While going through contemporary Arabic literature on Amazon, I discovered a curious collection called The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq (2014) described as follows:
The first major literary work about the Iraq War from an Iraqi perspective—by an explosive new voice hailed as “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive” (The Guardian)—The Corpse Exhibition shows us the war as we have never seen it before. Here is a world not only of soldiers and assassins, hostages and car bombers, refugees and terrorists, but also of madmen and prophets, angels and djinni, sorcerers and spirits. Blending shocking realism with flights of fantasy, The Corpse Exhibition offers us a pageant of horrors, as haunting as the photos of Abu Ghraib and as difficult to look away from, but shot through with a gallows humor that yields an unflinching comedy of the macabre. Gripping and hallucinatory, this is a new kind of storytelling forged in the crucible of war.
The book has been translated by British journalist Jonathan Wright, who studied Arabic at Oxford University and has spent much of the past three decades in the Arab world, working mostly with Reuters. The author is Hassan Blasim (born in 1973 in Baghdad) – an Iraqi filmmaker, poet and fiction writer. A critic of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Blasim fled to Iraqi Kurdistan in 1998 after being persecuted. There he made films and taught filmmaking under the pseudonym “Ouazad Osman”. In 2004, he landed in Finland, where he now lives.
The collection is wide-ranging and pays attention to both the horrible consequences of the American invasion as well as the tragedies resulting from local religious fundamentalism and sectarian tensions. The opening story “The Corpse Exhibition” is too gruesome, focusing on the fine art and spectacle of physical violence. Here, a killer called “the Nail” who has been “infected with banal humanitarian feelings”, has questioned “the benefit of killing others” and wondered “whether there was some creator monitoring all our deeds” is finished off promptly and with skill. His skin, detached from his flesh, waves like a flag of victory from a pillar before the Ministry of Justice.
But there are other tales – harrowing…and strangely magical. I particularly loved The Iraqi Christ and A Thousand and One Knives. In the first, a man dining in a restaurant agrees to wear the explosive vest of a suicide bomber to save the life of his mother. In the second, a trick relating to the disappearance and appearance of knives is practised as an entertainment in the face of brutal events. The title of this story seemed especially powerful and telling – in a way, “A Thousand and One Knives” announces that the Arab civilisation has degenerated into chaos and bloodshed from a prior period of prosperity (when you register the fact that the influential One Thousand and One Nights was compiled during the Islamic Golden Age with Baghdad as the focal point of the Islamic world). Conversely, the title becomes a symbol of hope – an indication that storytelling and culture, even though compromised and twisted, are still very much alive here.
From The Iraqi Christ:
The young man led the way to the toilets. He closed the door and kept the tip of his finger on the button on the explosive belt. With his other hand he pulled a pistol out of his belt and pointed it at Daniel’s head. The young man was practically hugging Christ by this point, wrapping his arms around him because the space was so tight. He summed up what he wanted: Daniel should wear the explosive belt in his place, in exchange for him saving the old woman’s life.
The young man was in a hysterical state and could hardly control himself. He said there would be someone filming the explosion from outside the restaurant and that if he didn’t blow himself up they would kill him. Daniel said nothing in response. They started to sweat.
From A Thousand and One Knives:
Allawi was addicted to the game. It was like a drug that erased his memory of the painful loss of both his parents at an early age. His father had been a drunkard who argued with the neighbors and who killed a man with his pistol. Before the police arrived one of the dead man’s sons, who had seen his own father drowning in blood, came to the door of Allawi’s father’s house with a Kalashnikov in his hand…
Knives were my pastime and part of my life. Seeking the mystery of the game, I felt like someone looking for a single rare flower in a high mountain range. Often it felt like an adventure in a fable. Many a time I felt as though I was doing a spiritual exercise with the knife trick. The reality didn’t interest me as much as the beauty of the mystery attracted me.
Read an interview of Hassan Blasim on Thresholds.