Interview with the Iraqi author Hassan Blasim
Hassan Blasim is a writer, poet, and film director who has been called "perhaps the best living Arab writer.” His international breakthrough was with his acclaimed collection of short stories Iraqi Christ, which was praised by a united core of Swedish critics. His first novel God 99 has been translated into many languages including Swedish by Jonathan Morén.
Blasim was born in 1973 in Iraq but now lives in Helsinki where he came as a refugee in 2004.
This interview was conducted with Hassan Blasim via a digital platform; the focus is on his relationship to his native Iraq, the October Revolution that started in 2019, and the situation of poets and writers in the country.
Hassan, you said that poetry is dead, which aroused my curiosity. Also, you have followed developments in Iraq daily, especially during the October Revolution, and you are very active and have taken part in many discussions with Iraqi intellectuals in Iraq and in the diaspora. Most of the poets I have spoken to claim that it is impossible to discern how poetry has affected the Arab Spring, while they also claim that images and the camera have been important. Since you are a filmmaker maybe you can broaden our perspective?
I don’t really mean that poetry is dead—I am against the idea of death such as in ‘the death of the author’ or ‘the death of the novel’—that doesn’t interest me.
Perhaps the idea of a cessation or an end to something is enticing. It may be a religious aspect not to believe in an end or in the death of anything. There was once a rumour that television was dead, but television has not died. Nothing ceases, poetry never ceases. However, language can be reborn.
During the October Revolution, more traditionally structured poetry appeared in the demonstrations. The slogans used by nationalists and socialists often followed a classical tradition. Poetry was used as slogans, which worked well to fire up the people. Ibn Kassem Alshabi was one such poet. The prose poem on the other hand was nowhere to be found. The prose poets kept their distance, they also kept their distance to society at large.
An interesting poetry movement arose during this spring, the so-called ‘cultural guerrilla,’ which generated some interest.
Allegorical poetry, however, did play a role in the revolution. Poetry was transformed as for example in one of the most common slogans in October in Iraq, which was: "In the name of religion, the robbers robbed us."
Poetry has become more figurative; we can see this when we follow social media such as Facebook, for example. Suddenly, the reading of the poem in the classical Arabic tradition has ceased; the development of events in the Arab world can no longer contain the classical Arabic poem in its old form—it does not correspond with the contemporary.
Classical poetry is not as creatively explosive and powerful as that of the streets. In the streets, and in the image, and on Facebook, there is greater poetic energy.
Personally, I do not believe that poetry can be the stage of any revolutions that arise in our modern times. It is the development of poetry itself that poetry in the Arab world should engage in. Poetry must revolt from within itself, poetry must be expanded and not limited to the silent classical poem, or the tragic poem.
Poetry requires distance to be written, so what happens to the poetry that arises in the middle of ongoing events and in the streets; what does this form of poetry look like?
True. It is true that the poet needs some distance. When I wrote my short stories in 2006 during the civil war, writer colleagues asked how I could write about the civil war during the actual war; they thought I needed some distance. The same is said about poetry—one expects some distance in order to be able to write poetry. However, I don’t think such a distance is necessary. First, one knows one’s surroundings. There are also great opportunities nowadays to gather indefinite amounts of information. Especially prose is now much easier to write. It's not about analysing why the violence in Iraq occurred; you are not a researcher or an academic, you are an artist; yes, you can even become an activist and take part in the uprising. The poet, however, cannot react to each and every revolution, and the poet need not engage in the revolution. On the other hand, we see that different kinds of movements can arise from devastating circumstances.
The cultural guerrilla has been criticized but I am fond of them. Not many of us are experimental, many writers seek inspiration in Western literature. This poses a problem to the poet. As a result, they become unbalanced and lack a foothold in both the Western literary tradition and their own literary tradition—it is hard to understand how to create your own modernism and postmodernism. In Iraq, for example, we have no poetic art film.
