Friday, December 14, 2012

Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim takes The Iraqi Christ to the Mosaic Rooms

Hassan Blasim in conversation with English PEN director Jo Glanville

"His stories are mainly set in Iraq and they are very deeply rooted in often brutal social reality - there's a lot of violence and many of the stories are extremely shocking, but they are shot through with irony, with a very black comedy, and they frequently tip over into the fantastic and a magical. But because the stories are so grounded in social detail - whether it's in friendship or the detail of everyday life - as a reader you just adopt the magical as if it is the everyday and that's part of the great success of the stories. "

This was English PEN's director Jo Glanville talking about Iraqi writer, poet and filmmaker Hassan Blasim's translated collection The Iraqi Christ when she chaired an event marking the launch of the book at the Mosaic Rooms in London on Wednesday night. 

Glanville said The Iraqi Christ is "really a remarkable book: I'd like to congratulate Hassan, his translator Jonathan and his publisher Comma Press. Hassan is a writer who is a true storyteller and he clearly revels not only in the telling of the story but in the art of game playing that telling stories can involve."   

Blasim's appearance at the Mosaic Rooms - podcast here - was the third and last stop on a UK tour which began on Monday. The tour included events at the Lit and Phil Library in Newcastle and the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, the city in which Comma Press is based. 

The Iraqi Christ is Blasim's second short-story collection to appear in English translation. The first, The Madman of Freedom Square, was published by Comma in 2009. Although The Iraqi Christ is not officially published until the New Year, hot-off-the-press copies were on sale at the event. Publication is timely, with the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq just three months away.  

Both collections were translated by Jonathan Wright, who appeared at the event alongside Blasim and Glanville. The Iraqi Christ is supported by an English PEN Writers in Translation Award, as was The Madman of Freedom Square. The awards, funded by Arts Council England, help with marketing and promotion including Blasim's UK tour.

Translating Blasim

The translator's name is displayed on the front cover of The Iraqi Christ - which is too seldom the case with literary Arabic translations. Wright is a British journalist and literary translator who studied Arabic, Turkish and Islamic Civilisation at St John's College, Oxford University. He worked for Reuters as a Middle East-based correspondent for most of the past three decades. For two years from late 2009 he was the managing editor of Arab Media and Society.

Some five years ago Wright embarked on a career as a translator of literary Arabic. In addition to the two collections of Blasim's short stories, the works he has translated include Rasha al Ameer's Judgment Day, Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel, Khaled Alkhamissi’s Taxi, Fahd al-Atiq's Life on Hold, and Egyptian Alaa al-Aswany's essays On the State of Egypt. Wright's translation of Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser's first novel Land of No Rain is to be published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) next June. He is also due to translate Alaa al-Aswany's new novel.

Glanville said Jonathan's translations of Blasim's work have been "absolutely essential in having made Hassan's work available to wider audiences - exactly what we want to encourage at PEN." What challenges were there in translating Hassan's stories?

"Hassan writes in a very unusual style for a writer in Arabic because it's very direct and he doesn't try to be literary at all, he says it very straight," Wright said. The sentences very short as can be seen from the English translation, in which "most of the sentences in English are the same length as they were in the original Arabic."

Wright said this is very unusual for an Arab author: "There is a tendency for people to take a much more kind of relaxed discursive approach to writing. And there's a tradition of showing off your linguistic knowledge or erudition in writing." This is however "diminishing to some extent with time - quite rapidly actually; there are more writers around now who write in a sharp and strictly narrative style." 

Wright said in a sense it is Hassan's style that produces the difficulties that arise in translating him. "I think sometimes he runs ahead of himself to some extent and sometimes the references get lost - you're not quite sure who's speaking or who did this or who did that." Glanville suggested this might be "part of the style as well".  

Wright clarified to Blasim that he hadn't said Blasim wasn't interested in literature, but "I said that you didn't deliberately try to be literary in your approach." Hassan said he didn't care about Arabic literariness in terms of the beauty of language, and a kind of language "muscle-flexing".  

In a 2009 joint appearance with Wright at an event in Liverpool to discuss The Madman of Freedom Square Blasim spoke in Arabic with Wright interpreting. But at the Mosaic Rooms Blasim said he started learning English last year, and he spoke mainly in English, with Wright translating certain phrases or questions from the audience. Blasim has a vivid way of expressing himself and - as with his stories -  while the discussion touched on much dark material the event was charged with the author's robust humour.
The cover of The Iraqi Christ bears the legend: 'Perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive', from the Guardian newspaper. This judgment came in 2010 from Syrian-British fiction writer, essayist and blogger Robin Yassin-Kassab in his review of Beirut39: New Writing from the Arab World (Bloomsbury 2010), an anthology which did not include Blasim. When Glanville cited the Guardian quote Blasim laughed "don't say that!" and joked that it has caused  him a lot of problems.  

