Iraqi civilians are seen through the broken window of an automobile destroyed in a car bomb explosion that killed more than 20 in Baghdad’s northern Qahirah neighborhood last month. AP/Khalid Mohammed
“The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq,” by Hassan Blasim, is the most important book to come out of the Iraq War. Blasim, whom I met with last week in Princeton, N.J., has a faultless eye for revealing detail, a ribald black humor and a psychological brilliance that makes every story in his book a depth charge. In this collection of short stories he explores through fiction the culture of violence unleashed under the bloody dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and exacerbated by an American occupation that has destroyed the damaged social cohesion and civil life that survived Saddam’s regime. His prose, courtesy of a brilliant translation by Jonathan Wright, is lyrical, taut and riveting.
Militarism and violence are diseases. It does not matter under what guise they appear. Renegade jihadists, Shiite death squads, Sunni militias, Saddam’s Baathists and secret police, Kurdish Peshmergarebels, al-Qaida cells, gangs of kidnappers and the U.S. Army 101st Airborne are all infected with the same virus. And it is a virus Blasim fearlessly inspects. By the end of this short-story collection the reader grasps, in a way no soldier’s memoir or journalistic account from Iraq can explicate, the crucible of war and the unmitigated horror of violence itself. The book is a masterpiece.
“When I was 6, during my first year at school, the Iran-Iraq War erupted,” Blasim told me in a mixture of English and Arabic. “We were living in Kirkuk. We were taught in school to draw tanks or the face of Ayatollah Khomeini as the enemy. The city of Kirkuk was beautiful. There were flowers everywhere. But we were never taught the names of the flowers. Even today I do not know the names of these flowers. I tried to learn their names as an adult.”
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“There was a culture of violence that predated the occupation,” he said. “Our teachers would hit us during class. When we went home we saw fathers abusing mothers. We were taught math and science, but we were not taught how to ask philosophical or critical questions. In this sense, we were never really educated. We were not taught the fundamentals of human relationships. Violence became part of the Iraqi personality. The American occupation, however, has made this internal and external violence worse. The Americans destroyed the remnants of our culture, banished those among us who were struggling to create a space to think, to help us use our imaginations, to transform our society peacefully.
Even under the dictatorship we had some semblance of a civic life. It was not perfect, but people were learning. You could see change. But when the Americans came and opened the border to these jihadists from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran, what happened? They gave the country to Iran. We are going backwards. There is a [prospective] Islamic law in Iraq that will permit a man to marry a 9-year-old girl. Iraq once had a strong civil law for marriage. It is not just that American soldiers come and kill. That is horrible enough. You have to ask what will happen to the children growing up around this violence. Iraq has been destroyed. The Iraqi soul has been disfigured.”
As a boy Blasim witnessed public executions, a memory he captures in his story “The Song of the Goats.” Three young Kurds, in the story, are tied to wooden stakes near a soccer field and shot. Blasim writes: “Before they did it, they announced over the loudspeakers, ‘These people are traitors and terrorists who do not deserve to eat from the bounty of this land or drink its water or breathe its air.’ As usual the Baathists took the bodies and left the stakes in place to remind everyone of what had happened.” Boys take the three stakes, which bear dried blood, to make goal posts. One of them says, “We’re still missing one goal post. Maybe they’ll execute another one and we can have the stake.” The father of one of the boys, when he hears this, weeps.
Violence becomes part of the landscape. “The days passed slowly and sadly, like the miserable face of the country,” Blasim writes in his story “A Thousand and One Knives.” “The wars and the violence were like a photocopier churning out copies, and we all wore the same face, a face shaped by pain and torment. We fought for every morsel we ate, weighed down by the sadness and the fears generated by the unknown and the known.”
War spawns a peculiar, bizarre culture that Blasim lays out with precision. After the fall of the old regime, Iraqis line up to participate in a radio show, “Their Stories in Their Own Voices,” in which survivors tell their tales of horror and suffering. Some in the crowd belittle those whose stories are not lurid enough. The hierarchy of suffering, part of the dark pathology of war, entices victims to retreat into personal inner sanctums of misery and to sanctify their own victimhood. The sanctification of victimhood allows them to dismiss the suffering of those outside their ethnic or familial group. This process is used to justify acts of indiscriminate violence carried out in the name of vengeance.
At the radio show, itinerant cigarette vendors and pickpockets work the crowd in the midst of this orgy of pain. “I personally had more than twenty stories teeming in my memory about my long years of captivity in Iran,” the narrator thinks. “I was confident that at least one of them would really be the clincher in the competition.” A young woman tells how her husband, a policeman, was kidnapped by an Islamic group. His killers returned his body decomposed and decapitated. A woman, close to 90, waves her hand in derision and mutters, “That’s a story? If I told my story to a rock, it would break its heart.”
One radio show contestant “was a teacher who went to the police one day to report on a neighbor who was trading in antiquities stolen from the National Museum,” Blasim writes. “The police thanked him for his cooperation. The teacher, his conscience relieved, went back to his school. The police submitted a report to the Ministry of Defense that the teacher’s house was an al Qaeda hideout. The police were in partnership with the antiquities smuggler. The Ministry of Defense sent the report to the U.S. Army, who bombed the teacher’s house by helicopter. His wife, his four children, and his elderly mother were killed. The teacher escaped with his life, but he suffered brain damage and lost his arms.”
Executioners, as Blasim writes, view themselves as professionals, even artists. Killing, among these self-professed professionals, has to be done with finesse. A corpse has to be displayed, as Blasim points out in his first story, “The Corpse Exhibition,” in order to send a message. In the story the master of killing is a famous mortician who “was truly a great artist,” one “in charge of the truth and creativity department.” He earned his reputation throughout the country because he skillfully put dismembered and mutilated bodies back together. The “people sought him out to patch together the bodies of their children and other relatives who were torn apart in explosions and random killings. They would pay handsomely to have him restore their children to the appearances by which they originally knew them.” And when the mortician kills he does so with flair that sets him apart. After a young recruit cannot find the nerve to kill a victim, the mortician drugs his trainee and skins him alive. He hangs the skin in front of the gate of the Ministry of Justice “like a flag of victory.”
The book, in probing the culture of war, uses surrealism to explain the surrealism of war itself. A policeman, killed in a suicide bombing in the story “Crosswords,” inhabits the body of a survivor. The dead policeman soon takes “control of his being.” The survivor hears the voice of the policeman in his head. The two men argue and fight. The survivor stops making love to his wife because he “has the impression that he was sleeping with her along with another man, and the policeman groaned and wailed like a crazed cat.”