What I liked about the cultural guerrilla was that they were fearless, that by simple means they dared to create art in the street, and they did not care about the reactions of the cultural elites. In Europe such movements are very common, but not here. People became fearful and even some Arab poets in Europe became critical, claiming that Iraqis only portray violence, violence, and more violence and that the followers of the cultural guerrilla profited from this violence. Many people have thought along those lines. But of course, violence has been present in Iraq for a whole century; the violence has traumatized the Iraqi people. The entire population is in need of therapy. However, this obsession with violence, I think, is not exclusively an Iraqi obsession. In Russia, for example, violence is present in classical literature, as in literature from Latin America.
So much for the critique of the cultural guerrilla; I do not know them personally but appreciate their challenging approach. Since we lack an underground culture, Iraq is thirsty for such movements.
In my opinion poets in Iraq do not understand Western poetry or literature; they grasp it mainly on a theoretical level, and many are lost. Although some claim to understand it, they are just scratching the surface, and one needs to have a deeper understanding of the tradition than just its surface; culture is not just a practice, it is also a way of living, thinking and being in the world. For example, a poet may manage to capture some aspects of the Western literary tradition but may also omit other important aspects such as the ideals linked to traditions of ideas such as a genuine respect for open dissent and for women's obvious position as equal to men, also in literature. It is among the new generation of young Iraqis who have grown up with the Internet and social media that something new will appear.
You have written poetry yourself…
In Iraq we all started off writing poetry; we wanted to emulate Badr Shaker Al-Sayyad, Nizar Qabbani and Mahmoud Darwish. Yes, I wrote poetry, I made an attempt, but I stopped. I prefer prose and the image. Poetry does not appeal to my artistic disposition, and even though poetry is beautiful, it is insufficient for me. Poetry is simple, like a melody. Poetry used to work for me if I needed to contemplate, but it no longer does. I'd rather watch a documentary that can occupy my mind for several days.
I do not agree that poetry is a simple form; it can be a very concentrated piece of work, which, when it works, can become a poetic hit with an appealing depth.
Certainly, there is an existential meaning in poetry, but it is more beautiful than practical. Humans are now more complex. Of course, we want the imaginary and that is why we humans are interested in literature. I do not see that poetry encompasses the complexity of our world including features such as war, migration, and complicated love relationships. Poetry’s form can of course develop, but as it is today it does not attract me.
I have a question about your first novel God99. There are two voices in the story: a thinker and person who lives an everyday life.
Precisely. One voice is the thinker's and is inspired by a real person and my important mentor Adnan Mubarak. He is an Iraqi intellectual who emigrated to Europe very early; we have corresponded for many years.
When I wrote in too much detail about the violence and the tough everyday life in Iraq, he would urge me to stop and look inward. In turn, I would usually answer him that we need to describe reality as it is.
Before I wrote God99 we published a book together, which consists of our correspondence. That book is a tribute and a declaration of love to him.
God99 is also a dialogue that can be said to take place between the two of us. Our contact and our correspondence came to symbolize hope and salvation for me. In the letters he sent me from exile when I was in Iraq, he told me about everything from James Joyce to Alice in Wonderland.
I know why I am one of your readers Hassan Blasim: I pursue an autobiographical strain, which entices me to read about my own traumas, and for me they are linked to forced migration from Iraq, a topic that you address. That is why I have read God99, for example. For whom does the Iraqi writer write? For whom do you write?
The question about the reader is tricky, especially if you start writing when you are young; at that point you do not consider the reader, you write because you want to write. I have a general rule when I write, which is that I imagine that there is no one reading over my shoulder; no one sees what I write. I do not write for anyone in particular, but I am aware that I write as an Arabic writer, which also characterizes my figurative language. I am familiar with Iraqi literature, so my reader is first and foremost Arabic, Iraqi.
That's how it all started, then came the translations. But as you know Kholod, I challenge the Arabic language by introducing more slang and swear words in my books, so yes, my reader is Arabic.
