“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, taunt 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 Peshmerga rebels, 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.”
“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.”
In “The Iraqi Christ,” a waiter mixes the names of the specials of the day with “the names of daily instruments of slaughter.” The customers laugh. The waiter calls out orders such as: “One explosive, mind-blowing, gut-wrenching kebab. One fragmentation stew. Two ballistic rice and beans.”
Boyhood games include running after automobiles transporting dead soldiers in coffins strapped to the roofs.
Marwan and I would chase coffins. We would wait for them to reach the turn off the main road. The [Iran-Iraq] war was in its fourth year by this point. The coffins were wrapped in the flag and tied firmly to the tops of cars that came from the front. We wanted to be like grown-ups who, when a coffin passed, would stand and raise their hands solemnly and sadly. We would salute the dead like they did. But when a death car turned a corner, we would race after it down the muddy lanes. The driver would have to slow down so that the coffin didn’t fall off. Then the car would choose the door of a sleeping house, and stop in front of it. When the women of the house came out they would scream and throw themselves in the pools of mud and spatter their hair with it. We would hurry to tell our mothers whose house the death car had stopped outside. My mother would always reply, “Go and wash your face,” or “Go to Umm Ali next door and ask her if she has a little spice mixture to spare.” And in the evening my mother would go and mourn with the local women in the dead man’s house, slapping her face and weeping.”
An ambulance driver in “The Reality and the Record” is kidnapped and sold from one extremist group to the next. He is forced to produce jihadist videos.
Throughout the year and a half of my kidnapping experience, I was moved from one hiding place to another. They shot video of me talking about how I was a treacherous Kurd, an infidel Christian, a Saudi Terrorist, a Syrian Baathist intelligence agent, or a Revolutionary Guard from Zoroastrian Iran. On these videotapes I murdered, raped, started fires, planted bombs, and carried out crimes that no sane person would even imagine. All these tapes were broadcast on satellite channels around the world. Experts, journalists, and politicians sat there discussing what I said and did. The only bad luck we ran into was when we made a video in which I appeared as a Spanish soldier, with a resistance fighter holding a knife to my neck, demanding Spanish forces withdraw from Iraq. All the satellite stations refused to broadcast the tape because Spanish forces had left the country a year earlier.
The mistake almost sees him killed, but he redeems himself in the eyes of his kidnappers when he is dressed up as an Afghan fighter with five men standing behind him. Six men are brought in “screaming and crying out for help from God, his Prophet, and the Prophet’s family.” The men are slaughtered in front of him as he announces before the camera that he is “the new leader of the al Qaeda organization in Mesopotamia.”
When violence is that random and capricious, everyone—and those of us who were war correspondents were not immune to this—becomes deeply superstitious. You believe in signs, totems, vague premonitions, dreams, opaque messages or warnings or ritualistic habits, as if you can do something to ward off the slaughter around you and control fate. In the story “The Iraqi Christ” a Christian soldier named Daniel is stationed with his company in the front lines in the war against the Americans in Kuwait. Daniel, whom the other soldiers call “Chewgum Christ,” for his habit of always chewing gum, has bodily premonitions that warn him of attacks. The soldiers, enduring daily saturation bombing from American B-52 bombers and cruise missiles, cling to him like a life raft. When Daniel climbs out of a trench to lie in the shade of a water tank the soldiers follow him “as if he were a shield against missiles.” Three bombs hit the trench 35 minutes later.
“In Daniel’s company the war played out like the plot of a cartoon,” Blasim writes. “In the blink of an eye, reality lost cohesion. It fell apart and you started to hallucinate. What could one make, for example, of the way a constant itching in Daniel’s crotch foretold that an American helicopter would crash on the headquarters building? Is it credible that three successive sneezes from Daniel could foretell a devastating rocket attack? They fired at us from the sea. We soldiers were like sheep, fighting comic book wars.”
In the story “The Hole,” a thief fleeing gunmen falls into a hole near the Natural History Museum in Baghdad and discovers a decrepit old man living next to the body of a Russian soldier who “fell in the forest during the winter war between Russia and Finland.” The old man lived in Baghdad during the ancient Abbasid caliphate and, after he had supervised the hanging of lanterns in the streets at that time, criminals angered by the illumination chased him into the hole. Those who fall into the hole, he tells the thief, learn “how to find out about events of the past, the present, and the future.”
“Are you with the government or the opposition?” the thief asks the old man.
“I’m with your mother’s cunt,” he answers.
“I’m speaking your language, man!” the old man says. “But you can’t speak my language, because I was in the hole before you. But you’ll speak the language of the next person who falls in.”
In ordered European societies, immigrants desperately trying to survive as exiles, straining to fit into an alien culture and speak an alien language, soon discover they are forever bound to this wheel of fire. That experience, too, is one the author knows intimately.
