
Escapism is a matter of content and purpose, isn’t it? The aim is to escape this world and its issues. Engagement means to tackle these issues head on—and this can be done in almost any genre. In that sense I don’t have a problem with engaged literature. My problem is with the sense of coercion that “engaged literature” has sometimes carried with it: the writer MUST write about the cause (whichever cause it is). Even, at worst, he must write about it in a morally simplistic way, without ambiguity, in order to agitate and educate a political audience, and to keep to a party line.
Of course the best engaged literature—Ghassan Kanafani for instance—doesn’t fall into these traps.
GB: Which is interesting, because one of Kanafani’s most famous lines - in the mouth of one of his characters—is “A man is a cause” (from Returning to Haifa) ...
Anoud: I agree with Robin and Marcia, that Iraqi writers: a) feel the urge to be politically motivated and use their writing as a form of activism, and b) write what they write simply because this is the reality they were born into. War, violence, dictatorships, economic sanctions are everyday life and they will creep into everything we write either because we need to vent, or because what else is there to write about!
Personally, I have a fear that wars have bitten me so hard, since I was born and still going, to the point that I simply don’t know how to write about anything else. My fear is that if someone challenged me to just write a love story, a children’s tale or just a joke, I’d fail. I sometimes have these anxieties that I am only able to be a writer in the realm of war fiction and that outside of it, I’m a fraud.
GB: Yes, I was struck by how “Kahranama”—your story, which opens Iraq +100 - is so steeped in the atmosphere of a war-torn land, that it might have been late 2003 instead of 2103 ...
Ali Bader (AB): Yes and no! In the case of Iraq +100, we are talking about a political event, a huge coup in Iraqi history, so you regain imperatively your role not as a writer only, but as an intellectual also. I simply say intellectual, because I am sensitive about the term “activist.” This is well-conceived in the francophone culture more than in the Anglophone culture, ever since Zola and the Dreyfus Affair, and the birth of intellectual class.
Here is the point: what is the role of the intellectual in the historical events? His role, for me, is to challenge the authorities—all the authorities, whether social, political, culture—and not to be a propagandist for any of the authorities (neither the system nor the opposition).
About Arabic literature and Said’s quote: this is totally different. In the past, “engagement” in Arabic literature was conceived as socialist realism, and engaged writers wrote dictated, stilted texts. The protagonist was always the struggler and the militant, but now the nonhero is more engaged than the hero of the nation or the party.
This discussion is very sensitive in the context of criticism of non-European literature, when the critics talk about the political aspects of the novel, and neglect the social, sexual, and cultural aspects. Some see this as coming from Western logocentrism, which seeks to deprive non-European literary work from its aesthetic motivations, and consider only the western literature as aesthetic!
GB: The scholar Ada Barbaro has argued that Arab science fiction, as a genre, has a pedigree that dates back to the 1950s, and is characterised by titles such as The Victory of Time and The Geography of Water. Insofar as you agree with this characterisation—that there exists a distinct, seven-decade-old genre of writing that can be (roughly) labeled as “Arab science fiction”—do you see the stories in Iraq +100 as located within this literary tradition? Or do you see the collection as striking out in a new direction—perhaps of a piece with recent Egyptian futuristic works such as Utopia or Revolution 2053—but not part of an older Arab SF tradition?
MLQ: Well, no.
I mean, Ada’s right! There are Arabophone authors who’ve been poking into the SF genre since ages; even Tawfiq al-Hakim played around with SF tropes. But I don’t think this collection is in a tradition created by those authors, in the same sense that Raja Alem & Youssef Rakha have definitely, purposefully written in the wake of Ibn Hazm. These stories, I think, respond not to Ahmed Khaled Towfik or the Future Files, but to a more transnational SF and magical realist tradition, as well as other Arabic storytelling tropes (the Nights-type stories, the popular epics, future or imagined histories, dystopias). There are people writing in the wake of the Future Files—Sherif Adel, for one—but I don’t read the Iraq + 100 stories as participating in previous Arabic SF tropes and visions. Although I hope they’re creating new Arab & Arabic SF traditions.
Would love to be told off as wrong.
RYK: I must start by admitting that I’m largely ignorant of the literary history, so I’m not well-placed to offer a competent answer. Second, I suppose we must ask Anoud and Ali if they consider themselves influenced by the Arab SF tradition dating back to the fifties.