           Jonathan Wright with Hassan Blasim

Blasim's language: shocking, funny, very explicit

Glanville noted that Blasim has criticised the style of writing about Iraq's terrible history that takes the form of lamentation, of breast-beating. She wondered how Blasim's very different style, "which is deeply shocking but funny and uses very explicit language", goes down with his Arab readers. 

Hassan said "I write what I know". He can't understand how, when bombs are going off and people are dying in the street, some Iraqi writers are preoccupied with the beauty of the Arabic language. They use sentimental, tear-jerking language, while criticising "small mistakes, or the use of street language" by a  writer like Blasim. He uses much street language, particularly in his poetry which sometimes sounds like a kind of "rap, with dirty language. Of course, they don't like that."

Glanville asked him the reasons for the censorship of the Arabic version of The Madman of Freedom Square and its banning in Jordan. Blasim said "publishers don't like my books... " because of "how I use the language". He said if people read his book they will find he doesn't write about politics and "I'm not against religion; I don't believe in religion but I don't tell people to forget religion". It is his use of "dirty" language that causes him problems.

In his story The Song of the Goats a boy drowns in his family's septic tank. After hours of rescue efforts "they brought him out - a dead child, shrouded in shit." There are copious references to shit in the story and the grief-stricken mother feeds her dead son's three-year old brother shit mixed with food, blaming him for his brother's death.

Of objections to his language, Hassan said: "It's as if in the Arab countries we don't say shit: we say shit all the time. And we shit all the time." His stories also contain considerable sexual explicitness and obscenities.

Blasim ridiculed objections to jokes about religion in literature. "Arab people every day in the street joke about many things" but if you joke about such things in literature or newspapers you risk being branded as an enemy who is against religion and who may be receiving money from the West. 

Blasim was born in Baghdad in 1973, but when he was five the family moved to the northern oil city of Kirkuk. Kirkuk is a highly mixed city whose population includes Arabs (Sunni and Shia), Kurds,Turkmen, and Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, and one imagines this rich brew helped fire the imagination of the nascent writer. The central figure in the title story of The Iraqi Christ is Daniel, a Christian former soldier.

Blasim's family moved back to Baghdad when he reached college age. He studied  at the Academy of Cinematic Arts. Two of his films -  Gardenia (screenplay) and White Clay (screenplay and director) - won the Academy's Festival Award for Best Work.

In 1998 Blasim left Baghdad for Sulaymaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he continued to make films, including Wounded Camera, using a Kurdish pseudonym as he feared for his family's safety in Baghdad under Saddam's dictatorship. Perhaps this adoption of a new identity helped trigger his interest in playing with identity in his stories. 

The scanty biographical details of Blasim on the internet often state that he left Iraq for Finland in 2004. In fact, he pointed out, he had left Iraq four years before. It took him all that time, with illicit border crossings and jobs as an illegal immigrant, at the mercy of people traffickers, to reach Finland in 2004 where he has lived ever since.  

He has made numerous short films and documentaries for Finnish television. His stories have been published on the internet, including on the website of which he is a co-editor. His essays on cinema have been published in the UAE.

Although Blasim has lived in Finland since 2004, "it is clear that it is Iraq that feeds your imagination as a writer," Glanville said. "I just wanted to ask you about that dislocation for a writer. You're in Finland, which perhaps couldn't be further removed in culture and climate from Iraq, and I'm wondering how that works for you as a writer - there you are, as a writer in exile, but the imagination is fed by Iraq."

Blasim said: "I live in Finland of course but still now there are many things happening in Iraq. When I left Iraq Saddam was there; the problems continue and we don't find the right solution to what happened in Iraq. So of course I'm interested still in writing about Iraq -  my memory is full. When I was a kid the Iran-Iraq war started, and when I went to college the war started after Saddam went into Kuwait. War continued all the time and affected all the Iraqi people, so as a writer it's important to talk about all this war."

He said many people wonder when he will write about Finnish culture, "mainly because I love the countryside, I am all the time in Finland in the countryside - so they ask 'when will you write about sauna? ... And I say, just wait, maybe later!"

'I love all these different forms'

 One theme that ran through the Mosaic Rooms event was Blasim's working in different art forms: film, poetry, short stories, writing plays for the theatre. Glanville said filmmaking is obviously as important to Blasim as writing short stories; she asked what it is about the form of writing short stories that draws him.