As for the Iraqi reader…
In the 70s, when talking about literature in the Arab world, it was said that the Egyptians wrote the books, Lebanon printed them, and the Iraqis read them. This indicates that there was a broad middle class in Iraq in the 70s.
After decades of dictatorship, war upon war, and then a civil war—what is the situation today? How do you view reading in general and how can people possibly take an interest in literature under such circumstances?
Our problem is that, as Iraqi writers, we think that we should write about Iraq. We must free ourselves from the idea that the author is writing from within a personal tragedy. Experiences of violence and war are universal and not only associated with the country of Iraq.
As regards reading in Iraq, I remember that we were all readers. If I return to the 80s, there were books in every home I visited. I grew up in Kirkuk, but every summer we went to our uncles in Baghdad, it was our obligatory summer stay, and even in the poorer parts of Baghdad there were books in the homes.
And if we look at the new generation behind the October Revolution, they read more than the Iraqis did during the sanctions. There is greater access to books today, even though much of the production consists of religious books.
Today there is a greater awareness among the younger generation. And this awareness came in a shockingly sudden way via the Internet and social media—yet, overall, it has been a positive development. These are small steps, but in comparison to the time before the invasion, I see a movement forward.
When we talk about Iraq and the Arab Spring, Iraq differs from its Arab neighbours precisely because of the invasion, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the subsequent introduction of democratic elections. When the Arab Spring came to the Arab world the last American soldier left Iraq, and the Iraqis were left to their own devices facing an opportunity to begin real democracy building. Many were hopeful in 2003 despite that, as we now know, the situation deteriorated into a civil war and the Islamic state. You were not in Iraq during the invasion in 2003.
I had left Iraq in 1999. My ambition was to return to Iraq after the invasion in 2003, but I wanted to wait. I was not in Iraq during the civil war, but I followed it day by day through contact with my family, siblings, and cousins. I returned in 2011. Right after the civil war the situation was rather stable, but I was shocked at the marks the violence had left on people.
Since I had one year left of my education in film science when I left in the late nineties, I enrolled at the university again. I considered studying this final year and thought of working for Iraqi television. For obvious reasons that did not work. The time at the university before I was forced to leave Iraq was a bright spot in my life, which I had wanted to experience once more. During this time I made short films. I enjoyed it—it was difficult for us to make films during the sanctions, so I was very happy to have made some short films. Others followed my example, which incensed the Baathists, who then forced me to leave the country.
Talking about 2003, in that period many professors, lawyers, judges, and intellectuals were murdered in Iraq—hundreds in fact. What was the situation for the authors who were targeted too?
From bad to worse, that was how it developed for us. The first years after the invasion were quite experimental, because, as no clear boundaries were drawn one tested oneself in relation to the freedom that was so new to the Iraqis: the freedom to express oneself.
We had no idea what the situation would be like after the occupation. Hadil Mahdi, the author and theatre director, was killed because he was active and took part in the demonstrations. He is just one of many writers who lost their lives just for being critical. This was immediately after the invasion during Nuri al-Maliki’s era.
And what about you—you are not only a writer but also an activist. Are you yourself targeted today, especially after your controversial books?
Today the situation is very difficult for authors. They have now realized that they have too few alternatives: they either leave the country to live in exile as refugees, where they risk ending up in a refugee camp needing to deal with how to establish themselves in Europe—if they are lucky their work might be translated into the language of the new country—or they remain in Iraq. A lot of intellectuals agreed to compromise with the existing political circumstances and started working with other things to support themselves. They became silent. They gave up just like during the Baath period when poets and writers were used as propaganda. I am not saying that they are being used for propaganda purposes today, but they are fully aware that they cannot assume that the freedom of expression is guaranteed; to express an opinion that can be considered controversial is a threat to their lives. It is the Islamist religious parties that have created a moral censorship.
We have a very strict censorship in the streets in Iraq. There is no security, no rule of law, and guerrillas and clan systems rule.
The power and influential sphere of the author is extremely weak. Authors cannot be confrontational as they will immediately be victimized.