In the new millennium’s parlous second decade, many countries could compete — should they care to — for the status of world’s most troubled place. The collapse of the Cold War’s nuclear-bracketed stalemates and the spread of destabilizing force multipliers like social media and religious extremism birthed this new reality of ever-simmering conflict and anxiety. It isn’t just outright warfare of the internal brand being waged from Syria, Sudan, and Ukraine that threatens stability. It’s also corruption and chaos potentially knocking out the underpinnings of societies like the Philippines and Venezuela. Millions of people around the world could justifiably say they fear what the coming years will bring.
Even so, Iraqis have a powerful claim on a horrendous past and frighteningly unclear near future. Since 1980, Iraq has spent more than 20 of the intervening years at war, whether the grinding and savage stalemate with Iran, a poorly picked fight with President George H.W. Bush and a devastating invasion by President George W. Bush, being ripped apart by the bloody Sunni-Shia civil war, or the current fight against ISIS. The end result of all these battles, ethnic cleansings, suicide bombings, and massacres is a people traumatized. It makes for a wretched reality but unfortunately rich topography for speculative fiction.
Unlike almost every other book you will find out there about Iraq right now, the ambitious new short story collection Iraq + 100 has little to say directly about all the nation’s recent wars. This is somewhat remarkable. As noted in the introduction by the book’s editor, author Hassan Blasim (The Iraqi Christ), “Iraq has not tasted peace, freedom or stability since the first British invasion of the country in 1914.” Still, any opportunity for Iraqi writers to get together and write about something besides the wars, even if that trauma shadows each word in this book to some degree, must be seen as a kind of victory.
That is not because there’s nothing more to say about the wars; it will be years, if ever, before that is the case. But with few exceptions, books published in English about Iraq — novels and nonfiction — have been about the horrors wrought there and the outsiders who wrought them. But for the odd refugee, interpreter, Baghdad politico, Shiite warlord, or Sunni chieftain popping in as secondary characters, the focus is usually on the foreigners. Iraqis themselves rarely have a voice. When they do, they’re often confined to whatever war or atrocity is then being waged.
The guiding principle behind Iraq + 100 was for the assembled authors to write stories set in Iraq 100 years in the future. The tradition of science fiction in Arabic is relatively thin; Blasim blames this on “inflexible religious discourse” and an overemphasis on the Arabic poetic tradition, which has “weakened the force and freedom of narration.”
To some degree, the stories in Iraq + 100 illuminate Blasim’s critique. With few exceptions, there isn’t much in the way of driving narrative to be found here, no pulp fiction adventures. But given that space opera or dystopic tales in the Star Wars or Mad Max vein have been so widely disseminated at this point, it’s a relief that what appears to be the first collection of Iraqi science fiction in English is filled with so many non-derivative voices.
Blasim’s story is a case in point. “The Gardens of Babylon” creates a world where the old certainties no longer apply. In his future, clean energy has swept the globe, leaving “Babylon” a comparatively carefree technopolis run by the Chinese and rife with decadent entertainments. Like a Middle East take on Logan’s Run, Babylon is protected by great domes from the outside, which is all sandstorms and ruins: “a desiccated relic of a bloody past, a past that was steeped in religious fanaticism and dominated by classical capitalism.” Blasim spins his narrative off into increasingly surreal tangents after that which don’t quite cohere but leave a burnt sensation, as of a collective imagination trying to respark an entire artistic tradition.
Although Blasim’s piece notes a desolate outer land, it has an optimistic angle in that at least religious extremism and fossil fuels (and fighting over both) seem to be a thing of the past. Most of the other stories here also steer clear of any fashionable dystopian scenarios. Zhraa Alhaboby’s “Baghdad Syndrome” is a magic realist piece festooned with florid storytelling and details like a weeping statue that directly draws on Scheherazade. It also makes for a powerful statement about the strength of Iraq’s horrific past, with its future society’s cheery sloganeering about erasing history: “Leave behind your names and live!”
That cheery admonition is given a darker tinge in Khalid Kaki’s short and tart “Operation Daniel,” in which a Memory Office is there to “protect the state’s present from the threat of the past.” Anyone caught speaking in an old, prohibited language was duly arrested and incinerated. But still, ancient artifacts and old songs litter the characters’ lives, reminders of the joys they lost in the safe-seeking abandonment of their legacies.
Some stories bound more carelessly about, like Hassan Abdulrazzak’s “Kuszib,” with its disposable “solar blade” transport, “terror-proof” trashcans, Soylent Green wine, and goofy security “robotic puppies” that seem like a Jeff Koons installation reimagined by a security contractor. Others have a quasi-utopian atmosphere, like Ibrahim al-Marashi’s “Najufa,” which imagine terrors from the deep past — like that of the dreaded terrorist group CAKA, “the Christian Assembly of Kansas and Arkansas” — now swept away in a peaceful and technologically advanced Iraq. Ali Bader’s “The Corporal” is a thoughtful, acerbic, Ted Chiang-like piece about an Iraqi soldier killed by an American who spends his waiting time in limbo in the peaceful city of Kut one century hence. Religion is no more, everybody lives in harmony, and the soldier watches in astonishment as the Iraqi president gives a speech about the war against religious extremism in America.
Blasim writes that he coaxed the contributors into the project by telling them that “writing about the future would give them space to breathe outside the narrow confines of today’s reality.” There is indeed room to breathe in Iraq + 100, occupying as it does such a generally hope-filled and forward-looking universe. Given the reality of today’s Iraq, with its sectarian feuds and threats ranging from ISIS to the potential catastrophic collapse of the Mosul dam, conjuring up other, freer, less hunted lives — realistic or not — feels less like a writerly exercise and more like an exercise in survival.