Blasim said  "I love all these different forms  -  I  like films, I like poems." Many people have urged him to focus on one thing- in particular on the writing of short stories so as to build himself in the world of literature - "but I get bored easily, so I want all the time to change. The short story form for me is near to a short film, a form I feel good with."  In response to a member of the audience who asked whether he will ever turn some of his written work into film, Blasim confirmed that he said he plans to do that. He already filmed some short stories when in Iraq. He thought that if the questioner read the short stories in The Iraqi Christ, he would find they were already like film-like and should be easy to film.  

To another  member of the audience, who asked why he likes short stories so much and what's so special about them, he responded: "I say I like short story, I don't say I love short story too much. I like all the different forms - I don't have any special liking for the short story really." Each form has "a different power, a different language." 

Asked which individuals who, like him, combine writing and filmmaking have most impressed him he named Pasolini, as writer and film director, and then said his favourite has been the Russian Andrei Tarkovsky whose work he studied at college, and whose "poem in film" subsequently very much interested him.  He also named Lars Von Trier and Ingmar Bergman. 

Why Don't You Write a Novel Instead of Talking About All These Characters?

Glanville asked him about the story Why Don't You Write a Novel Instead of Talking About All These Characters? "I ask myself this all the time!" Blasim said. Publishers in London and Germany are encouraging him to write a novel: "You can't make money with short stories" and that the market is geared to novels. When they ask him to write a novel, "I say why? What?"

Glanville said: "One of the great pleasures of your stories is that there they are, these  very shocking, brutal, violent stories, but there is a lot of game playing in the art of storytelling." In  Why Don't You Write a Novel and other stories "you give clues here and there to your influences on your thinking about why stories, why writing is important."

She read a passage from Why Don't You Write a Novel in which a character asks the narrator: "Why don’t you write a novel, instead of talking about all these characters – Arabs, Kurds, Pakistanis, Sudanese, Bangladeshis and Africans? They would make for mysterious, traditional stories. Why do you cram all these names into one short story? Let the truth come to light in all its simplicity. Why  not enjoy your life?"  

The narrator responds: "Maybe you’ve heard of Jalal ad-Din Rumi, the Sufi Muslim who died in 1273. Rumi says, 'The truth was once a mirror in the hands of God. Then it fell and broke into a thousand pieces. Everybody has a very small piece of it, but each one believes he has the whole truth.”’ Blasim said: "Maybe it's also about short stories."


The Song of the Goats

Blasim read in Arabic The Song of the Goats, the first story in The Iraqi Christ. Wright's translation was projected on the screen behind him, and paper copies of the story were also available. This simultaneous Arabic and English arrangement worked well. 

Glanville said The Song of the Goats gives a great idea of Hassan's talents and of his exploration of storytelling. It begins as a story about stories: "People were waiting in queues to tell their stories". They want to tell their stories to "Memory Radio ... set up after the fall of the dictator" which has a new programme called Their Stories in Their Own Voices. Listeners will choose the top three stories; there are valuable prizes. The story begins in the voice of a contestant; the main story of The Song of the Goats is a story he hears from another contestant.

Glanville said the story "then it goes into this very vivid and engaging account of this boy's tragic story, details of his family, and then has this fantastic and absurd ending. What runs through it all the way, and with all your stories, is war, and the series of wars - so there's the Iran-Iraq war, the invasion of Kuwait, the Gulf war, and then of course the invasion of you would have known nothing but Saddam's dictatorship and nothing but war really, war would have been a constant presence through your life."

Hassan said the story "is about war - and the story happens in Kirkuk. Kirkuk is the richest city in the world - they have a  lot of oil  there - but poor people don't have clean water, they live like this, poor people in a rich country, and all the time you have war - about what? About oil." When he was growing up in Kirkuk such accidental drownings of children in  septic tanks was a common occurrence.

When the family was living in Kirkuk, the city was a target of Iran's Scud missiles during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war from 1980. "It's like war around you all the time," Blasim said. "You have many different wars - you have war with the neighbour, you have war with the dictator, you have war with the society, you have different levels of war.

"You have all the time to survive from different dangers, and that makes many of my stories like nightmares because you feel you are in a nightmare - you are against the dictator and all the time some bomb comes from America, or Iran,'s never finished, this...but all the time I use some humour because it is not easy to destroy humour, so of course we laugh."

The discovery of reading

Glanville asked whether his expectation when he was growing up was that he would have to go to war. Hassan said: "All the time I felt I wanted to disappear, to go." His family was poor and when he used to read books in the summertime they would ask "What are you doing?...I said I want to read." 

