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The Crucible of Iraq

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Posted on Apr 6, 2014

By Chris Hedges

(Page 2)

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.”

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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.” 


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