Before hearing what they have to say about it, I’m certainly in agreement with Marcia. The stories in Iraq +100 seem linked to the (by now international) magical realism tradition, sometimes to to the kind of satirical prose written by Muhammad al-Maghout for instance, to drug/hallucination narratives (in Hassan’s story), to SF films, and yes, to the Nights (as Hassan suggests in the Introduction) and so on. I recently read Mohammad Rabie’s Otared (an Egyptian novel)—which no doubt owes debts to SF, thrillers, and a certain film tradition—but, like the stories in Iraq +100, is primarily a response to current conditions, I would argue. Rabie’s metaphors arise from the streets of Egypt and the tumultuous political events enacted in them in recent years. When he imagines a masked populace seemingly indifferent to its suffering, sudden acts of gratuitous mob violence, and a bewildering set of conflicts fought out mainly through black-ops, he is imagining current conditions pushed through to one potential extreme.
In this respect, I don’t think the writer needs to work within a specific literary tradition, at least not consciously, though of course the writer will be influenced, consciously and unconsciously, by the culture through which she swims, by the jokes people tell and the adverts on TV, as well as by the books she reads.
Anoud: I’m not sure Iraq +100 can be categorized as a “new” trend in Arab Sci-fi, and this was an eye opener for me after I wrote Kahramana.
My first brush with Arab Sci-fi was a 1993 Egyptian film called Raqs ma al-Shaitan, الرقص مع الشيطان (Dancing with the Devil).
In the film, the protagonist is an atheist scientist who manages to travel in time to the past and future. By the end of the film he restores his faith. As a child, I found the film surreal and fascinating in the way the story was told and the film was shot. But besides the element of time travel, the film was conventional in its messages and setting.
The last SF I read, just before Iraq +100, was Frankenstein in Baghdad, by the Iraqi writer Ahmed Saadawi. While I enjoyed it, down to every gory little detail (the protagonist is a freak of nature made from the body parts of people killed in Iraq’s violence), Frankenstein in Baghdad was also set in Iraq’s reality of today. Its depictions were as realist as a classical Russian novel.
When I read Iraq +100 for the first time, cover to cover, I had an aha! moment, when I realized that I and most of us in the book leaned more towards magical realism than something like Orwell’s 1984, or the 2010 SF thriller film Inception. It could be because we are more focused on our volatile political realities than technological advances and science’s endless possibilities, but I speculate.
AB: I think there has always been a kind of SF writing in the Arabic world—but there is a lack of confidence in this genre. I saw a lot of SF writing in libraries in Baghdad when I was a child, mostly written by engineers, doctors, professors in the university. These were printed at their own expense, not in a big or respected publishing house, with a poor cover, poor paper … and they are always neglected in a dusty corner in libraries, or placed on the ground in newspapers and magazine kiosk. No readers, no critics …
I started my literary career with an SF novel: I wrote my first novel as a surrealist and fantastic trip to Venus, via a spaceship invented by an Iraqi scientist. Instead of going to the moon, as Saddam ordered, the spaceship went, by mistake, to Venus, and the spaceman reported his observations in a very comic set of diaries: about sexual freedom, about the religion, the political system, the people's mentality. But my friends, in Baghdad at that time, advised me to neglect it, and instead to publish Papa Sartre.
Because there is a lack of confidence in this genre, both on the part of Arabic intellectuals, and the readers. The Arabic philosophical tradition made a distinction between literary writings and scientific writings, and the mixture between these genre led to a real confusion.
But to get back to your original question: am I influenced by the tradition? Maybe by the Arabic fantastic writings. I think that Iraqi SF is different from the Arabic texts of this genre: it has more elements of the fantastic and the magical, as opposed to dry science.
RYK: I wish your first novel had been published, Ali. It sounds great.
GB: That helps us segue into my next question: in an interview with one of you—Robin—in January, Hassan Blasim, the editor of Iraq +100, laments the absence of “diversity” and experimentation in Arabic prose, and the lack of “genres like crime writing, fantasy, surrealism.” Well, now you have Iraq +100, of course, and both Anoud and Robin have given examples that suggest the contrary. In an email to me, Robin talked about how there is a fair bit of SF, fantasy, or thriller-influenced literary work being published, as well as translated (and as Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West suggests, this goes beyond the Arab world). Do you agree that such a phenomenon exists? And if so, why is it happening now?
MLQ: I think Hassan’s partly right—social-realist literary fiction (particularly the capital-n Novel) has been over-prioritized in Arabic for the last half-century, for various & sundry reasons. But there is great & exciting experimentation going on in the short story, in humor writing, in graphic novels, in writing for young readers, anywhere & everywhere at the margins. Also, with distribution issues being what they are, it’s hard to know what’s going on in literary landscapes as diverse as Marrakesh, Beirut, Khartoum, Cairo, Muscat (etc).
There is a push for more genre writing—Hoopoe for instance has commissioned a bunch of mystery novels in Arabic, to translate into English. But some of that’s less experimental, I think, and more about market forces.
