‘This is only the beginning of the crisis’: Iraqi author Hassan Blasim on refugees, war and futurism

Hassan Blasim has contributed to and edited a groundbreaking collection of stories imagining the state of Iraq, a hundred years on from the US invasion of 2003 and it this month's Book Club choice.

Author Hassan Blasim has edited and contributed to a groundbreaking collection of stories envisioning Iraq a century after the US invasion. Courtesy Katja Bohm.

Hassan Blasim is an Iraqi-born writer and filmmaker, now a Finnish citizen. He is the author of the acclaimed story collections The Madman of Freedom Square and The Iraqi Christ (the latter won The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), and the editor and a contributor to the science fiction collection Iraq +100. His play The Digital Hats Game was recently performed in Tampere, Finland.

Because his work is so groundbreaking, it is hard to categorise. It deals with the traumas of repression, war and migration, weaving perspectives and genres with intelligence and a brutal wit.

Why do you write?

To be frank, I would have killed myself without writing.

If you read novels and intellectual works since your childhood, your head is filled with the big questions. Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? You apply this questioning to the mess of the world around you – why is America bombing Iraq, and why are we suffering civil wars? – and you realize the enormous contradiction between your lived reality and the ideal world of knowledge. On the one hand, peace, freedom and our common human destiny, and on the other, borders, capitalism and wars.

Writing for me began as a hobby, or a way of dreaming. And then when I witnessed the disasters that befell Iraq, it became a personal salvation. It wouldn’t be possible to accept this world without writing.

Maybe writing is a psychological treatment or an escapism. It’s certainly a dream. But it’s also to confront the world, and to challenge all the books that have been written before. And it’s a process of discovery. It’s all of these things.

Are you writing a novel? Why have you focused on short stories until now?

Yes, I'm working on a novel. I work very slowly. I wrote The Madman of Freedom Square in four years. I'm not the kind of writer who gets up and writes every day. I spend a very long time thinking, as well as writing articles and working as an activist.

The novel’s taken two years so far. I hope to finish it next year. We’ll see.

The short story, I suppose, is a modest, humble form. The novel seems more arrogant. The short story’s difficulty lies in being able to convince yourself and the reader of a fictional world in just a few words.

I’m always asked why I choose the short story, but I’m not specialised. In Arabic I’ve written a lot of poetry and film criticism, I’ve written for the theatre. I find it easy to jump from one form to another. I see myself as a hakawati, a storyteller, and I can fulfil the task in theatre, cinema, the short story or the novel.

I become bored if I use only one form. And in a more general sense too, I play more than one role. I want to be an artist and an activist at the same time. To an extent I managed this in The Digital Hats Game.

Tell me about the play.

It’s not exactly science fiction but an imagination of current conditions. It’s about the potential power of the internet. I asked how hackers might change all the basic understandings of life. There are hackers who steal and exploit – “black hats” – but also hackers who are activists, who try to help people – “white hats”.

The power of the internet raises many questions concerning the future of societies, their borders and political concepts. I wanted to ask how this power can be used positively. The hackers in the play find themselves in conflict with the state and the secret police, and also with themselves and each other.

So how can a writer be an activist?

At literature festivals they ask me, “How do you write?” I say, “I open my laptop and type. Now let’s talk about refugees.” 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. You meet many artists in the West who tell you that politics is dirty and empty, that they want nothing to do with it. And now Trump has won.

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. The best type of activism in Europe at the moment, for instance, is helping to move refugees across borders, even if it’s illegal.

You were a refugee yourself. How does your own experience of ‘illegal’ migration inform your view of what Europe sees as a refugee crisis today?

It took me four years to get from Baghdad to Finland. In that period I crossed the borders of Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary and so on. It took me so long because I didn’t have any money. I had to work in Istanbul, for example, until I saved the money to pay the traffickers. Of course, the first attempt falls through, so you return to Istanbul to work again, you work on the black market so sometimes you don’t get paid. I worked in a restaurant for three weeks – like a donkey, as we say in Arabic – and I wasn’t paid. And I lost some fingers in a machine in Sofia.

The journey is very difficult. Of course it’s worse for women and children. For a woman on the road, other people become wolves. As for the refugee crisis, all the rich countries bear responsibility for the tragedy in Syria, but it’s always the poorer countries that host the most refugees. The European states are an essential part of the crisis. Whenever there’s a terrorist act, politicians talk about “European values”, but these values apparently mean closing borders and arresting people. You celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, then build a thousand border walls. Instead of crying over pictures of drowned children, why don’t you give these people visas? The movement of people across the borders is this century’s largest political demonstration. It’s a greater challenge to capitalism than communism or Islamism. Come sleep in the banks! Come sleep in the institutions! This doesn’t only concern Europe. Gulf countries too should take more Syrian refugees.

In any case, this is only the beginning of the crisis. In the future there’ll be refugees from desertification and flooding. The world should be preparing for this. Walls and right-wing parties are not a serious response.

You have complained about lack of diversity in Arab writing. Why is this the case, and what is the solution?

Our societies have been bred for decades in the farms of dictatorship. All the tragedy in Syria and Iraq is a result of long years of oppression, during which we never criticised essential things like politics, religion or sex. And the problem is social as much as it’s political. We didn’t criticise the oppression of women, which is our biggest crisis. You know the old proverb “woman is half the society”? Well, we are incomplete when half of us are imprisoned. The answer is education. As writers and artists we should be addressing these issues.

In some respects our Arab culture is based on a lack of diversity and dialogue. Politically and religiously, it opposes diversity. We idolise our leaders and demonise our opponents. This is despite our ancient roots in diversity.

Diversity appears when there is freedom. A different form is a different way of thinking. We lack genres like crime writing, fantasy, surrealism – and the Arab world is the best place for experiment[ation], because it's so full of variety. We have great literary heritage: The 1,001 Nights, for example, contains so many forms, from magical realism to science fiction.

Are you optimistic?

I hope Iraqi society learns from the experience of violence. Today’s Iraqi writing is certainly much better and braver than the timid writing under Baathism. This isn’t surprising – look at the cultural achievements in Europe following the world wars.

Bad things have happened in my life, and worse things in others’ lives, but I must be optimistic, I must hope, simply because I love to live, I love my son and my friends. Love is hope. It might sound romantic but it’s true.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is a critic, novelist and the co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.