Blasim, 40, short and stocky and with a graying beard, is a poet and a filmmaker in addition to being an author. It took him four years to get from Iraq to Finland, where he has lived since 2004. He was smuggled out of Iraq and lived miserably as an undocumented worker in Turkey and Bulgaria, where he lost a finger while working illegally in a restaurant. Like most exiles, he is haunted by what those around him cannot comprehend. “There are disguised moments of sadness that hide in various clothes and smells,” he writes. His work, because it eviscerates all who wield the weapons of violence and because it is written in raw street slang and colloquial Arabic rather than the formal, classical Arabic of the educated classes, was banned in Jordan and heavily censored in Lebanon. He said most exiles never adjust. Some turn with venom on Western culture and retreat into hatred and radical Islam. Others desperately attempt to assimilate into the new culture, learning its language and customs, cursing the backwardness of their homeland and often changing their names to mask their Arab identity. The two sets of exiles split into antagonistic groups, he said. “It is hard to find balance.”
The last three stories are about exile. In “That Inauspicious Smile” an Iraqi cannot wipe a grin off his face and is beaten by a group of neo-Nazis. In “The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes” a man wears a silver ring he took off the severed finger of a victim of a truck bombing in Iraq. When he arrives as a refugee in Holland he consults his cousin in France by phone about his changing his Arabic name. His cousin tells him: “You’re quite right. It’s a hundred times better to be from Senegal or China than it is to have an Arab name in Europe. But you couldn’t possibly have a name like Jack or Stephen—I mean a European name. Perhaps you should choose a brown name—a Cuban or Argentine name that would suit your complexion, which is the color of burnt barley bread.” His cousin finds the name Carlos Fuentes in a newspaper “literary article of which he did not understand much” and suggests it to him. He changes his name to Carlos Fuentes. Fuentes learns flawless Dutch and “always scoffed at the immigrants and other foreigners who did not respect the rules of Dutch life and who complained all the time. He calls them ‘retarded gerbils.’ ” He finds a Dutch girlfriend who “weighed two hundred pounds and had childlike features like a cartoon character.” But then the “dream problem” begins. In his dreams he forgets his Dutch and “a group of children in the poor district where he was born [are] running after him and making fun of his new name.” One night he dreams “he had planted a car bomb in the center of Amsterdam.” He consults books and magazines on dreams, including Erich Fromm’s “The Forgotten Language,” which he says is “pure bullshit.” He begins to alter “his eating and sleeping habits and when he went into and came out of the bathroom.” “Fuentes would sit at the table chewing each piece of food like a camel, because he had read that chewing it well helps to get rid of nightmares.” He eats a lot of chicken because “eating the fowl of the air might bring about dreams that were happier and more liberated.” The nightmares continue. He begins to perform “mysterious secret rituals” such as dyeing his hair and his toenails green and sleeping on his stomach repeating obscure words. “One night he painted his face like an American Indian, slept wearing diaphanous orange pajamas, and put under his pillow three feathers taken from various birds.”
Blasim, like his characters, endures the covert racism of supposedly post-racial societies. Liberal white Europeans and Americans, he says, regard racism as wrong but continue to unconsciously express racist impulses. Blasim, for example, was reading a book in a subway car when an older woman next to him asked if it was in Arabic. “It is beautiful script,” she told him. “The writing goes from right to left, doesn’t it?” He nodded. “Are you reading the Koran?” she asked. “No,” he said, “Kafka.”
He described to me his ordeal of getting a visa so he could go to the United States to give readings. At the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki he had to pass through a security gantlet. When he eventually arrived before a woman behind a bulletproof window, she asked him the address he would be staying at in the U.S. He did not remember. When he said he would get the information from his bag, she shouted, “Don’t move!” “I felt I was back in Iraq. The U.S. Army does not need a visa to go to Iraq. No one invites them. They arrive with guns. But if you are a writer and try to go to America with an invitation from your publisher you are nothing because you are an Iraqi.”
Blasim is as haunted by violence as his characters. He dedicates the story “Crosswords” to three friends who were killed or committed suicide. The cruelty and mayhem he witnessed drive him to create, to write and to film, he said. “I am always under stress,” he said before stepping outside for another cigarette, away from the hotel lobby where we were seated at a coffee table. The trauma visits him at night, too. “I have the same dream, over and over,” he said. “It is this. I am in Iraq. I am leaving the house. My mother asks if I have my identification card. I know why. If you are an Iraqi and you are picked up without your ID it is a huge problem. I studied art and film in college. I worked at the time at the reception desk of a hotel. One day I was smoking by the door and the secret police showed up and asked for my ID. I gave it to them. I told them I studied art and film. They told me it was a fake. I told them to call the college. They looked at me. ‘Who are you?’ they shouted. ‘You think we are going to call your college?’ I swore and said, ‘Then how can I prove it is not a fake?” They were furious. They threw me into an army prison for a week with deserters from the Iran-Iraq War. They were torturing these deserters with hoses and water. A week later they released me.”
Hallucinations merge with reality in wartime. Your eyes and memory play tricks on you. You experience things and then wonder if you experienced them. Morality is turned upside down. Killers prey on the weak, the vulnerable and the innocent in the name of God or the state or some twisted ethnic loyalty. Murderers and assassins are rich and powerful statesmen. American soldiers blow up houses on a whim, obliterating entire families. Death is a lucrative industry. You lose your footing. You peer in the terrifying possibilities of human evil. You struggle to give words to it.
“When you tell them these stories,” Blasim writes in “The Composer,” “after a time they think the stories are figments of imagination. Take our neighbor in the market, for example: Abu Sadiq, who sells onions. When he now tells his story about the battle with the Iranians at the River Jassim, it sounds like a Hollywood horror story he made up.”