Among the biggest forces are the lit prizes like the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, which may not be experiment-encouraging, but has shown itself not averse to genre (Ahmed Mourad’s Blue Elephant, Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, & al-Eissa’s Mawlana).
RYK: Of course, Hassan wasn’t the first to complain about genre conservatism in Arabic writing. The mid-twentieth century was filled with modernist experiment in poetry. Adonis called for a surrealist rediscovery of the Sufi tradition, and suggested that literature could change society by subverting orthodoxy in genre as well as concept. And so on. But Hassan and Marcia are correct in saying that social realism has dominated literary prose for a long time.
I think that’s changing now. At the risk of generalising too much, I’d say that this time is unique, and will probably mark a set of new directions in Arabic writing, for two reasons. The first is the regional (and to an extent global) challenge to traditional authority. Before 2011 in Syria, for example, and with notable exceptions, literary production was considered an elite activity. Serious writers either had to censor themselves or forego a large audience, and state institutions like the Arab Writers Union decided who was included and who excluded from the elite. With the revolution came not only a rejection of the authority of regime, mukhabarat (intelligence services) and police, but also of discourse authority in the widest sense. People rejected traditional clerics, sometimes the class system, even patriarchy. The results vary, from the rise of ISIS to the spread of self-organised local democracy. In the media sphere they include tens of independent newspapers and radio stations. Culturally, they include “Facebook poetry” in Syrian vernacular, revolutionary graffiti, songs and dances, poster art, and so on. Experimentation, after survival, is the order of the day. And I think Syria is an extreme case of what we see across the region. Even as old and new orthodoxies seek to violently (re)impose themselves, the authority of both form and content continues to collapse.
The second factor is the radical uncertainty that people in the region are experiencing. Before 2011, although change was bubbling beneath the surface, there was a sense of stagnation. Though conditions were bad, it felt to many that tomorrow would be the same as today. Today (this is my impression from speaking to people—though these days I live in Scotland) people often feel completely uncertain about tomorrow. In five or ten or twenty years' time, the region could be democratic and prosperous. Or it could be controlled by ISIS-style jihadists, cleansed of minorities and cultural dissidents. It might be occupied by foreign powers, and not necessarily the old offenders. Or the water might have run out entirely …
This radical uncertainty concerning the future (or better put, the present), combined with the crumbling of old ways of doing things, seems fertile soil for science fiction in particular.
I suppose I could add the trauma of war. I have a feeling that social realism would be a relevant way to approach the Syrian situation until 2013. From then on, the scale of the damage becomes so incomprehensibly enormous that some other genre becomes necessary. I think here of Ahmad Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad. How else can you write about a reality of random dismemberment without calling on the resources of horror, fantasy, or SF?
Anoud: Well yes there is—from what I can see—a surge in shorter and newer (or more correctly, less-trodden) genres of fiction in the Arab speaking world, and globally.
The faster lifestyle, television distractions, and smartphones have given people a shorter attention span. Younger readers are especially more into content they can read on their phones and tablets in short bursts of time. Thus comes short and shorter (flash) fiction.
The web has opened us to other cultures, be it Latin American magical realism or Japanese SF animation. The State can no longer decide what you read and how we think. So, we view religion, nationalism, and tradition with a more skeptical eye. This and the rise of bilingualism now allows an Iraqi writer in, say, Basra, to explore, marvel at, and interact with different cultures and worlds. Identities become lucid: so of course, when short SF sells in the US, Germany, or Japan, odds are it will also pop up at literary festivals in the UAE. That writer in Basra will be less confined to Basra and Iraq than his or her parents and grandparents. He or she is less likely to stick to what has been so far more classical forms and content in writing and audio-visual art.
AB: Yes, this is right. We have surrealist, fantastic writings, but the respect has always gone to the social-realistic novels. And I think that the translation of classic western literature into Arabic played an essential role to impose the view that great literature is social realism. Even now, the critics, the academies, the prizes continue to overlook this kind of writing.
GB: I want to ask something specific about Iraq +100. How were you approached to contribute to the volume? Were you given any specific instructions, as individual writers? And did you already have a story in mind, which fitted within the theme of the volume, or did you write a fresh story entirely?
Anoud: Comma Press wrote me an email and asked if I’d like to contribute. I said I’d try but I struggled to think of anything for over a year. As for how “Kahramana” came about, I’ve talked about that in detail here.