Jo found it interesting that "in more than one of your stories there's a reference to the discovery of literature, of reading." Hassan said that in many of his stories people are trying to find solutions in books. His father was a communist and he remembers how in the family house there were Russian novels and stories by the likes of Dostoevsky and Chekov.

He started writing poems when he was 12. As a teenager he compiled crosswords for a newspaper, which pleased his family as the newspaper paid him. Glanville noted that there's a "great story Crosswords in The Iraqi Christ." He began to write short fiction. And it was because he wanted to be a writer that he studied film at college. He had asked friend which college would help him to be a writer, and the friend advised him to study film, which Blasim thinks was a good choice. 

Do you read Kafka in Arabic? Yes ... and do you read Kafka in Finnish?

Jo Glanville said people have compared him to Kafka, and that there's a very nice exchange in his story The Dung Beetle when "you or the narrator" gets very irritated:

"A young Finnish novelist once asked me, with a genuine look of astonishment and curiosity, ‘How did you read Kafka? Did you read him in Arabic? How could you discover Kafka that way?’ I felt as I were a suspect in a crime and the Finnish novelist was the detective, and that Kafka was a Western treasure that Ali Baba, the Iraqi, had stolen. In the same way, I might have asked, ‘Did you read Kafka in Finnish?’"

Glanville says that while the narrator of the story angrily makes references to Ali Baba and the Arabian Nights "I have to say that although there are elements of Kafka, of Gogol, because there is that surrealism, your stories did make me think of the Arabian Nights because there's that grounding in social reality that tips us into the fantastic - because the Arabian Nights are incredibly modern and they have been credited with inspiriting magic realism."

On the question of influences on him when he writes, Hassan said he reads widely, but films are his major inspiration.

the four-year trek to Finland

Finland, Blasim's adopted country - at least for now  

When Glanville asked Blasim about his life in Iraq he explained that he started having problems with the authorities when he was a film student. His film Gardenia was about "some poor guy", and the secret police started questioning him. They were also suspicious of his project to bring a group of people to work together in film. At the time one of his brothers was in prison for political reasons - and then there was the fact his father was a communist.

The regime looked at him as if he was trying to do something against the government, so he went north to Sulaymaniyah in Kurdistan and did start to work against the regime. He changed his name to the Kurdish name Ouazad Osma and made a long feature film on Saddam's attacks on the Kurdish people.
"I taught film and wrote many articles against the regime, but I felt Kurdistan was not really safe. There was civil war between the Kurds," and he was aware of being seen as Arab rather than Kurdish. So he left for Iran in around 2000, and then walked across the border to Turkey, and from there worked  his way to Bulgaria. He was travelling illegally, without papers and needed to work because he did not have enough money to  pay the "mafia people" who cross the borders with illegal immigrants.
He worked for a year and a half in restaurants and factories in Istanbul to get  him the money to cross into Bulgaria where he again worked in a restaurant. The work in the black economy was all poorly paid. It took him around four years to arrive in Finland.

When a member of the audience asked whether he had perhaps chosen Finland because it was a socialist country, given his father's communist background, Blasim admitted that it had been a girl and an "old love story" that first drew him to Finland. He had ended up there more or less by accident, having previously planned to to go to France. He has now been there eight years. He said it is difficult to stay in Finland; it is cold, and dark for six months of the year. 

Asked whether there is interest in his work in Finland, Blasim said: "Yes, they translated  me into Finnish and they are really interested, and all the time I am on the radio, I'm a star!" He added: "It's not because I'm good, it's because it's a small country!" The population of Finland is around 5 million, and there are some 5,000 Iraqis there. He said he was going to say something that might shock the audience: "they say in Finland I bring the Nobel Prize to Finland!"

Asked if he has been back to Iraq since Saddam's overthrow, Hassan said he has been to the north of Iraq but not to Baghdad. It is still dangerous: a friend from Holland who worked in radio had been killed. He might be able to work in film there, but the opportunities are limited. A man with a big company who makes TV dramas offered him a blank cheque to write a drama about Hussein. "If you go to Iraq there is a circle of corruption, you buy people."  

Hassan continues to write and finds that through the internet his stories attract many Arab readers. He seems not to be particularly bothered about the difficulties he faces in being published in book form in Arabic, saying: "In the Arab world people don't buy books." But Arabs are on Facebook and all over the internet. 

Hassan said he has many readers in Iraq, especially among the young. In a development that sounds like a twist in one of  his short stories, he said  some  young people in the South of Iraq, who like his writing, want to start a magazine with the title  "Hassan Blasim". 
report and pictures by Susannah Tarbush

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