AB: Hassan Blasim sent me the Comma Press announcement. About the subject … at that time, I hadn't any idea about it. But the story came to me from the name of the city of Kut. This is my way in writing ... it all comes to me from the object, photo, etc. ... Kut is not my home city (I am from Baghdad), but Hassan asked me to write about another city because most Iraqi writers would like to write about Baghdad. The idea of this story came to me because I was soldier in this city in 2003, and I have a photo with some friends from this city, eating fish. I was with a moustache, and wearing uniform; this gave me the inspiration I needed … I sat and wrote it in two days.
GB: One striking thing about Iraq +100 is how so many of the stories imagine a heavily militarised Iraq, even in 2103, and deal directly with themes of war and conflict. I still have a visual of the barbed-wire fence from Anoud’s “Kahranama” in my mind—a fence that (in my reading) is as much a metaphor as it is a concrete reality—and Ali’s story is written from the perspective of a corporal. Other stories in the collection, which are about recollection and memory—such as “The Worker”, “Operation Daniel”, and “The Here and Now Prison”—are also located within a narrative of military violence. And, perhaps not coincidentally, the stories that are not of this kind—such as “Kuszib” and “Najufa”—deal with what is more or less an altered, non-human reality (avoiding spoilers here!).
So perhaps, in conclusion, I can ask a forward-looking question. It’s been fourteen years since 2003, and I think it’s safe to say that things have gone downhill from there. Do you think that, in the coming years, Iraqi SF—and Arabic SF more generally—will continue to be shaped by this reality, as it has been in Iraq +100? Will we see a distinct subgenre of SF writing emerge, whose hallmark is the kind of subtle—but unmistakable—engagement with war and violence that we see in many of the stories in Iraq +100? Or, perhaps, will we also see work along the lines of “Kuszib” and “Najufa”, where the response is to imagine an entirely alternative, virtually unrecognisable, world altogether?
MLQ: This is a hard one, to predict the future, & me not even a fictionalist!
Each country has its own literary path to hoe, but generally—in countries where life feels in flux—I think we’ll continue to see interest in dystopic surrealisms & future histories. I think those writers interested in “science” will be a minority; they will project future scenarios not because they’re necessarily interested in how technology will reshape us (although I hope some will be, because I like that stuff), but because they’re interested in seeing current sociopolitical realities by leapfrogging ahead of them and looking back, a la Nael Eltoukhy’s Women of Karantina, or by jumping into a sort of parallel universe, as Blasim sometimes does.
I think fresh emphasis on the Arabic short story (through energy in Morocco, through great emerging genre-bending writers like Mazen Maarouf, through Kuwait’s Almultaqa Prize, etc.) will also inspire experimentations.
I also think graphic-novel-novel hybrids could be a sport of the future (a la Naji’s Using Life), and Ganzeer’s epic SF graphic novel Solar Grid might be an inspiration, even though it’s in English, since he has deep ties in Egypt.
RYK: I think we’ll see more of both. On the one hand, a fascination with war and violence; on the other, an imagining of totally different worlds. Both seem natural responses to the traumatic violence, actual, potential, or threatened, wracking the region today. The worse the situation becomes, the more necessary to imagine something better.
I expect the current flowering of genre and experimental prose writing to continue and develop, for reasons given above. Whether or not Arab SF develops into a distinctly recognisable genre (as opposed to one tool at hand for Arab writers, alongside realism, the thriller, and so on) will depend in part on literary institutions and prizes. Will a publishing house do a list of SF, specifically? Marketing has a big effect, even in the Arab world.
I agree with Marcia on the potential for graphic novel-novel hybrids, and no doubt eventually, forms of internet and cyber literature which I can’t imagine. I agree even more with her reluctance to predict anyone’s future, let alone of the Arabs, in this time of enormous change.
Anoud: With the growing interest in SF in the MENA region and further, I suspect we will see more of this genre in Arabic, especially in the form of comic books. But, I can’t say if literature will lean towards an alternative virtual reality like “Kuszib” and “Najufa” (two of the stories in Iraq + 100) or a world not too far from our current climate, like “Kahramana”.
As for the narrative of violence, I’m not optimistic that the near future will be better than our current reality. Also, the rise of armed radical Islam is just as much a shock to our system as Arab writers, as it is to the world. They’ve shaped our Arabic identity as a defensive reaction to radical and armed Islam. This applies when we look inward (when producing fictions meant for a domestic audience like Arab TV dramas), and how we “market” ourselves to the world like in foreign film and literature festivals. So the stories covered in Iraq +100 are more likely to reoccur, probably to the point of exhaustion.
AB: This is not a prediction, but a normal thing which happened every time: I think we'll see multiple genres in the future, we'll see different approaches, different styles, and we'll see different topics as well. It will come from the problems which will emerge after the war, from communication - which has changed lifestyles a lot over the last ten years. I don’t think themes of war will disappear from the Arabic literature, but they will decrease.
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